Running until November 17th, 2018 the Matthew Namour Gallery in Montreal, “Universal Grin” the solo show of legendary street artist Ron English will be showing. One of the most iconic street artist alive, Ron English is notorious for his subversive work and the mix of pop-culture elements, vibrant colours and political and societal commentaries. His satirical original characters are showcased all over the world in galleries, museums, on television, in books, in the street and toys.
During his latest stay in Montreal to launch the show, our team had the opportunity to meet with him and discuss his journey as an artist, his creative process and his political views.
Not a stranger to Montreal, the artist made several stops in the city over the last few years. Most notably, the 2017 edition of The MURAL Festival, adorning the city with a large-scale Mona Lisa. Impressively, one of the only remaining murals by the artist in the world, says English.
Photo credit: @halopigg
You’ve had a successful career exploring different mediums like billboards, murals, canvases and toys. We can say now that you’re a part of the pop culture itself. What is your biggest achievement, what are you most proud of in your career?
In the last few years, I created over a hundred of my own characters and I realized that they were missing something. Famous characters like Mickey Mouse have backstories. So, I recorded about 70 songs, about all of the characters to tell who they are and where they come from. I recorded 3 CDs that tell the story of this underground world and all of these characters in order to bring them to life.
I got lucky because I moved to a small town, an hour north of New York City and it happens that a lot of talented people live there; like musicians who played for Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan’s band, opera singers and more. The thing is, when you’re working in Bruce Springsteen’s band and he’s doing a show on Broadway for a year, you’re just sort of hanging out and projects like these are like a fun past time. I found a songwriting partner in Joe Johnston and he was a really fun person to work with. We have the same aesthetic. I didn’t know I had all of this inside me before it all came pouring out. That was an epic thing that I never thought would happen in my life.
Now, I’m really interested in working more in animation. Since I have songs, characters and backstories, I feel like animating all of that would be the logical next step. I could do a lot with that. It’s a really expensive medium, but that would be an interesting place to go.
Your work has always been political and controversial since the beginning of your career. Why was this important to integrate into your work?
I think being controversial is just in my DNA. A lot of my very first artworks I made back in high school got me in a lot of trouble already. When you’re controversial, you just say what you think. Your intent isn’t to be controversial, especially when you’re a kid. All I wanted is to be funny, but I think they weren’t ready for me in my small town in the Midwest. So, I learned quickly what it meant to be controversial and getting in trouble.
I was in advertising and they had that thing called the Q factor and that’s how popular you are. Let’s say Tom Hanks has a high Q factor and somebody else may be more famous, but people don’t like them. Maybe that person played villains, so people don’t feel warm and fuzzy about them, even if they have the same amount of fame. In advertising, we were looking at things like this: how do people feel about someone? How do they know this person?
The historical figure that might have the highest Q factor would probably be Jesus Christ. Everybody knows him and most people think he is a good guy, but you wouldn’t use him in advertising. But, what if you did? I did a giant billboard in Baltimore that said: “The King of the Jews for the King of Beers” because the Budweiser Logo is the King of the Beers and Jesus is the King of the Jews. It just seemed logical to me. They burnt the billboard to the ground, everybody freaked out and the local Christian radio was saying “We should crucify Ron English”.
How do you feel about the current political situation in the United States?
I’m still in contact with some people I went to high school with in the Midwest, people who stayed there and didn’t go to college. They have a different kind of life and when talking to them, I realized that Trump was going to win.
I was trying to figure out what they were seeing in him and then I remembered that he did professional wrestling. I think they just have this idea in their brain that the good guy is the one with the sun tan, the big blond pompadour. It’s really simplistic, almost like a grade school level mentality, but this is ingrained in their brains.
I decided to take a little advantage of the fact that I knew that he was going to win. I decided to create Trump toys. Though, the problem is that it takes a year to build a toy and the people I was working with were scared of ending up sitting there with tons of toys in their storage for a president that wasn’t going to be elected. I kept saying: “He’s really going to win”.
I travel the World constantly, and meet more people than the average person. I meet very different people that are actually fundamentally similar. These people, the ones who voted for Trump, they don’t travel. They stay in one place and they have a different life not knowing that these two worlds are connected.
You created your own dystopian world, Delusionville, where your latest characters live in a sort of grimed society. Can you tell us more about this concept?
People are very protective of their own group to the point where you can’t talk about big issues because they feel attacked. I thought: What if I created an underground world where there is politics and religion with no direct correlation with anybody on the surface world and they’re all animals. It’s kinda like a fable.
In this world, the wolf is the last one to fall down. He hit his head and didn’t understand that he was suppose to dominate the other animals and becomes the lesser. Nobody remembers how this society was created. In the end, this imaginary world was the only way to talk about ideas without pissing anybody off.
However, at some point, I just couldn’t not have a Trump character in there. I created a big orange elephant and people worship him because he fell down from heaven and came to life. Although, some think he just came to ruin their world.