Brum’s most famous contemporary graffiti artist tells David Johns why the next year could be the most important of his artistic life
Great artists are always notoriously hard on themselves. From the likes of Van Gogh, Monet and Turner to Lichtenstein, Warhol and Hockney, the pursuit of personal creative excellence is what it’s all about. It’s certainly the driving force for our very own Temper. Temper, real name Aaron Bird, is Brum’s highest profile contemporary artist. His work is sought after by collectors and commissioned by major multi-nationals. But despite this success the artist who started out as a kid with a spray paint can on the streets of Wolverhampton says he’s not in it for the money – and we believe him. A more down-to-earth, regular, even shy, guy you couldn’t wish to meet. Over the years he’s left decorating the derelict factory and street walls behind to create some of the most dramatic and dynamic portraits in graffiti art. His latest collection of work goes on show at Castle Fine Art at the ICC this month. Yet typical of the man, he was already restless for fresh invigorating challenges when we spoke to him ahead of the unveiling of the new exhibition of 15 paintings called Timeless – a celebration of his first-ever collection, The Good Die Young.
“The next 12 months are pivotal in my future,” he says. “I need to make decent plans for where my artwork should be. I want to elevate my journey. Really push the boundaries again. I would like to think that I can move forwards and embrace technology more. I want to do more 3D work. I feel like a Stone Age person – I’ve worked with people who use computer design but I’ve never really let myself understand it. I want to change that too.” Temper’s artistic journey began when the council worker’s son picked up a can of spray paint for the first time at the age of 10. Growing up in Wolverhampton’s Eastside, Temper remembers: “When I was a child my grandad used to carefully unfold cigarette packets and flatten them out so I could draw on the inside of them. That was the only time I ever got to draw as a kid.” Aged 11, the Deansfield schoolboy came into contact with fellow graffiti artist Goldie in Wolverhampton, and within six months he was creating his own street art. Influenced by the hip-hop culture arriving in the UK from America, he spent the next few years illegally spraying tags, bubble letters and images on subways and factory walls while struggling in a succession of jobs from forklift truck driving to grave digging and bricklaying
In the 90s Temper was finally being paid for his craft, giving live demonstrations and even set up his own T-shirt business. In 1995 he created his first collection on canvas. In 2001, he was commissioned by Coca-Cola to design the iconic design for Sprite drink cans – the resulting artwork appearing on more than 100 million cans and bottles across Europe in what was the biggest-ever graffiti advertising campaign. In the same year he became the first graffiti artist to have a solo show in a major public gallery with more than 38,000 people viewing his Minuteman exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Further lucrative commissions followed, including ones from advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi and billionaire Chelsea football owner Roman Abramovich. Further collections of his work also followed with Post Graphaelite making him nearly £1.5million. His art didn’t come without huge personal costs however as he endured the loss of family members which saw him have four nervous breakdowns and an attempted suicide. His best known collection The Good Die Young mirrors his personal tragedies by marking 27 iconic figures whose lives ended prematurely, including John Lennon, Martin Luther King and Marilyn Monroe. His other graffiti collections have included A New Day featuring 24 figurative nudes representing 24 hours in a day which sold out within five minutes of being unveiled at The Mailbox. In 2014, Temper launched a collection called cover:versions drawn from LP covers, including Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and The Beatles’ Revolver. For the first time he used oil and acrylics combined and painted with brushes.
After using turps to clean his brushes he suffered an allergic chemical reaction which put him in isolation in Wolverhampton’s Penn Hospital for a month! “I was told I was lucky not to have brain disease as a result,” he says. The 44-year-old artist says he also now wants to develop further as a sculptor, following on from The Lovely People bronze pieces created for The Cube. “Once this new collection is done with then I will sit down and see what Temper wants to do. I will also look at going back and doing more sketches like always used to do.” Temper still finds time to give something back to Birmingham. He spray painted two of the giant owls in last year’s Big Hoot auction for the Children’s Hospital – each fetching the two highest bids of £18,000 and £15,000.