What is it you do?
I’m known for being a graffiti artist. But I’ve recently diverged into exciting new mediums so I’ve been working with sound, visuals, video projections, live painting and performing. I’ve been creating installations so my work has moved on from the days of spray painting on a wall.
How would I recognise your work?
My murals started off with my love of Islamic art and pattern, the beauty of the Arabic calligraphic script in particular, and fusing that with street art and spray painting. People knew me as Aerosol Arabic because I used to fuse the Arabic script with graffiti. I’ve been doing that for the past 15 or 20 years but now, my work might be nothing to do with Arabic or Islam. It might be a mural that celebrates faith and it might be in everything but Arabic. The murals are not just decorative graffiti. They’re thought provoking, they’re about social justice and making positive change.
What are the tools of your trade?
Montana 94 spray paint because I’ve found through research that it’s one of the safest to use. It’s the least toxic – let’s put it that way! Some people wonder why I’m being such a diva about the brand I use, but I take health and safety very seriously. I also use a mask. I use stencils. I have a big bag of spray can nozzles with different pressures.
After graduating in multimedia design, I worked in the computer games industry for about five years. So digital design, animation, that’s my livelihood really. I’m quite savvy when it comes to digital techniques and for that I use a computer and a graphics tablet.
Who or what is your muse?
One of the things that drives me is the stories and social issues within communities, so I’ll actively read up about that, try to understand it and act upon it. If you’re talking about inspiration, then I’d say people like Malcolm X. There’s also a drive that comes from my faith as a Muslim – my belief in a creator and my duty as a human being on this planet to try and bring about change. It’s difficult to say that’s my muse because it’s second nature.
At what time of day do you do your best work?
Probably late at night. There’s something about everything shutting down around you, everyone snoring away in the dead of night. There’s something I like about being focussed on my work at that time. Us artists are busy working in our little laboratories, developing new things for the world to discover when it wakes up. In fact, that’s literally what we did - go out into the dead of night and decorate the town.
What’s your equivalent of a midnight snack when you run out of inspiration late into the night?
I have lots of pineapple slices in my fridge and that keeps me going. I’m big on pineapples!
Do you keep a notebook?
I have sketchbooks but whatever’s in there ends up being scanned, Dropboxed and ends up on my computer. It’s just a good way of keeping everything safe and not getting shredded by my kids!
Do you blog?
I’m not as active as I should be. I’m not a daily blogger. I used to put up new paintings on my website but now all that stuff ends up on Facebook, and my website and blog get neglected. So if you want to follow my work and get more information, you have to follow me on Facebook and like my page.
In what other ways do you store ideas?
I’ve got a pile of sketchbooks and I have a lot of words written in there. I like playing with words, in different styles or calligraphic forms, in Arabic or in English. I’ll take a photograph of a hand drawn script with my iPhone, pull it into Photoshop. I’ll also have a photograph of the wall I’m going to paint, so I can drop the script onto the wall and transform it up. With an artist’s impression of the wall or a simulation, I can start layering and create a mock-up of how the wall would look. That works for me splendidly because I can take colours from the pavement in front of the wall and colours from the bricks that I’m painting onto. When I’ve painted murals more recently, I’ve tried to blend them within the environment that I’m painting in. It might be how much of the sky you can see above the mural, or incorporate the colours of the sky. It might be the trees alongside the mural. Basically, I like to absorb and feel that wall before I hit it.
Are you a planner or do you work spontaneously?
If I’m working by myself, I can create as I go along. But my murals are often large scale projects with a team of 14 or 15 people so you’ve got to be more strategic with meticulous details like dimensions and the distance from there to there. If we’re all working towards one vision, we’ve got to be completely in sync otherwise you’ll see the chaos. So it’s like a military operation.
Which part of the creative process do you find the most painful?
Preparing the surface to lay on the final detail – things like painting the base coat or priming a wall in one flat colour.
Where do you draw the line?
I wouldn’t do something that disconnects people, so that’s where I would draw the line. I want my work to lead to some level of action that’s going to be positive, even if the work is challenging and difficult and uncomfortable. So I wouldn’t paint a mural that makes you want to just curl up and not engage because it depresses you that much. It might have to be grim or surreal to make the harshness hit you, but it’s also got to raise questions.
Do you make enough from your art to live on?
I’m comfortable. I’m grateful that I’m an artist and I can feed my kids. I’m able to say I enjoy what I do and I hope it brings benefit to others and that’s the most important thing.
What have you got coming up?
This weekend (Saturday, 23rd March at 5pm) in Bradford’s City Park, I’m doing a performance of live painting, choreographed with Jason Singh who is a beatboxer and vocal sculptor. It will combine live painting with performance poetry, sounds and music. So it’ll engage different senses and create a unique experience.
What’s your favourite work, by you?
The work I’ve just finished was very personal and special to me. It was me painting in collaboration with poets, sound artists, video projections, but telling the story of Sparkbrook – the neighbourhood where I was born and raised. It was exploring stories that were part of my childhood. We did the performance for two nights in a row and it was sold out. We had people from all walks of life - young, old, black, white, Muslim, Sikh - you name it. They were all in one room together hearing these untold stories of the people of Sparkbrook. That to me was powerful and I’ve never done anything like that before.
What’s your approach to tweeting?
I used to work as a graphic designer for a branding company so I’m big on building hype and creating a buzz. Twitter allows you to do that instantly. Sharing ideas is all part and parcel of being an artist and I like that within seconds, a message or a video can spread like wildfire.
Is making lists painful or pleasurable?
It’s painful because whenever I draw up a list, I get distracted and the things never get crossed off.
What do you collect?
Whenever I travel, I’ll go to an art store and pick up anything that has the word ‘calligraphic’ on it; anything that has a nib with a chisel tip at an angle. I’ve got quite a big collection - probably about a hundred. I’ve got big bags and pencil cases full of them.
What would be your final meal on death row and what would your crime be?
Chicken tikka masala, and we’re talking about the way the English like chicken tikka masala. Whenever I order it in a restaurant, the Asian people say to me, “You know that’s red and it’s got cream on it?” They think I don’t know what I’m doing so they’re warning me. And I always say, “No, no, I want the English version. The chicken tikka masala that’s not authentic!”
My crime would be fighting against some injustice. That’s the way I’d like to go, fighting for a noble cause.
What’s your favourite place in Bradford?
I’m a bit of a foodie and Bradford has got to be the place! Whenever I have an excuse to come to Bradford, I have to stop off at Akbars, Mumtaz or even Mahmoods, the burger place.
Mohammed Ali, aka Aerosol Arabic was talking to Irna Qureshi who blogs about being British, Pakistani, Muslim and female in Bradford.
If you enjoyed this, you may also like 20 Questions with slam poet, Saju Ahmed.