‘I don’t actually know much about art’
An exhibition of self-taught artist Ollie Sylvester’s singular images is on display until the end of the month
14 June, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Do You Need a Hand with Your Shopping? – a piece from Ollie Sylvester’s exhibition
ARTIST Ollie Sylvester’s training did not take place in quiet classrooms where models would provide material for honing life-drawing techniques, nor did he have a tutor leaning over his shoulder offering advice.
Instead, the celebrated painter, whose latest show is on throughout June at Flaxon Ptootch in Kentish Town, taught himself by being a key member of a number of seminal London street art crews in the 1980s.
A William Ellis School pupil, he became interested and involved in the burgeoning graffiti scene of the 1980s, working with a number of crews in north London such as TKS, PFB and DDS.
“I was very much into the graffiti and hip hop culture,” he says.
“I did some gratuitous vandalism, but I also began to get known for my characters.”
He would take sketchbooks out, packed with his works featuring creations such as anti-heroes and robot illustrations, and soon earned a reputation for his figurative works. He became well known in the closed and secretive world of graffiti and street art.
“But by the mid to late 80s, the penalties began to get much higher and I stopped – at this time, I got really into Acid House culture and that in turn became a big influence on my art,” he recalls.
He then went to Islington Sixth Form to do a one-year art foundation course, with an eye to going to art college – but he made a decision that has had positive effects on his output ever since.
“Islington was the only place I had formal art training,” he says.
“I did a foundation with the idea I would then go on to art college – but I went for an interview at both Chelsea and St Martins and as soon as I walked in, I thought – I am not going to get on with these people. It felt very poncey, pretentious, and I just wasn’t interested. It felt really snobby so I decided against it.”
It has allowed Ollie to carve his own style and work on his technique – with stunning results.
“Of course, I have influences – Esher, Dali, Gerald Scarfe,” he says.
“And there is a lot of graffiti art I really admire, as well as cartoonists and animators – but because I didn’t go to art school, I don’t actually know much about art history or other artists. Perhaps it is hard not to be influenced on a subconscious level, but I think I developed my own style by not going to a place for formal training.”
A Point of View, by Ollie Sylvester
This style was also added to by an incident that took place when he was just 21.
“I had by then begun to explore art on canvas, when I had an accident which changed how I approached my art,” he recalls.
Ollie badly injured his right hand – “it was hanging off” – which meant he had to learn to paint with his left while he recovered.
It has, over the years, made him ambidextrous – a useful skill.
“It had a real effect on my style and technique,” he says.
“I had to use my left hand and now, I use both when I work.”
He has been commissioned to create works for the likes of hip hop band De la Soul, was flown to China for the Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, and now has a show at the gallery a stone’s throw from his Kentish Town home.
It features a series of images that celebrate his trademark style – and includes social comment too.
“I have done a couple of works with people in caps,” he says.
“Called Can I Help With Your Shopping? and Can I Help You Across The Road?, they ask how we respond to young people and their clothing.
“They question why you would treat a youngster in a hood or a cap any different than you would treat a choir boy.”
• Ollie Sylvester is at Flaxon Ptootch gallery and salon, 237, Kentish Town Road, NW5. The show runs until the end of June.