People in London have probably been chuckling on their travels for a few years now, and that’s in part thanks to Ian Stevenson. The Leicester-born graffiti artist has been tagging spots all over England with his own unique brand of political protest. But one Londoner in particular has been taken with Stevenson’s art, and that man is Russell Brand.
The actor, comedian, and writer has lately taken to doing The Trews, a news program that regularly critiques mainstream media, first world nations, and global policy. With Ian Stevenson, Brand seems to have found a co-conspirator for exposing the problems they see lying just under the surface of contemporary society.
Ian Stevenson’s work usually combines simple drawings of familiar figures and characters with phrases that play on mottos and slogans. For example, a famous tag he did in London has Mickey Mouse, a common figure in his work, with his arms stretched out for a hug. The phrase above reads “I want your soul.”
Stevenson met Brand “through a tangled web of connections” and the two decided to team up given their similar political leanings. Stevenson started by sending Brand some preliminary drawings and, from there, they collaborated on the project until a final draft was finished. Then, Stevenson set to work drawing the mural. Like his other work, the drawings are minimalistic, not obscuring the message: a Mickey Mouse, prostrate with dollar signs for eyes, lies in front of a television advert. The caption: revolution with the letters spelling love reversed and coloured in read.
What Stevenson’s work accomplishes is a return to the politicization of street art, which had it’s contemporary beginnings as a form of political protest. Graffiti in the Second World War was used as a vent for soldiers who missed their homes and pondered the futility of war. After that, street art quickly became associated with the African-American community, mostly by artists who found themselves barred from traditional art galleries. As graffiti headed towards the 1980s, it became associated with hip-hop and, as hip-hop became mainstream, graffiti lost a bit of its edge. Artists like Ian Stevenson remind us that graffiti is a form of protest, a political act with roots in resistance, be it racism, violence, or the political powers that be.
By combining familiar tropes and commercial products, whether its Mickey Mouse, a crucifix, or graffiti’s own Kilroy, Stevenson can tap into a familiarity precisely to make people think and feel uncomfortable. The idea is popular in comics, where visual cues are part of the hidden language of comics, which require people to follow a specific sequence to read the story in order. Often, these visual cues rely on familiar tropes and images that act as a shorthand for what the artist and writer are trying to convey. With Stevenson, the familiar images, often seen with a certain amount of joy or sacredness, are shown to support a large, mechanical profit machine, which is, at the heart of Stevenson’s critique, something that people already know.