Street art and campaigning are age-old buddies; having gone hand in hand since their gestation and covering a range of topics, from political propaganda to raising awareness against media takeover. However one artist is bringing things a great deal closer to home alongside a slightly offbeat subject. For the past year London-based ATM has been re-inhabiting rundown areas of the capital with the ghosts of times gone by in the form of its forgotten bird species. Having recently featured in some of the big dogs of mainstream media, we put Jodie on the case to see what all the flapping was about. Excuse the pun.
JS: Hey ATM, thanks for talking to us. Recently your work has caught attention and featuring on not only a growing number of London’s walls, but within some of our biggest newspapers. Your work has been dubbed as “warning signs… on concrete fascias of decaying housing estates”. To what extent is the urban setting of your art important?
ATM: The great thing about street art is that it reaches everyone who lives in an area or passes by. So you automatically have a far wider audience than if your work was painted on a canvas and shown in a gallery.
This is especially important if there is some kind of campaigning purpose behind the work. As my work is about British birds and the many and serious threats they now face, my main focus is not to appeal to art-lovers who might go to an art gallery, but hopefully to inspire someone to plant wildflowers or a hedge and some trees in their garden or on a piece of waste ground.
JS: I suppose the next obvious question is, why birds? You use these feathered friends as figureheads for your campaign almost entirely. What causes you to focus so strongly on a single species?
ATM: Birds are iconic, beautiful and engaging creatures. They are often more noticeable than a little insect or tiny flower and so their absence is more dramatic and more likely to make us aware of the sudden decline of so many once-common species and their habitats.
Modern industrial farming, with its over-dependence on herbicides and insecticides, putting profit before everything else, and its lack of respect for species other than crop species, is responsible for much of this decline.
JS: What methods do you use to create your large-scale realism replicas?
ATM: I use acrylic paints and brushes. There is a great freedom that comes with painting on a large-scale. The different textured surfaces of brick, concrete, stone and wood mean that all sorts of varied techniques and results are possible. For example, painting a base colour on a very rough surface creates an ideal foundation for dragging a different colour over this, so that the first colour still shows through and creates a vibrant optical effect. This technique would not be possible on a smooth surface.
The flat block colour backgrounds were initially thought of as a way to enliven boring housing estates where all the walls are the same colour. A big pink or bright green wall with a bird painted on it has more impact in this environment. So it’s a pictorial effect for maximum impact, designed to make people think about the bird that once lived there. To paint other features like branches, leaves or a landscape background would turn it into a different kind of painting.
Some old brick walls and concrete surfaces are very interesting in themselves, so with those I haven’t painted a flat background colour but have used the colour and variation in the wall as a foil for the bird. It all depends in the context.
JS: Where did the name ATM arise from and is there any significance to the letters?
ATM: The name ATM originally arose out of anti-Iraq war graffiti. It stands for anarchist trouble-makers. The reference to cash machines was also a comment on the commercialisation of street art and the idea that something other than money could come out of an ATM. So when I decided to do street art paintings of birds it seemed natural to use the name ATM.
JS: So ATM is the name and birds are your game, but what are you focusing on now in particular?
ATM: I am currently part of a campaign to raise awareness about the illegal shooting, poisoning and nest destruction of Hen Harriers on Northern grouse moors. Because of the lucrative business of grouse shooting, the very rare, beautiful and legally protected Hen Harriers are slaughtered because they sometimes eat the young grouse, as well as many other prey species.
To see a Hen Harrier in its graceful and buoyant flight is a wonderful experience. I have painted a male on the Isle of Sheppey and a female for the Whitecross Street Festival on the 19th and 20th of July. #HenHarrierDay is August 10th, when there will be peaceful demonstrations around Northern England
JS: Finally in summary, what are you trying to tell people through your work?
ATM: Street art offers a fantastic stage for presenting radical ideas about how society could be changed for the better… Our approach to the environment is of fundamental importance and profound changes are necessary if we and other creatures such as birds are to survive into a healthy future. This is something that cannot be ignored.