Shaye Gregan’s Don’t touch mf is a series of portraits dedicated to Black people all over the world who have experienced the ongoing annoyance and frustration of people wanting to touch their hair. It’s a concept the London-based artist has had in his mind for a while. “Too many times,” he tells us, “I’ve had some white person (drunk or sober) reach out and grab my hair. Having someone pat your hair and laugh, continue to talk about how bizarre it is, or how ‘funny’ it is, is the MOST infuriating thing. Especially if you don’t know them! And especially if you’ve just had a shape up or braided your hair. It really messes it up. We are not pets. Why people feel the need to touch, I don’t know.”
He grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, in a place called Balaclava, and remembers his beginnings as an artist, drawing on the hallway walls of his old flat as a child. Shaye recalls the character of the old building, a place that was “slowly falling apart” and his old flat, filled with personality as his mother collected posters, poetry, music, sculpture and paintings. “It was a lot to look at when you stepped inside!” he says.
Later on, as a teenager, he was introduced to the world of graffiti and “instantly fell in love” with the medium. It opened up a new world to the budding artist, which wasn’t just about the spray-canned visuals but also the culture that came with it: music, fashion, slang and many people who would go on to inspire Shaye’s distinctive work. In another poetic memory, he reflects: “Riding around the city late at night, bag full of paint – when most are asleep, sneaking onto rooftops – exploring parts of my city I’d never seen.”
This inquisitive sense of adventure has gone on to inform Shaye’s work. One thing led to another and one day, Shaye decided to tackle the canvas. A good friend (who also did graffiti) proposed they exhibit in a group show together, allowing Shaye to use his paints and studio space. “From there,” the artist says, “I became obsessed with the medium.” Since then, Shaye has worked on a myriad of artworks including the recent Don’t touch mf. Much of his work is recreated without planning, improvisation being a key element to the energetic lines of his work, and to support this mode of thought, mistakes are in fact a good thing for Shaye.
When it comes to Don’t touch mf, Shaye’s ability to communicate through painting shines. Each artwork is unique in its character but united through recurring motifs as a series. Smooth block colours fill the backgrounds and notably, in each portrait, ghostly white hands approach from the sides in an attempt to touch the subject’s hair. Shaye adds on the series: “I have teenage cousins who haven’t yet discovered the beauty in their natural hair. It saddens me to know that they feel uncomfortable with their natural hair out. I hope one day they come around.”
As a teenager, he had similar thoughts of “hating [his] hair”. He feels that “so many Black people go through this stage where they don’t like their hair. It’s because they’re made to believe that it’s weird, or that it’s not normal (whatever the hell is normal anyway?) and so they get embarrassed. Black hair is so beautiful, it’s so versatile. It’s a blessing. There are so many different types of it and when you learn to love it, you rock it out proud. It really becomes like your second heart.”
Hoping to embark on new challenges of set design and sculpture in the future, Shaye hopes to collaborate with artists from all over the world, especially artists of colour. He finally goes on to say: “Change is in the air – it’s up to all of us to turn that change into something positive. I’m excited for the future. Big things to come!”
GalleryShaye Gregan: Don’t touch mf
Shaye Gregan: Don’t touch mf
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.