It’s a blustery Tuesday night at Whitehawk F.C on the outskirts of Brighton and 223 fans have paid £12 to watch a National League South fixture against visitors Dartford FC. The end behind the goal is packed with the Whitehawk Ultras, a motley group of die-hard fans who travel home and away with the club, proudly singing and living every kick of the ball with the players on the pitch. Look carefully and you will often see the 197cm tall frame of artist David Shrigley stood with them, proudly wearing a red and white scarf and singing along to the boisterous, and very funny chants belted out by the fans.
“I like being able to go to the football every week,” says the artist. “I met some people to go with who are now my friends. I didn’t have any friends here when I first moved to Brighton, so that was nice. The reason I really like it all is because of the political positioning of the fan base. Growing up a Nottingham Forest supporter throughout the 70s and 80s, being in the stands with the most awful racist hooligans, this couldn’t be more different.” Whitehawk FC prides itself on its liberal stance, with the Ultras chanting about the evils of racism, homophobia and intolerance throughout games. Having been promoted last season, they are able to bring their message to a clutch of teams in a new league, even if the results don’t seem to be going their way.
We’ve agreed to go to the Whitehawk game together, but have met up beforehand to discuss, primarily, his love of football and, inevitably, his career as an artist. David was born in Macclesfield in 1968 and grew up in Leicester, so it’s intriguing that he is a Nottingham Forest fan. How did this come to be? “It’s something I’ve had to explain a few times over the years,” he says carefully. “I grew up in the suburbs of Leicester and in 1979 I decided I liked football. My friend Gareth said ‘I support Nottingham Forest,’ so I asked: ‘Who are Nottingham Forest?’ and he said: ‘They are the best team, they have the best players, they got promoted and are top of the league.’ So I said: ‘OK. I support them then.’ A few weeks later Gareth decided that he supported Liverpool. That was the season Liverpool won the league and the league cup.” These glory-hunting first days turned into a life-long commitment to the club. While David has never lived in Nottingham, he has followed the club both home and away, despite his Leicester upbringing.
“After Forest had won the European Cup I realised what a massive transgression it was to be a Forest supporter when you are from Leicester,” he says knowingly, if unapologetically. “At that point I didn’t really understand it was a problem. Later on when I was a teenager I used to have to beg my parents to take me to Nottingham. I used to secretly go to Nottingham and visit my sister who was at university there. I used to see matches with her. I would go and see Leicester City with my friends, who knew I was a Forest fan, and we used to sit in the cage behind the goal and people used to throw ten pence pieces at us and stuff.
“We enjoyed it as vicarious, sociological porn before we headed home to our reasonably safe existence in the suburbs. I remember Gary Lineker scoring the winner against Forest and leaping up and grabbing the cage and screaming ‘AAAAAAH’ in pretend joy. The fans were going crazy and my friend was leaning in whispering ‘Forest, Forest are shiiiit’. It was terrible. I have had to do it since, where you can’t get a ticket as an away fan and have to sit with the home fans. I did it last season against QPR. You have to feign joy, it’s tortuous. It’s really easy to feign misery when your team scores, but its really difficult to feign joy when the other team scores.”
1988 saw a transfer of sorts, when David moved to Glasgow to study at the School of Art. There he found affection not for Rangers or Celtic, the footballing giants of the city, but Partick Thistle – a less loved team based in Maryhill. “I went to my first game and they won 3-1 against Raith Rovers. It was the days when there wasn’t much segregation between the fans, so you could move freely around the pitch. The game went to penalties and we would run from goal to goal to watch the kicks being taken,” he says. “I remember asking where the toilets were. Someone said [adopts gruff and very convincing Glaswegian accent] ‘Round there, pal.’ And I went behind the stand to find about 100 people pissing against a wall. The wall, I heard, eventually collapsed due to some sort of piss erosion and people got hurt. Those were the dark old days.”
David followed Partick Thistle for years, attending through the good times and bad, and speaks warmly of the benevolent fans and businessmen who have kept the club going. “I remember us playing in the third division and being 3-0 down to Arbroath, the fans were singing ‘We hate football’.” A chance encounter with a hedge fund owner called Mike Wilkins led to David becoming more directly involved in the club, and ultimately, creating the club’s mascot Kingsley. “I was doing a show over in San Francisco and met this guy, Mike, over dinner and the conversation somehow turned to Partick Thistle and the finances of the club,” recalls David. “I don’t think I had an agenda, knowing he had a hedge fund and that. He had bought some of my work and had sponsored the exhibition I was showing in so he invited me for dinner. He said ‘I’m having a BBQ next week; do you want to come? It’s at the Giant’s stadium.’ I figured that we’d be in some hospitality suite but we were on the pitch. He hired the entire 44,000 seat Giants Stadium for 40 people for an afternoon.”
The conversation developed as the pair munched hotdogs in the dugout, and David began to wonder if Mike, who had never been to Glasgow, might be interested in sponsoring Partick Thistle. “I was thinking ‘Partick Thistle have got no money and he’s got lots of money and he does stuff because he thinks it is fun,’” says David. “It was made to seem like it was his idea. Mike is a great guy, an interesting guy, and does a lot for good causes and spends his money as one would spend one’s money if you had lots of it – on frivolous crazy things that really aren’t of any benefit to him.” Some time after the conversation, the club rang David, slightly perplexed about a call they had received about a possible American sponsorship deal. “Mike really came up with the goods and then I got this phone call [adopts amazing Glaswegian accent]: ‘So, err, we got this guy Mike on the phone and he says he wants to sponsor the club – and he’s got quite a lot of money,’ they said. So I replied, “Cool” and it seemed to happen from there.” he recalls. “So anyway, I agreed I would do the artwork gratis. Then they thought we should do a mascot. I was the guy who created Kingsley, which is closely based on the logo of Mike’s company, Kingsford Capital, which is a really unimaginative, anodyne, sun rising kind of thing.” The mascot, which is equal parts joyous and terrifying, was unveiled in 2015 and got the art and football worlds talking in a way that is rarely seen. Jonathan Jones, writing for The Guardian, likened it to the work of Joan Miro and stated “This is what’s called Art.”
David, however, is more concerned about the fortunes of the club, and its continued struggle for existence. “Mike’s influence was important. It’s very much a Premier League club now. Despite our terrible start to the season. I think the sustainability of the club is much more about the time and benevolence of the directors. They have made it sustainable. There are a lot of committed people behind the scenes and Kingsford capital added to that.”
Having spent 27 years in Scotland, and having developed an affinity, or even a legacy, with a local club, was there was no chance of David – whose first ever game was England vs Czechoslovakia at Wembley in 1978, where Forest legend Viv Anderson, a hero of David’s, made his debut – would ever switch national allegiances. “I used to get the whole ‘I’m not racist but I really hate the English football team,’ a lot. I’d be left thinking. ‘Yes you are racist. Fuck off! And it annoys me more than it annoys you.’ The hysterical commentary surrounding the England team in the media is deeply annoying for an England fan.” he sparks. “I know. We are shit. We are never going to win the World Cup in my lifetime. It’s either brilliant players who play shit, or players who aren’t as brilliant as they think they are playing shit.” So, despite his frustrations, it’s clear David is very much an England fan.
“After Nottingham Forest had won the European Cup I realised what a massive transgression it was to be a Forest supporter when you are from Leicester.”
The weekend before we meet, David had travelled to Sweden where he has spent some time working, and had been to see a local derby, AIK vs Djurgardens in Stockholm. Our conversation is peppered with asides that reveal he will pop into any match he can, be it Exeter at Wembley in the playoff finals, or a quick trip down to the south coast to watch Torquay play. I ask what’s going on in his day job and he reels off a staggering list of upcoming exhibitions in Japan, New Zealand, Korea, Switzerland and Paris, as well as plans for a new book and we discuss the fact that he has been named guest director of the Brighton Festival in 2018. “I am going make a performance of some kind,” he says. “Not me performing. A musical theatre piece, that I will get other people to do. I have been writing a lot of lyrics recently and collaborating with my friend Ian Shaw, recently we released a single and have been working on an album. He has a very sweet voice, sounds a bit like Elliott Smith.”
Music and spoken word albums have been part of David’s prolific output for some time now, working with the likes of Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth to create performances using “stupid one-stringed instruments” he has created. “We did that earlier this year which was amazing seeing as I am a big Sonic Youth fan. We are looking to do it again this year, maybe in Chicago,” he says. “I am a ‘non-musician.’ I came up with that definition myself. I play guitar and used to be in bands. But I don’t want to be in a band anymore. The only reason I joined a band was to overcome my shyness. When you learn to play the guitar, learning to stand up and play is one of the first obstacles. Then you stand up, that’s a breakthrough. Then you sing at the same time, that’s another breakthrough. Then once I had a band, played a few gigs, I was like: ‘Done it. That’s it. Don’t want to do that anymore.’ I think it coincided with my success as an artist, so it fell by the wayside.”
The music world’s (partial) loss is the art world’s gain. David was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2013, has published countless books, exhibited the world over, has created films, animations and pop videos for the likes of Blur, his products are stocked internationally at affordable prices by Tiger Copenhagen and his Swan Thing has been the inflatable of Instagram this summer. What is this restlessness a product of? “Being a fine artist can be boring. It can be a bit repetitive. When making drawings in the way that I do, it’s very rewarding and it’s nice. But you always want to do something different. By being in your studio 365 days a year, at a certain point you don’t have anything else to really make art about. So when someone comes to you and asks you to write a libretto to an opera, you sort of have to say yes,” he says. “Also, part of it is that I have never really been bound up in craft. Because I don’t have any craft skills. Or I haven’t demonstrated many. I feel I can do what I like and I feel my work is about language as well, I feel it’s kind of ok to write a libretto to an opera. I take the attitude that I’m not afraid to fail at anything, I don’t think you ever realise things are a failure or a success until much longer after you have done them. So I have done a lot of stuff. Some of it is good, some of it is not so good. Hopefully none of it is shit.”
“I have done a lot of stuff. Some of it is good, some of it is not so good. Hopefully none of it is shit.”
Back in his studio is a bin full of torn up drawings. It’s full of fragments of images that will never see the light of day. Are these the works that he considers shit? How much ends up in the bin? “More than used to. About 80% goes in there,” he says. “I’m more self critical now. Because there is so much work, it takes longer and more effort to make something different. There’s more failure before finding success. Everything is difficult to a certain extent. Sometimes, it’s difficult, sometimes it’s virtually impossible, and sometimes it is easy and very rewarding. It really just depends what point you are at, what emotional state you are in, how tired you are, how much energy you’ve got and to what extent what you are doing is similar or different to everything else. Making black and white drawings can be really difficult because I have been making work like this for more than 20 years. It’s been my entire life.”
His creative output has established his name as one of the most prominent living UK artists, operating in a school of one and rarely pigeonholed with contemporaries like the YBAs were. Currently, in London, his work is visible across the streets, hanging on banners above Regent Street and shouting from posters on the tube and buses, thanks to his contribution to the GLA’s London Is Open campaign. Then, in Trafalgar square, perched on the Fourth Plinth, is his bronze sculpture Really Good. The sculpture is a clenched fist giving the international sign for a good time, the thumbs up, but the thumb has been extended to a grotesque length, seemingly labouring the point about how good things may, or may not be. “The Fourth Plinth was a dream commission,” he says carefully. “Really Good took four years to make. It’s a more interesting artwork. London is Open is a piece of illustration which I don’t often do and produced in an hour. But Really Good is a fine artwork. It’s a piece of contemporary sculpture. It’s a proposition rather than a statement – and that is what is interesting about it. I am still interested in that work; it still feels like a work in progress. I won’t realise what it means until long afterwards, based on people’s response to it and the context to it changes constantly.”
Earlier that evening we headed to a nearby pub and met some of the Whitehawk Ultras before the game. David dashes back to his flat to grab a scarf, produced for the launch of Really Good to help raise funds for GLA. It’s red and white – the colours of his adopted club and Nottingham Forest. Later, at the game, I notice that a lot of the fans are wearing them…