I grew up in Dagenham in Essex in a single parent family. My mum worked a lot to provide for us and I would often come home from school to an empty house, which left me with freedom to misbehave and no one there to rein me in. I discovered at an early age that being naughty was a lot more fun than being good.
While I was in school I found out that you could even earn money from being naughty. I somehow came into contact with a group of people selling fake clothing and I started taking some of it into school with me to sell.
“I discovered at an early age that being naughty was a lot more fun than being good.
After I left school, I often used my size to my advantage by taking on jobs that required an intimidating demeanour like a doorman, debt collector or bodyguard. But I realised I had earned more selling fake clothing at school than when I had a full time job, so I decided to stay in the business of selling fake goods. I was soon at the level of supplying the clothing to others to sell it – like a wholesaler selling goods to a retailer.
One day, I was asked to pick up some reels of fake clothing labels for a supplier. I had just collected the two bags of labels and put them into my car when I saw police cars racing into the car park. Before I knew it I was getting pulled into a police car and I watched as they opened my car boot and the bags with the reels in. The packages inside were brown and square and it crossed my mind that I’d never seen reels packaged like that before.
I was scared and confused when I was told what the packages contained, but mostly I was angry.
I was driven to the police station where they told me I was being charged with suspicion of involvement in the importation of approximately fifty kilos of class A drugs. I’d never been involved with drugs before so this was a huge shock. I’d tried smoking a joint when I was about fifteen and didn’t like it – drugs and drug culture just weren’t for me. Understandably I was scared and confused when I was told what the packages contained, but mostly I was angry. I was angry because I knew drug dealers and other criminals but I’d made a conscious decision to stay out of that world and not commit those crimes. The people involved in importing these drugs had taken that choice away from me. In August 1994 I was sentenced to prison, where I served seven years.
When I first went into prison I was filled with aggression and ended up getting into a lot of fights. But one day, for whatever reason, I decided I’d had enough of that life. I knew that I had six years left and I didn’t want another moment of fighting and aggravation. I wanted to walk down the wing without having an argument at every door I passed.
I began by looking at different skills I could learn so that when I was released I wouldn’t go back to a life of crime – I wanted to earn an honest living. I applied for computer class but there was a long waiting list and I was told it’s easier to get into a class when you’re already enrolled in the education department. I looked at the available courses: hairdressing, maths, English and art. I remembered I didn’t mind art at school; I was never good at it but it was always the class where you’d have a laugh with your friends without really having to learn anything. So I enrolled in art class.
From then on I fell in love with art and dreamed of becoming a conceptual artist.
When I went to my first class I met my art tutor, who within a week had inspired me. When he gave me tasks to do I would put in a lot of effort because I wanted to do well for him. I was asked to draw a portrait of Steven Berkoff and thought I’d never be able to do it – I’d just got the hang of shading in a circle! It was meant to be a 2 hour project, but I spent the whole weekend doing it. When I went back to class to show my tutor his mouth fell open; he was so happy that he had connected with a student and I was happy that I had found something I was genuinely good at – besides crime! From then on I fell in love with art and dreamed of becoming a conceptual artist.
Initially I was worried about becoming an artist, because my perception of who an artist might be: a middle-class man who talks like a poet. Not someone like me. However, after learning about Ray Richardson, an artist from South East London who talks just like me, I realised that there might be space for me in the art world after all. I wrote 32 letters to artists that had inspired me, expecting only one or two replies. I ended up receiving 28 letters from the likes of Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas who told me how important it is to have someone like me in the art world. I turned from a world of crime to the world of art so quickly that I refer to myself as some kind of ‘born again artist’.
Two weeks before I left prison I enrolled in the University of East London to study art. I had no idea at the time what it would entail but with the support of some of the biggest names in the art world, I was determined to succeed. I was released in October 2001 at nine in the morning, and by eleven thirty that same morning I was attending my first lecture at university. I was the happiest person in that room by a mile – I was free and I was studying art!
I finished my degree in 2004 and started my Masters, but three months into my course my partner fell pregnant meaning it suddenly became a luxury for me. I knew I had to find a job and take responsibility for my family, and so dropped out of university to work on a building site. I was happy working there for some time because I knew it meant I could provide for my family, but deep down I loved art so much that I couldn’t even read about it or go to an exhibition because I’d feel so upset that I’d let it go. It felt like I’d been dumped by someone but was still in love with them.
The idea that my identity had been changed at the hands of someone else weighed heavily on my mind
One day, my friend persuaded me to attend a talk by Tracey Emin at the Foundling Museum. That night Tracey was upset to hear I’d given up art. She told me that art had changed my life and that it needed me as much as I needed it. I promised Tracey to re-join the art world and give it another shot. I set myself a goal of completing a huge portrait on the wall of where I was working at the time and believed that if I couldn’t pull it off, I wasn’t good enough to be an artist. I spent weeks on the portrait before finally completing it and accepting myself as an artist once and for all.
After I had established myself back in the art world I began to reflect on how my time in prison had changed me as a person. The idea that my identity had been changed at the hands of someone else weighed heavily on my mind and made me wonder: am I a better or a worse person because of their intervention in my life? I decided I wanted to show others how their involvement in someone else’s life can sometimes damage them, but it can also add value to their life.
I came up with the idea of using artwork as a metaphor for a person and their identity. I asked other artists if they would be willing to donate a piece of their artwork for me to damage in some way to see whether me changing the identity of their artwork would add or decrease its value. I was amazed at how many well-known artists came together to donate their art, including Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk and Ray Richardson. My first exhibition, titled “Face Value” was a real success and I received art donations from thirty different artists!
Being accepted into a world I never thought I could belong to has shown me that you should never be ashamed of your past.
I donated all of the ‘damaged’ art work to the Katie Piper Foundation, as she also had her visual identity changed at the hands of someone else, which I felt resonated with the story I was trying to tell. I have since done three more of these exhibitions, each raising between forty to seventy thousand pounds in the form of artwork, which I have donated each time.
As well as making art and running these exhibitions, I’ve created a podcast called Ministry of Arts where I speak to other artists who have come from all walks of life, including those involved in the criminal justice system, people using art as a way to get off the streets, or world famous artists who have won the Turner Prize. I also continue to spread my story by giving talks to people in prisons, universities and schools, as well as sitting on the board of the Koestler Trust with the hope that I can inspire people to explore their passions regardless of their past.
Being accepted into a world I never thought I could belong to has shown me that you should never be ashamed of your past. For some time I was embarrassed of my history, but I took ownership of it and used it as a building block for moving forward. I now realise that I’ve got to where I am today because of it. Going to prison and falling in love with art changed my life, my outlook and my identity – but I’m glad it did.