ScanS → VNA Magazine Interview
Publication Date: May 2014
Anarchic roots and a healthy disregard for Western democracy surround Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, aka 3D. Better known for his contribution to the music scene, 3D’s artwork has featured on all of the band’s releases and he still holds his own in the current climate of the contemporary art world. One of the originators of the UK graffiti explosion, it wasn’t through the go-to channels of Wild Style and Subway Art that his experimentation with spray paint was sparked. Taking his cues from early punk album artwork, 3D was one of the first to experiment with stencils in the street. Once considered an outsider to the scene, his cutting-edge approach to graffiti paved the way for a new wave of stencil artists in the UK.
3D’s initial love affair with spray paint began with his interest in early MTV videos and punk music artwork. “I went out one summer evening in 1983 down on the Hotwells Road. There was a big derelict site down there that I’d had my eye on for a while. I had no idea what I was getting into though, in a way. I didn’t know how it was going to work in the conditions and if I was going to get caught. All I had seen up to that point had been snatches of graffiti art in the magazines and a little bit on video, you know, The Clash’s Radio Clash vid with Futura 2000, Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals and some of the early hip-hop videos.
“The Dugout used to have a video bar and it was the only place in Bristol I knew of where you could watch MTV, ‘cause nobody had satellite TV at home then. There was a Wild Bunch night on Wednesdays, which Nellee Hooper, Milo Johnson and Daddy G and I used to go to and hang out at, and where me and Claude Williams used to do a rap thing. Thursday was 2Bad and then you had Gary Clail of Tackhead doing guest slots on the reggae sound systems too. So it was quite a good little scene. You’d go and catch all the early rudimentary hip-hop videos that were surfacing in ‘82, ’83. It was called electro back then, before it was even christened. That was where you got snatches of the graffiti art scene from; that was pretty much it. Pre-Wild Style, pre-Subway Art.”
As the explosion of graffiti in the US crossed the water and caught the imagination of the UK’s youth, a young Del Naja picked up fanzines and other New York street publications. Hungry for more information on the scene, he sought more knowledge on some of the characters behind the movement, avidly following the swirling, interlinked art and music scenes of the time.
“It was the first time I got a real glimpse into that world. Before that, for me, coming from the punk thing, Futura2000 had been the first graffiti artist I had ever heard of; he worked with The Clash and then he named Ramellzee and then there was Basquiat who, of course, was gaining massive attention as a big crossover artist. But obviously he had his roots as Samo in the graffiti scene, so it was all connected, and then that linked back to the whole Warhol, Keith Haring, Pop Art scene. There was this whole kind of Bronx-meets-downtown NY art scene. Punk had blossomed and then suddenly died so quickly, music had changed so fast. New wave, reggae, ska, the New Romantics, electro music and then hip-hop. It was such a crazy time and I think we had all gone from looking at London as being the capital of the world to New York.”
The passion and thirst for painting in the street was primarily fueled by punk politics, a raw, DIY initiative that was kicked off by the sleeve art of early anarchic bands in the UK. “I remember getting records from Crass and The Clash, they put stencils in their sleeves that you could use to paint on your clothes and all over the walls and stuff. That was pretty much my first introduction to stencilling back in 1979, 1980.”
These initial forays into the essence of graffiti were swiftly followed by an altogether more studious interest in technique and form. “It was within a few months that The Z-Boys started putting pieces up. It really was interesting, ‘cause I’d go out there with Milo and Nellee. We’d really study a piece and look at the detail… In those days, what seemed like a lot of detail was really simple, but you were seeing how they got the shadow on a piece of a letter, or how they got the shine in the right place to give it depth and make it stand out. It became quite competitive pretty quickly – it was kinda fun.”
With new inspiration flooding in every day, the biggest benchmarks of influence came from the US in the form of a couple of films that instantly acquired cult status, rocketing the rest of the art scene forward with a surge of inspiration. “Wild Style came out a year after we’d started. We went down to the arts centre on Stokes Croft to watch it and everyone was out. We went down to see it three or four times in a row, just trying to absorb everything, you know what I mean? Then, of course, Subway Art came out and that completely changed everything. You could sit there and study the work and it became a form of imitation as flattery.
“I can remember looking at people’s sketches and tags pre-and post-Subway Art and there was a giant leap in terms of style, quality, Wild Style imagery and characters. We started to go to London more as The Wild Bunch, DJing at a club called Krush Groove and spinning for Tim Westwood back when he used to do a column for Blues & Soul magazine. Me and Ian Dark linked up and went to paint his bedroom as well, which was quite amusing, where he had all his tunes, it was on the Observer Music cover. We started to admire the London work as well; people like Pride, Mode2 and Zaki Dee and The Chrome Angelz. It was a step up on what was happening in Bristol and we started to put on some parties with Newtrament and some of the London sound systems.”
Meanwhile in Bristol and Birmingham, things were also taking off; 3D, Nick Walker, Pride and The Z-Boys joined forces with The Wild Bunch to put on a show at the Arnolfini in 1985, meeting with young artists Goldie and New Yorkers, Brim and Bio. 3D worked with Brim and the TATS Cru to produce the Bombin’ documentary, before moving on to help Goldie curate the ‘Rockin’ the City’ graffiti show in Birmingham in 1987.
However, with the heightened public exposure, there also came the increased attention of the law: “I think by ’87 I’d been busted twice. Also, a big anti-tagging campaign called Operation Anderson had started. They were regularly visiting my house, the
pub I lived in with my family, showing me sketches and asking me if I knew anything about anything, it was quite ridiculous, really. Obviously they were quite keen to get everyone at that time.”
Leaving school halfway through the sixth form – “I was kicked out actually, I got suspended from school” – Del Naja developed his homegrown art form through a youth scheme magazine project, falling back on the British benefits system to tide him through the more threadbare moments. “We were trying to get into graphic design, I guess, and that didn’t really get me anywhere, so I spent quite a bit of time on the old ‘rock’n’roll’ Ca.k.a ‘dole’ or social security] – about six years. I think for me the punk sleeves and the paste-up ethos of making your own art was translated into making your own flyers, and when we did The Wild Bunch thing, it was almost an instinctive sense of what to do.
“I spent a lot of years in the photocopy shop, first the black and white ones and then when the colour ones came out, I thought, ‘wow this is amazing’. I used to take photos of the paintings that I was doing at home and then I’d take them down and invert the colours on the copier. Before PhotoShop, that was my favourite tool, then I’d take them back home and start painting on the inversions. Because I’d been colourblind all my life, people always felt I had a strange way of seeing colours and I was always fascinated by the inversions -orange became blue, and that blew my mind.
“Photocopy shops became the place where you could get everything done. We’d take rough artwork in and get 500 flyers done, cut them on the guillotine and then we’d go and hand them out. That was all part of putting a show on in those days. It was like a small industry of everybody coming together to work on an event. Organising everything from the generator to the sound system to getting booze from the cash and carry, to getting flyers done, getting someone to run the door, getting the wall space to put a painting on – it was all part of the night. It was different from the punk scene in one respect, because the punk scene was quite London-oriented. Although there was a big Bristol punk scene, and there were a lot of good Bristol bands like Disorder, Chaos UK, Vice Squad and Lunatic Fringe. But I think when hip-hop happened for us and The Wild Bunch, it suddenly felt like we owned our own scene, like we could create something from scratch. Even though it was totally based historically on the reggae sound system and The Blues Club and what was coming out of New York, that collision of those two cultures was what made The Wild Bunch.”
For 3D, his street artwork reached a pinnacle in the late ‘80s, when he felt he had mastered Wild Style lettering and characters: “In 19871 probably painted my most cognitive graffiti work. That’s when I was hanging out a lot with Inkie and we used to spend nights in sketching. I had learned quite a lot about the Wild Style by that point – how to form the alphabets – and I think I hit that kind of peak for myself at that point. Then the music thing started to take over a bit.”
Finding some space in the garage of Dave McDonald, co-owner of the Dug Out, he was able to use it as a studio and gallery. Ever the misfit, Del Naja wanted to pursue a different direction now the graffiti movement was in full swing. Influenced by Basquiat’s spontaneous style, he then began looking at Warhol’s repetitive images and studied stencilling and screen-printing.
“No one was stencilling at the time, it just wasn’t on the radar at all. So I started doing these stencils of Marilyn, Maggie Thatcher, Robert De Niro, Mike Tyson. I did a Mona Lisa one, which was the one I put in the ’87 show in Birmingham that had mixed reception from the lads (laughs). They were, like, ‘what are you doing?’ It was almost like poison in the graffiti world at the time to be using a stencil; it was like a toxic piece (laughs again). Someone actually tried to rip off the canvas. There were rumours after that it was John Nation from the Barton Hill Youth Club, which I was quite flattered by, because I thought he was taking it home. But at the time, I thought that someone had ripped it off because they hated it so much and they were trying to destroy it. I was quite paranoid about this stencilling thing.
“Back in Bristol I started working on it and did a small show in London in ’89 at the Black Bull Gallery in Fulham. Around that time, Massive Attack signed to Virgin and we were getting our demos together. I started thinking about sleeve designs and I went back to punk for that. I was looking at the Stiff Little Fingers logo and books on industrial and medical logos and it became a big part of my repertoire; the idea of being able to paint freehand in a more abstract, Basquiat way and then being able to drop stencils on top of it as a total contrast. That came to be the way I used to paint throughout the early ‘90s.”
The later album artwork of Heligoland harks back to the work of the ‘90s, with a minstrel-esque image taken straight out of a tour flyer created by the Japanese promoters for The Wild Bunch tour. “It had these really badly racially stereotyped images of, I think it was meant to be Claude and G, as almost, like, cartoon black people from Tintin. We were shocked by it and highly amused and that was what they were using as promo for us. So we all kept these flyers ‘cause we were amazed that’s what they would do for us. With Heligoland I wanted to try to create a cross-cultural image of a character with this whole identity crisis going on in terms of media perceptions of ourselves and our cultural boundaries and that was totally influenced by the ’86 experience I think, you know. It’s funny, you do new things but it’s hard to escape your past…”
While Massive Attack continued to grow commercially, 3D found the response he got from creating music more stimulating than the buzz of painting the streets. However, as the band grew, so did the opportunities for exploring new forms of artwork and the advent of the digital era brought with it more advanced computer-aided design programmes and fresh avenues for 3D to explore. The analogue ideas behind Blue Lines were discarded for a more hi-tech interface with which to engage the increasingly digital-savvy public.
“With some of the images I was creating – some of the Eurochild characters and the monkey-type images – we started to create some computer versions, which began to appear on the Protection record and then defined the way we took our sound system show out. When it came to Protection, we wanted to create something more multimedia. So we started to try to recreate a sound system show but illustrate it. We tried to work with a virtual reality company and if you remember at the time in ’94, it was around then that the ‘Oculus Rift’ came out.
“Lawnmower Man infected me and destroyed the VR-moment, ‘cause it suggested that with a headset on, you would have that sort of experience and it was nothing like that. There was a sense of total disappointment, so instead we created a real environment in a room. We filled it with camo netting, lighting and built these giant sculptures in Bristol. It was pretty much an extravagance really. There were five of these full-size Eurochild fiberglass and plastic sculptures, which have been dispersed around the country now. I think James (Lavelle) might have one actually. James has got a pretty good collection of everything (laughs). We decided to make a VR reality of our sound system where you’d go into a room and it would be like, ‘what the fuck?!’ It was totally uneconomical and we didn’t really have the tour bus and tour truck potential to pull it off. We were probably trying to pull off a show that belonged in an arena and we were putting it on in nightclubs.”
The studio album, Mezzanine, turned into a monster; selling over 3 million copies and a launching a gruelling 18-month tour. The 2003 release of 100th Window spawned a new’ visual live show, incorporating a starker, more austere use of stock exchange-style LED light displays. Fully immersed in the internet age, the artwork took on a more binary and political format. “Sometimes it was a bombardment of information and, at times, at odds with the music; some of the music would be doing one thing and what it was doing with statistics and numbers was completely the opposite. But in fact it created a really interesting, provocative collage, you know? But in retrospect a lot of these things did remove me from the art scene quite dramatically.”
At the same time, something odd was happening to the graffiti scene Del Naja knew and loved. “When I look back at the art scene, it was changing quite radically. Graffiti had been christened ‘urban art’ and it had become another major force to be reckoned with in the commercial art world. But the quality of the artists had just jumped dramatically – there were so many great artists to be recognised internationally. It was a different world, you know?”
True to his anti-establishment ethos, 3D’s socially conscious punk aesthetic still found a creative outlet, such as when the band became involved with Occupy Christmas, squatting the UBS Bank Christmas party. He was also a staunch vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq war. Del Naja still enjoys working with organisations on the front line, his conscience reminding him not to become too complacent and comfortable. “I’m always attracted to organisations and people that seem to be fighting against the established ideas, you know what I mean? I always find that intriguing and I always find that admirable. I think it’s really important for us, as a band, having been able to travel the world, to offer something – even if it’s only a very small part of it – back.”
Broadly taking a hiatus from his personal art, 3D sporadically his toes in and out of the art scene, releasing prints with Pictures on Walls and, more recently, working with Lazarides. The POW Santa’s Ghetto events became an annual call to arms for his painting, but it wasn’t until Banksy’s Cans Festival and James Lavelle’s U.N.K.L.E. War Stories album sleeve design, that Del Naja became interested in a more analogue form of expression again. “I put some pieces together for the artwork because the three previous projects had been very digital and obviously it was amazing working with people like Nick Knight and Tom Hingston. We had a really nice thing going on; we all understood what we were trying to get out of it. So going back to painting meant changing that up a bit and breaking away from that.
I guess you get into comfortable places, whether it’s a studio or in an art studio, in terms of the lifestyle, you start to be drawn towards your areas of comfort, and sometimes it takes other people to push you out.”
Heligoland was quite obviously based on references to the slave trade, and the colonial history of Bristol, opening the wounds of some debates that continued to rage on in the city over Colston Hall and the legacy of the Merchant Venturers. Never one to shy away from controversy, Del Naja stirred up a small hornets’ nest when he realised the independent Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, was a paid up member of the Merchant Venturers. Challenging Ferguson’s stance, Rob sent him an open letter about his membership and opened up a debate, sending him a slave-themed piece from POW for a charity auction, prompting the mayor’s suspension of his membership as a Merchant Venturer and a continuing relationship in which the two continue to discuss city developments.
Under Ferguson, Bristol’s liberal microcosm seems to keep dipped developing as a city that has produced See No Evil – the yearly street art festival spearheaded by Inkie – as well as anomalies like The Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft and the experimental community currency, the Bristol Pound. A healthy discourse on the direction of the city continues, with the somewhat negative aspects of the riots and an unwelcome reception to Tesco in the area turning into positive conversations. “It’s keeping the debate in the air about the city’s inhabitants and its politicians have a responsibility towards each other. At the same time, it is a creative city and because it’s not London, it’s slightly independent and it’s a satellite to that giant hub, which runs at its own speed.”
3D continues to work with Massive Attack on studio records and is currently collaborating with Adam Curtis on some exciting new live show and production ideas. The live shows are still a huge draw for Del Naja, as they have been since he first put on warehouse parties on the Frontline in St Paul’s 20 years ago. But for 3D it’s always been more about the process. “As much as putting your record out is an attractive proposition, or putting on a show at a gallery, I don’t know what it is about these kind of events, but I’m really drawn to them. Not just the night itself but the process of getting everything, every bit of detail, the flyer, the presentation, the music, the art, do you know what I mean? Maybe I’m in the wrong business, man. Maybe I was meant to be in theatre, maybe I was in the wrong place. There’s still time…”
Continuing his own artwork as 3D, he concludes a chapter of that with the release of a book later in the year: “I think putting that book together is a good reason to close the page on everything I’ve done so far, shut that book now and then start on something new. That’s going to be a big challenge for me, I think, okay you’ve done all the early graffiti work and abstracted forms and stencilling and you got into the digital age and went into LED and all this stuff, you know? And you’ve gone back to painting in the way you knew instinctively, maybe, but I think doing something completely different now is the challenge.”
Noting that the book is a retrospective of his work, he considers the span of it, putting the whole spectrum into a time capsule that really indicates how far this journey has taken him. “It’s 1983 to 2013, so that’s 30 years, which is pretty scary…”
Written By Roland Henry