Mode 2 is what some may refer to as All City. Actually, scratch that – All World. He learned his craft alongside some of the mainstays of the UK hip-hop scene in Central London in the 1980’s and has witnessed the evolution of the art form, from a word of mouth movement to a multi-billion dollar industry. As a member of the renowned graffiti crew, The Chrome Angelz, Mode 2 was one of the first wave of British writers to make an impact on the public consciousness and really introduce this exciting new style of art to the masses. He has painted all over the planet, and having spent the late 80’s and early 90’s in mainland Europe, he has since returned to the UK and continues to produce his own work and crusade for the cause of bringing graffiti to a wider audience.
“There’s a greed and a gluttony for images, which simultaneously builds up some kind of insensitivity to what’s actually being seen, and a hunger for yet more. I don’t pander to this public, and choose not to be one of those feeding their addiction; as the only thing they want is more, quantity no matter what.”
Format: How old were you when you discovered graffiti?
Mode 2: I can’t remember how old I actually was, when I saw that sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” for the first time. I can’t say whether or not it was before or after I saw the “Buffalo Gals” video, where Dondi was outlining the piece. I was drawing already for many years, but this stuff had so much impact visually; nothing in our surroundings could compete, not even Battle Of The Planets cartoons. I, and many others at that time, wanted to be doing what Dondi was doing.
Format: What are your fondest memories of Covent Garden in the 80’s? How do you feel the hip-hop scene in the UK has changed?
Mode 2: I think it was the newness of it all. Not just from a season to season or year to year thing. It was such a clean break from everything that existed before then, culturally speaking. It broke all the rules and formats that we were used to, bringing people from all over London, and from so many different backgrounds, to converge onto this conveniently central spot. There were no mobile phones, no Internet, no graffiti shops or Hip-Hop gear, only a couple of movies (“Breakin” and “Beat Street” coming out in summer ‘84) and a book called Subway Art…
There had been this tour of DJs, writers and dancers that had happened a couple of years before, but I was still deep into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back then, and painting lead figurines from Ral Partha with my brother, winning prizes for it against dudes in their fifties.
You met all sorts on the Covent Garden scene, though obviously there were a lot of black youths. Maybe it seemed intimidating to others from further out of town, but it was actually good-natured. The worst thing that could happen was that everyone would be making fun of your improvised clothes or your haircut. A lot of the music was still instrumental, and political or gangster rap did not exist yet, mostly just party lyrics, so everybody was into interpreting this in their own way, and trying to impose this on the others, to show just how much fresher they were! As each and every one of us was interpreting the culture in our own particular way, coming from our own background, there was such a rich diversity of style to everything; and people had no shame in letting off back then, doing their thing no matter what. I think some of the most disturbing moments for onlookers was if they were to pass by the hoardings that surrounded the building work on the Royal Opera House, just after Tim Westwood had just finished at Spats on Oxford Street; and they’d see what would look like a group of twenty or thirty odd youths having a fit at the same time, probably listening to that “Jungle Jezebel” tune from Divine (yes! Divine!).
We thought that we were the shit back then, and maybe it was that way. The first culture to bridge all social, class, geographical and cultural divides, revisiting gestural, verbal, musical, and visual forms of expression, all in one.
Format: Which writers did you look up to when you were starting out?
Mode 2: I looked up to Scribla, Pride and Zaki, first and foremost. Beyond them, though, it would have been Dondi, Kase 2, Daze, the whole cars by Sab- & Kaze, by Noc 167, or by Lee. The “Sonic Bad” from Subway Art, as well as that minimalist “Erni – New Wave” panel on the back of this book, were the things that really got me going. That was basically it for the very start, and bit by bit the scene grew, and we got to learn of other people. Phase 2, for instance, had not been down with Subway Art, so I only discovered his stuff later. Pride was then at Camberwell school of arts, and would slice out of the art magazines any and every article that had something to do with artists from the scene, so we were also influenced by what some of the guys were doing on canvas.
Format: What made you choose Paris as a place to relocate to? What were the main differences you noticed between hip-hop culture in Britain and France?
Mode 2: In Spring 1987, I got a job working in computer graphics for a small French company called BSCA (Buffin Seydoux Computer Animation), which is what first got me out to Paris. Even if I had been going to Paris to paint since Sunday 26th of May 1985. Pierre Buffin eventually went on to build up his own “BUF Compagnie,” but back then the technology was so incredibly slow, and my friends and I were so used to painting so much so quickly, that I quickly lost interest in what I was doing there, until they eventually asked me to leave.
Hip-hop in France was more open in a way, as they did not understand American-English rap lyrics, and so only caught the general vibe of things. France had suffered from an even more strict control of radio and TV by the state, until Mitterand’s election in 1981, so the cultural explosion that came afterwards was much more radical for the youth in a certain way.
Comic art had been a big thing in France for years, with cult magazines like Métal Hurlant being the epicenter of it all in the late seventies. So the scene had a real diversity, as opposed to London, with rival crews like Bomb Squad 2, Bad Boys Crew, and the Boucaneers vying for the top slot. Though it must be said that the first two were the definite references of then.
Paris was maybe behind as far as actual emcees and rap crews went, understandably because of the language barrier, but they also had deejays such as Dee Nasty, who’s still around today, to supply the new tunes as well as the old beats, backed up with real technique.
The B-Boys were also very much in effect, as many youngsters could throw all their energy into this physical discipline that easily crossed language barriers, and didn’t require some aspects of technique and tools that were dependent on New York knowledge.
Format: You recently curated an installation in Trafalgar Square, when you started out writing. Did you ever think that graffiti as an art form would be accepted to the point where it is openly displayed in the middle of Central London?
Mode 2: We had the chance to start at a time when the GLC would back anything from the inner city that would give a voice to the youth, even if sometimes the people we had to deal with were a bit paternalist in how they dealt with us. We had a culture that had grown and evolved in New York for years, and here we were, served with the whole thing on a silver platter.
We had our ups and downs through the years, but Scribla and I had already done the stage set for “The Lenny Henry Show” in 1985, all The Chrome Angelz collaborated on two pieces for Swatch’s “Time In Motion” campaign, and Pride went on to work do an ad for TDK. Along with that Weetabix campaign done by The Artful Dodger and Goldie, there was already quite a bit going on in the very first years of the scene in the UK.
It did kind of disappear for a while, as advertisers only saw possibilities that were directly linked to visuals that looked like “graffiti,” and failed to understand that the spray-can was just a tool in itself, and the only limit was the imagination and skill of the artists as well as the advertisers themselves. This is why the big commissions disappeared from public view in the UK, even if they kept on developing elsewhere – Amsterdam steadily, France, and Germany, where they probably went on more than anywhere else.
Until a magazine ad-campaign for “Want Respect? Use A Condom,” which I did in 2006, I hadn’t had any strictly spray-painting jobs in the UK for some years. I only really got this gig because it was aimed specifically at teenagers, and because I could draw characters as well as letters.
I didn’t actually curate the Journey project, set up by the Helen Bamber Foundation, to build public awareness about people-trafficking around the sex-trade. I was asked to paint the outside of five of the containers inside which there were other art installations. The main painting was done out in Romford, under quite difficult conditions, sometimes stuck between two containers, with even less space than between two parked trains. I had asked Teach to come and help me out on this, as there was no way that I could paint it myself. So he did the reverse side of the containers, which could be viewed when you looked out from The National Gallery.
I guess this would not have happened, had it not been for my friendship with Samantha Roddick from Coco de Mer, and I must admit that many of my jobs down the years have been through the connections I had myself made, and the network I had developed; word of mouth through friends of friends of friends.
Format: If you could paint a piece anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?
Mode 2: That’s a really difficult question, as the reason why I would want to paint something has a lot to do with who would benefit the most from it. I don’t know how much it actually meant to them, eventually, but, when I was in Cape Town in March 2006, I really did feel “useful” somehow, painting a mural inside the District Six Homecoming Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. And this wasn’t even part of the planned events and projects we had been flown in to participate in, organized by The British Council.
One project which really did touch me profoundly, was painting panels that were eventually mounted on the side of Colm McGinn’s furniture store in Omagh, Northern Ireland, celebrating peace and commemorating the lives of the twenty-eight inhabitants of this town in County Tyrone, who lost their lives in a car bomb explosion on August 15th 1998.
These are the kind of projects that I really do feel good about, facing the criticism of local inhabitants as I try to push the project through, listening to them and trying to implement some of the things that I learn from them, while at the same time trying to keep my own objectivity, and do something that can somehow be all-inclusive.
Format: How did you hook up with the other members of The Chrome Angelz?
Mode 2: I first saw Scribla as a dancer, in late ‘83, when he was in a crew with Duke Booty, as well as some other guys, though I don’t remember if the others are the ones who eventually became known as Ozzie’s Crew.
I can’t remember when exactly he first told me about the fact that he was drawing and painting, maybe it was after Capital Venture Day in Battersea Park, summer ‘84, that he had spoken to me about it, but we soon found ourselves painting together, and doing banners for the organization in Covent Garden called Alternative Arts, who took care of the street entertainers there.
We met Zaki, Eskimo, and Xerox in that summer of ‘84, who were then known as the Trailblazers, and Zaki put us down. We all painted at the hip-hop jam organized by Tim Westwood in Jubilee Gardens, where the London Eye now stands, alongside Pride, from Wembley, and 3D (Massive Attack) from Bristol. I think this was on the 9th of August of that year.
The Chrome Angelz actually came about the following year, spring 1985, when we were asked to do the stage décor for a big show called The Rapattack, at the Shaw Theatre, near Euston Station. Pride had by then decided to be down with us, finally, and the ethos was to just “recruit” whoever out there was really good technically and artistically.
Artful Dodger was down for a bit, but distanced himself by his own accord, Xerox left that very spring, and Eskimo later that summer, when we also teamed up with Bando in Paris; making a new crew called Crime Time Kingz, on the ashes of Bomb Squad 2.
Format: How did you come to work with NTM?
Mode 2: Joey and Shen had been on the Parisian hip-hop scene pretty much since the beginning, dancing as well as writing. I had first met them on the 13th of July, at “Fêtes et Forts,” the same day that Live Aid was on in London.
We were all just a group of friends who hung out together, partied together, and got up to all type of mischief too, though they were both very much up on the street, Métro and RER of Paris, by summer ‘86. When the French hip-hop scene fizzled out, it was only the writers who kept it going, and just about everybody was packing markers and cans around that time.
The B-boys were getting no love from the general public any more, so this was where the energy and the sense of rebellion was focused. We had Stalingrad, the hall of fame which appears in Spraycan Art, to which writers came from all over Europe, and we had “Chez Roger Boîte Funk,” a weekly Friday night club, where Dee Nasty spun the tracks all night. The Paris scene was focused around these two meeting points, where all quarrels got sorted out swiftly, where everybody was up on what was going on, and from where the scene grew outwards.
NTM (Nique Ta Mère) was the fusion of two crews, DRC (Da Real Chiffons) and TCG (The Crime Gang), coming together at a party which had the “Nick Tamayre Présente” as part of its name. It was the first French crew with a French name, and that’s how we all started.
This was in 1987, and by 1989 the French rap scene was beginning to grow, due mainly to a radio show on Radio Nova, hosted by Dee Nasty and Lionel D. That was a strange thing for us, every Sunday night, as you’d hear people who, up until then had done nothing in any of the other disciplines grab the mic, chat rubbish, and gain instant fame.
It was such a godsend for all the toys craving a quick and easy road to notoriety, and most of what was heard on the airwaves was pitiful. The few rap crews which already existed before then were drowned out pretty much by these opportunists, and there were some classic comical or pathetic moments on that show.
Bit by bit, Joey and Shen grew in conviction that they could actually do better than these buffoons, and soon enough, following in the footsteps of other crews like Johnny Go & Destroy Man, New Generation Mc’s, Nec Plus Ultra, or Assassin. They begun to carve out their own niche, learning very quickly, and injecting their years of experience into their lyrics. That’s where it all started, and there’s more to tell, but that’s a long story.
Format: You worked on computer graphics when you went to Paris. Given how the gaming industry has changed since then, would you consider working on a game that could incorporate your artistic style with a higher level of detail?
Mode 2: I’m not keen on animation, or on virtual images; I much prefer reality. We used to spend time and take risks in painting high impact images from scratch, one action made up of several images combining together. People used to get a buzz off of that.
These days they want more. It needs to be animated, interactive, have lots of images and so on. There’s a greed and a gluttony for images, which simultaneously builds up some kind of insensitivity to what’s actually being seen, and a hunger for yet more. I don’t pander to this public, and choose not to be one of those feeding their addiction; as the only thing they want is more, quantity no matter what. Even the most brilliant images get lost in a mass where there’s no real value to one single image. I much prefer something like a black and white war photo, where something of the nature of a conflict can be expressed in one single image. The photographer’s vision, courage, and skill being able to capture that one moment where all the elements somehow converge to make that one particular shot that says it all.
As far as computer games go, it’s the virtual [aspect] of it all that doesn’t attract me. I prefer the real and the tactile – something that has texture and smell and taste – something made by somebody’s hand even. So no, there’s not much chance of me collaborating on the making of a computer game.
Format: What do you make of the media fascination with graffiti in recent years, particularly with some of the work Banksy has produced?
Mode 2: Media fascination is something that tends to come and go. It’s just that there’s been a convergence of different new trends in street art, which are actually down to the work and originality of a few individual artists, who opened doors and showed new directions that many others just followed. The ensuing rush is what has attracted the eyes of the media.
What the public sees as “graffiti-art” had become something rather repetitive in their eyes, with a coded language that somehow excluded them from also interacting with the culture. The “street-art” movement brought a lot more sampling of known and popular imagery, breaking away from traditional painting with spray-cans, and opening the possibilities of getting up to a wider spread of wannabe street-artists. This brought a surge of new visual imagery to the public place, as well as many new activists ready to make their names
The fact that artists such as Banksy or Shepard Fairey compete and outdo the media at their own game, always staying a step ahead of them in the case of the former, amplifies the publicity that the art form generates; but you have to give it to them though. It’s down to a lot of leg work and risk taking, and many a night out painting, building or pasting, which is what keeps the name of somebody like Banksy in the news.
Format: With the “A Matter Of Taste” show, you created erotic art that showed strong graffiti influences. Are there any other styles of art you would like to apply your technique to? Sculpture, for example?
Mode 2: It takes me long enough to just paint and draw; sculpture seems beyond me for now. Personally I don’t really see the “graffiti” influence in “A Matter Of Taste,” which was in the old Dragon Bar, back in October 2004. They were just pastel line drawings made over wallpaper, maybe closer to comic illustration than graffiti.
Format: Do you have any plans to release a book to follow up “Never Too Late?”
Mode 2: I have had plans to release books for years now, but could never actually buy myself enough time to make any of them. The books I have in mind would basically be following distinct directions as to what I’ve been doing over all these years, and “Never Too Late” is just a teaser that I compiled and designed (apart from the cover), to accompany the exhibition of the same name that I had at the Lazarides Gallery on Greek Street.
I would like to be able to make a book about my sketches, from the very first blackbook to the last, as well as some of those that came afterwards on loose sheets of A5, A4, or A3. I’d also like to compile a collection of all the outdoor paintings that I managed to get photos of, but most of all I’d like to make a book about the photos I have been taking over all these years, showing how people socialized and partied from the mid-eighties until recently. Ideally though, I would like to stop at around the time when mobile phones and the Internet started to change people’s habits and how they reacted to my camera.
Format: Can you finish the following statement: Mode2 is…
Mode 2: Somebody who could probably have done more, considering what he has in his head and between his hands; but drawing and painting is not his only interest in life.