Feature: A History of Pictures On Walls, London's Legendary Street Art Print Shop
“They often say that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” Banksy says. “I reckon Pictures On Walls did exactly that.” Ain't that the truth? On January 22, 2018, London's legendary print shop, Pictures On Walls, will be closed up for good. To Juxtapoz, POW is piece of street art history, an essential piece to the puzzle that took the underground movement to collectible, and obsessed over, cultural phenomenon. Josh Jones, who worked at POW, gives Juxtapoz the lowdown on the history of the print shop, with stories from the foundational artists of street art. —Juxtapoz
‘Tomorrow, can you be a bit less drunk?”
Those were my instructions from the best job I’ve ever had – working for legendary London print house, Pictures On Walls.
When they announced earlier this year that they were shutting down for good at the end of 2017, the news reverberated around street art world. Sure, they had been quite quiet in recent times compared to the glory days of 10 years ago – they admit themselves they should maybe have shuttered things three years ago – but they were the OG print house in London. The only place to get Banksy prints. The place that found artists, launched careers and made art accessible to everyone. Or, as artist and Massive Attack founder, 3D, said to me, “Pictures On Walls made the racket that is the unregulated art market accessible to the middle class urban art speculator, enabling a new generation of capitalists to disguise themselves as graffiti enthusiasts.” Forums were built and headlines written about what they did.
In 2004 I was broke, unemployed and was wondering what to do with my life when my mate Kev rang and asked if I wanted to earn some cash. I’d be rolling some prints, posting them out and keeping him company in their office down a back street in Shoreditch. Kev was in a band but it turned out his day job was creating and running what could politely be called the lo-fi site for Pictures On Walls.
“I started with them in late 2002 when they were still kind of an off-shoot of photo library PYMCA,” Kev, who’s now Director of Social for a large agency in London, recounts to me. “I was building a new PYMCA website so was in the right place at the right time. They asked me to re-skin the PYMCA site (green instead of the PYMCA orange) as PicturesOnWalls.com so they could sell affordable art. No one really knew what they were doing, but Steve Lazarides had just started helping Banksy out as his agent, and they had made a bunch of screen prints of Bomb Middle England, and a couple of his other pieces. So we started selling them. It was just Banksy at first, then I think Jamie Hewlett, Mode 2 and Faile came slightly later.”
I headed to my new job on Scrutton St, East London and found an impossible mess. There was a print room that smelled of dangerous chemicals with all kinds of screen prints stacked on every available surface. The rest of the space was just a couple of computers and a really scruffy sofa – all under a mountain of cardboard tubes. My role was to roll all the print orders that came through the website, pack them up, cart them all to the Post Office at the end of the day, stand in a long queue and post them. It might not have felt like it to me but POW groundbreaking in terms of selling art online. “We did three prints with them in 2003,” recounts Patrick McNeil of New York duo Faile. “I believe at the time, there were only two or three other artists on the roster; I only remember Jamie Hewlett and Banksy. They were artist-run and managed and there was something special about that. It was right at the beginning of such a large art movement that was happening with such momentum and POW created a place for collectors, speculators and fans to have a piece of it in their home.”
The internet had galvanised the burgeoning street art movement into something real, something tangible. As the walls of places like Shoreditch, Berlin and Paris exploded with this ‘new art’, so did digital ones, and POW was in the right place to appease this eager audience. Customers were international, as were the artists being added to the roster. Incredible people like Blu, Bäst, Escif, Invader and Zeus all started releasing prints with POW, artists the general UK audience would never have found out about on their own. Invader first hooked up with POW in 2005 before doing his first print with them a year later. “I remember that going there to sign the prints was always a great adventure,” he tells me from his studio in France. “Firstly because they paid for my trip to London, which was super cool because I had no money at that time. But the best part was to go in their studio, which was a very dynamic place, an organized chaos, a real platform to meet the London and even international scene. Everybody was around either working there, signing their own prints or popping by to say hello. Since then, we have never stopped working together – in a way they became my official print maker.”
I worked there on and off for over a decade, rolling prints, shooting shit and posting thousands of those tubes all around the world. It was my favourite ever job. There were few rules, many hangovers and a sense of ‘fuck it, let’s see if this works’. Sometimes there are legendary places, like CBGB’s in the 70s, that you wish you’d been at. For street art, POW was it. Ben Eine used to screen print there, Paul Insect (and the rest of the Insect Studio) had a space on the floor above, Mode 2 had his own desk in a corner and would come and go. When Pure Evil was kicked out of the USA, POW helped him out and he learnt the trade of selling prints, D*Face would pop in and there was a constant passage of visiting artists checking their prints or preparing for a show. There was, more often than not, a Vhils, Blu, Invader, Hewlett, Faile, Lush or Lister sleeping off the night before on that scuzzy sofa… “I tell you what, POW changed my life in so many ways.” says the ever cheerful artist, Pure Evil. “They taught me how to roll a print properly and get it into a tube. When I was kicked out of the USA for 10 years and I had to come back to horrible cold London one December, they got me working at Santa’s Ghetto and I witnessed the insanity of a Banksy print release. London is a tricky city to crack, but POW totally welcomed me into things, sold my prints, hooked me up, bought me a pint, put a bit of money in my pocket when I was down and out in the East End, and most of all they taught me how the whole print thing worked, how to be completely Indie and DIY and Punk Rock regarding the art world. They put me on the path I am on right now.” A path that’s seen him successfully open three separate gallery spaces across London.
Non-street artists were also involved, Gee Vaucher from Crass sold her incredible, thought-provoking prints early on, as did David Shrigley and fine artist Antony Micallef. “I got a phone call from Pictures On Walls back in 2004.” says Antony Micallef. “I was asked come in to their studio in Shoreditch. I still remember vividly the first day I walked in. There were Banksy, Jamie Hewlett, Insect and Mode 2’s all over the walls. It was like an Aladdin's cave of all my favourite art just casually lying around the studio. I met Ben Eine and a few of the other guys and immediate thought this is where I want to be. It didn’t feel like waking into a gallery or meeting anyone I’ve met in the art world before. It felt like I was meeting a group of friends. I just loved the idea I had the complete freedom to paint and talk about whatever I wanted to do and they said, “yeah let’s make it.” POW was smaller at that time and it felt like I had joined a family. Like a youth club for adults but we all made art.”
As the years went by, that youth club got a lot bigger – 3D, Date Farmers, Dran, Lush, Lister, Mighty Mo, Sweet Toof, EVOL, Maya Hayuk, Kelsey Brookes, Miss Van, Escif, Eric The Dog, Modern Toss, Sickboy, Tilt, Aiko, Stanley Donwood, Kid Acne, Steve Powers, Titifreak, Todd James, Xenz, Alexone, Zbiok, D*Face, Ian Stevenson, Gold Peg, Pete Fowler, Penny, Eelus, Aryz, China Mike, Prime, Cyclops, Petro, DED Associates, Barstadilla, Sam3, Lister, Pacolli, Rementer, Grotesk, Kill Pixie, Btoy, Al Murphy and more sold prints through POW. The Pictures on Walls skull and paintbrush logo was iconic and, for many, a kite mark of groundbreaking new artists. Some may not know that the logo itself was in fact a work in progress collaboration between Banksy and Paul Insect. “I had made the original image for someone else, who decided they didn’t want to use it,” says Paul Insect, “then Banksy saw it, loved it, and it was used as the POW logo. Over the years, it kept changing as we both kept on re-working it for various projects or when changes to the site happened, right up to the last one, which has the love and peace eyes.”
The only time the general public could properly interact with POW was when they did their annual shop at Christmas – Santa’s Ghetto. It was always held in a smashed up empty shop or as they called it, a “squat art concept store”, selling the prints on the website, special release editions, original artworks and more. My personal favourite was Berwick Street in 2005 – back then one of Soho’s sleaziest streets. Customers ranged from very rich people and lost tourists to celebrities, prostitutes and crack heads getting out of the cold. The concept really did appeal to every person. People would look at the art upstairs, before descending into a dungeon-like basement to find a coconut shy where you had to knock spray cans off a crucified Santa Claus, surrounded by terrifying artwork from Chris Cunningham, and Polly Morgan taxidermy. One of my colleagues would strip off in the morning and scoop cistern water out of the Trainspotting-esque toilet for his morning wash. It was an anarchic time, busy every single day and it was there that I was admonished for being drunk on the job. But if you’re going to leave a box of beers under the counter all day…
San Diego’s Kelsey Brookes sold his prints through Pictures On Walls that year and their involvement was arguably the jump off point from his career as he recalls in the recent Pavement Licker ‘zine book: “There was a ‘zine based out of London called Pavement Licker and I saw they had an open submission on a website called The Wooster Collective. I sent my stuff to them and they replied saying they liked it. Their ‘zine must have gotten into the right hands because this group in London called Pictures On Walls got in touch asking if I’d like to do some prints and do their annual art show that they did over Christmas, called Santa’s Ghetto. There were a lot of different artists there – Banksy, Jamie Hewlett and more. I was like, “Holy Shit! What am I doing here?” I remember that private preview night all these stars were coming in and buying art. I was like, “Where am I? How did this happen to me?” I have fond memories of that time and still, years later, a bit of a hangover. It was just through that one connection that I made that first week in London and was able to build a career from there.”
I remember that year being offered “any print in the shop” to say thank you for working there and my colleague and friend, Dora (who went on to manage POW) and I saying we’d rather go to the pub than roll another Banksy, even if it was for ourselves… C’est la vie.
Santa’s Ghetto’s became a phenomenon – news crews would mark the opening and there would be fevered speculation as to if, when and where a Banksy print would be released. People would queue overnight in the freezing cold just because they heard a rumour it might be the next day. “I remember Santa’s Ghetto 2006 on Oxford Street, which is still one of the best shows I’ve ever been a part of.” says Antony Micallef. “It opened just before Christmas on the busiest street in the country at the busiest time of the year. There were two massive photo montages in two huge windows of Tony Blair taking a selfie with explosions behind him in the Iraqi desert made by Peter Kennard. There were queues all the way down the road for a Banksy drop and the whole thing just felt like a protest. I just don’t think with the current climate and the impending politics it would be allowed now…”
That particular show is also one of the underlying memories of POW for Jo Brooks, who’s worked the media and PR for all of their shows and releases since the beginning, “I remember those massive queues around the block on Tottenham Court Road snaking into Oxford street and hearing people ask where they could find the “Stinking Art Piss” show. We were contacted by Westminster City Council and asked to remove the offending Santa’s Ghetto sign but by the time their council worker appeared on the doorstep it had already been changed to “Art Piss” - by the time they returned we had already closed up shop and left!” Her other abiding memory is POW selling ‘Hated by the Daily Mail’ T-shirts to Daily Mail employees who said they would wear them to work under their shirt and ties.
The furore around the Santa’s Ghetto shops, I think, got a bit much for the print house. Many businesses might have capitalised on the success, but they weren’t particularly comfortable with where things were going. Street art had become big business and prints bought from POW began selling for many times their face value, a success POW describe as 'disastrous'. The queues for Banksy releases were chaotic, even violent and eBay flipping was becoming a real problem for them. The whole point of creating affordable art for the masses was in danger of just making easy money for a few people. So, in 2007 Santa’s Ghetto was held in Bethlehem. Hardly anybody went and queued overnight that year. With the money made from that shop they put 40 kids from the area through university. Which is a lot better in the long run than getting a spot on BBC News.
In 2008, Banksy’s infamous Cans Festival, which Pictures On Walls were involved in the organising of, was a new way for them to introduce brand new artists to the world. People like Logan Hicks, C215, Prism and Civilian were all relatively new names for fans, along with a guy called Mr Brainwash and a Portuguese artist who chiselled incredibly detailed faces directly into the wall. He was called Vhils and he checked into the POW hotel: “I can definitely confirm catching up on some much needed sleep on the infamous sofa!” he laughs. “At the time I was renting this shoebox room, which was pretty far from the city centre, so during the mostly sleepless nights of the festival's production stage I took advantage of the sofa as much as I could. I began working with POW in 2007 through my connection with Tristan Manco. I'd met him earlier in the year when he'd gone over to Portugal for an event and we'd kept in touch, so when I moved to London in the Autumn of 2007 he showed me around and put me in touch with many great people. I really owe Tristan, POW and the whole team so much, because this was the first major international platform that valued my work and made me a part of their scene. And it was great working with them. This helped me gain some much needed independence, as I was still a student back then. They supported me from day one, and it was through this connection that I made it onto the Cans Festival, which basically launched my work internationally. Before moving to London, I was already working with one of Lisbon's main galleries and my work was starting to gain some attention, but it was a somewhat domestic thing. My experience with POW and the Cans Festival was the main kickstart to my whole international career.”
By 2010 POW had moved to a big space on London’s Commercial Road where they could hold exhibitions, but by then everyone had the internet in their pocket, and many artists had realised that they could sell and interact with fans through their own websites. That, plus other print houses continually appearing, meant that the quality of artists and work available was diluted. POW did a couple more Ghetto pop ups and various shows – including memorable ones from Anthony Lister and Dran, but their heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore. One day in 2013 they quietly locked the doors and retreated from the world entirely, moving premises and going back to being a web entity. The gaps between releases lengthened and artists focused their activity on new things – whether that was selling prints on their own, making films or, you know, building their own Bemusement Park on the West Coast of England or a hotel in Palestine.
And so now, here we are – the end of 2017 and the end of Pictures On Walls. The world has changed so much since its inception, it seems right that they move onto something new. Maybe it’s a bit overdue but they’ll always have a legacy of bringing art to us proles. “They definitely helped to create a public interest for the street art scene.” says Invader. “Before POW, very few people were interested in our prints. For better and sometimes for worse, they really have created this street art prints market in the UK and the rest of the world.”
POW was at the forefront of the street art explosion and, arguably, one of its main facilitators. But they never seemed willing or able to capitalise on their position. They remained an 'indie' until the end, and now they’ve had enough. “I don’t feel like POW is ending in any way,” sums up Pure Evil, “it just feels like its going into a chrysalis stage and will emerge as a different type of butterfly. Thanks guys, you really smashed it.”
I guess it would be right to leave the last line on POW to the artist who it all began with. The undeniably most successful artist on the roster and arguably whose fault it is there’s an industry in these screen prints at all. “They often say that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” Banksy tells me. “I reckon Pictures On Walls did exactly that.”
Text by Josh Jones for Juxtapoz.
An abbreviated history of POW is featured in the Winter 2018 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine.