Interview: Kid Acne talks recent solo exhibition and upcoming EP, HAVE A WORD

In his first Sheffield solo show for over five years, celebrated local artist Kid Acne combined his two key creative pursuits of art and music for an exhibition hosted at S1 Artspace, Park Hill. Inspired by lyrics from upcoming solo album ‘HAVE A WORD’, large-scale slogan pieces occupied spaces inside the gallery and walls scattered around the abandoned outdoor section of the complex. Exposed popped down on opening day for a catch-up with one of the city’s most recognisable illustrators.

Let’s begin with the location. You have a bit of a longstanding relationship with Park Hill and have worked on murals around the estate before, some prior to and during its redevelopment. Why did you want to revisit this location with HAVE A WORD?
I knew I wanted to do a show in Sheffield, but I didn’t know where, and I knew I wanted to tie the art and music together with this album. Last year I came to a show at S1 Artspace, Love Among the Ruins, and I thought the space was perfect for what I wanted to do. As you said, I’ve already done some stuff at Park Hill anyway and doing a show here would be a good setting; I’ve painted many walls around Sheffield and thought if it was around the city centre streets people would start getting a bit bored of seeing it. That seems to be the way with street art murals: people get into it to a point, and then it feels like over-saturation to a certain level. That’s different for different artists and for different audiences. For example, you go to Melbourne it is just everywhere, you go to Bristol and it is an absolute bombardment.

Having it up here means people need to seek it out a bit more too?
I’m also mindful that it’s quite nice to have self-directed projects contained, so then it’s not in everyone’s face because they’re big paintings and the people who want to come and see it can do. That makes it special for me. It’s funny because, going back to the street art thing, I’d paint abandoned wastelands and factories for years and years and nobody came to see them.

© Owen Richards

I guess one impact of the slogans – a lot of them everyday sayings – being plastered around a former housing complex breathes a bit of life into the abandoned settings. It’s as though they’re echoes of conversations from the previous tenants.
It’s the same when I’m painting the Stabby Women: they’re usually in abandoned factories, wastelands, boarded up estates or wherever and it’s like they’re from another world, haunting that location. With the slogans, some of them are very pertinent to the specific location and they feel like a conversation with the city and the building, a bit like a speech bubble. I did one at the Psalter Lane campus before that got knocked down, it was mid-century brutalist architecture and the message read ‘You Will Miss Me When I’m Gone’; it’s just like the building is saying it directly to you. I feel like the vessel to communicate that type of message, and that was really well received, unlike if I had just written in big, blockbuster letters ‘Kid Acne’. No one would care. When it’s a conversation and when it’s open to interpretation, that’s what I’m after.

How’s it been spending the last few months as the artist-in-residence here at Park Hill?
It’s been awesome, I just felt like I was in my element and that I was born to do it. That’s when I’m happiest, just painting a big wall, but it took a while for me to get my head around the idea that it was an artist’s residency. I painted a couple of walls and it took just being in the space to recognise the environment and see what I could do with it, then it evolved and I ended up doing a lot more in one section than I originally planned. I was able to visualise more and I had a 100% free reign. Urban Splash were really supportive as well, they allowed me to pretty much do what I wanted and it was just a case of separating my headspace between residency and gallery.

“some of them are very pertinent to the specific location and they feel like a conversation with the city and the building, a bit like a speech bubble.”

Touching back on what you were saying earlier, about starting off in street art by painting abandoned places where nobody would see your work. Where did your kick come from with that? Was it knowing that other graffiti artists would see it?
No. I grew up in a small market town, so there were no other graffiti artists. I just liked doing it, I saw photos of other people doing it and they were a generation older, doing these amazing things in other cities and countries. It was all pre-internet, of course, so there were fanzines and people swapping photos by post and I just liked the idea of painting something in an abandoned place and then taking a photo of it and just doing it for the enjoyment of doing it. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I used to paint in this old gasworks in the middle of a field off the M1 and that was my studio. I loved it! I would skive off school, take friends down there, hang out, and it was just cool. I moved to Sheffield in ‘97 and had to find other places from then on, but back in the gasworks days, I loved it, it was my thing.

In terms of the distinctive Kid Acne typography, did that grow over time?
Yeah, this text has evolved organically since 1996 and it started off being the lettering I used on record covers for my brother’s band, gig posters, the lettering for comic strips and fanzines. Later it just merged because my graffiti was of a different style and I wanted something more legible, so I stopped writing my own name and wrote something else instead. As soon as I started doing that I saw this shift in street art where as soon as others could easily read it they felt part of it and engaged with it. I used to paint in all colours and backgrounds, but as soon as it’s in black and white with blockbuster letters they recognize it! You just strip out any unnecessary information and leave it there, raw, and then bit by bit those letters have evolved to how they look now.

When it’s a conversation and when it’s open to interpretation, that’s what I’m after.

A lot of the slogans contain lyrics from the latest album, also titled HAVE A WORD. Do you have a favourite lyric that’s always stuck in your mind?
There’s one from Cappo, the Nottingham rapper, which goes “if you cut corners, you end up going in circles”. It’s simple and really stuck in my head, plus he’s also a class guy.

You collaborated with another Nottingham MC on the album, Juga-naut, as well as Sebastian from New Kingdom who you worked with on the latest Mongrels album.
Yeah, the guest MCs I’m really happy with on this record. There must be something in the water around the Midlands because I can’t think of a bad rapper from there; Scor-Zay-Zee actually came down to the exhibition the other night, and Juice Aleem from Birmingham is on the record too. I really wanted that accent on the album because I grew up in East Midlands myself.

And there’s also the strong US hip-hop influence coming from the likes of Sebastian, Scotty Hard [New Kingdom] and Chicago producer Spectacular Diagnostics.
Yes, I worked with Sebastian on Mongrels and I did Scotty’s album sleeve a few years ago. They were in New Kingdom together during the 90s before they disbanded, I used to have a poster of them on my wall when I was fifteen. The final track on the album, ‘The Crescendo’, is the first New Kingdom reunion since 1996 – it’s actually insane. But if I have guests on my records I want there to be a personal connection, a meaning behind it, and let’s be honest, it can get a bit boring hearing the same voice over and over again.

“The final track on the album, ‘The Crescendo’, is the first New Kingdom reunion since 1996 – it’s actually insane.”

In terms of themes, are there any recurrent ones that are explored or is it just delving into your psyche again as with Mongrels?
Yeah, it’s just a stream of consciousness basically, but there is a bit of escapism involved I think. In the beginning we were trying to emulate a New York or East Coast sound, but you also know that is not where you’re from at all. So, without going too much the other way where it is apologetic and self-deprecating and all that, you go the other way and try to make it relevant to your experiences – but that doesn’t mean that you have to make it so embedded in reality that it’s mundane and boring. There are a lot of real-life experiences in the record, a lot of personal stuff too, but it’s hidden amongst other things, and it’s whether you pick up on it or not. It’s not signposted and I don’t feel that I’m that sort of rapper and I don’t need to make political raps; it’s just about finding your lane and it’s the same with the artwork. For me, it’s no longer graffiti and it’s not always street art – it’s just somewhere in the middle and the same with illustration and fine art. It can exist with all those other things, but it’s not trying to compete with them.

There’s also a Sheffield touch with Dean Honer getting involved on the production side of things.
The album is all produced by Spectacular Diagnostics, Dean mixed and mastered it. So, me and Rob [Spectacular Diagnostics] wrote the album, predominantly across e-mail and then it was mixed with Dean in Sheffield last year. I’ve worked with Dean for five years, mixing and stuff; in fact, he lives round the corner from me. It’s good to work with a producer who’s not from a hip-hop background and Rob, who is a hip-hop producer, liked that as well and as soon as he got into the studio he was like, “this is amazing!” They gave it a really coherent sound and when Rob got involved he made all the soundscape, all the instrumental arrangements, I just put my lyrics on top of his production. And that was embellished by the fact that we recorded and mixed it together in Dean’s studio, but it was Rob’s production.

What’s the plan moving forward – more music in the pipeline?
We’ve got two more albums on the go! I’ve found someone that I like working with, there’s quite a lot of spark there, so hopefully we’ll get a lot more records out together. We have a couple of advance copies and the official release date is 8 November, so yeah, we’ve got plenty of music already stored away and ready to work on. It’s all coming together nicely at the moment.

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