NEON ARTIST DAVID SPEED'S LOVE LETTER TO LONDON
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
BY ELIZABETH MCCAFFERTY
If you don’t remember spending an entire weekend in August sprinting out of the house with wet hair, odd shoes, and incessantly replaying neon artist David Speed’s Instagram stories; then you most definitely didn’t hear about his London-based art treasure hunt. With 1,000 original skull prints hidden around London and hints dropped via social media, it sent many into a crazed dash to nab one before a neighbour gets there first. With many travelling to London in the hope of finding one, and people calling it a ‘love letter to London’ and ‘permission to be a kid again’. It’s true, David’s generosity and eagerness to share his art was the ultimate London love story, bringing the community together and an almighty respect to him and his work. I met with David to find out more about his craft and the story behind the treasure hunt.
Can you tell us about your work and the process of finding the style we know you for today?
I’ve been painting for about 20 years, but my neon style has only really been developed since lockdown. I painted my first neon in 2018 but I just sat on it and didn’t do much with it. I was working as a commercial artist, painting offices, and doing jobs for brands; my personal work had taken a bit of a backseat. Early on in 2020 a couple of my friends convinced me to do more painting. They noticed how much I used to love it but barely did it anymore, so I gave it another go. In February 2020 I was on the roof of my studio in Shoreditch when I heard shouting; I initially ignored it, but it continued so I looked over and it was the musician, Goldie. I ran downstairs and he outright commissioned me to do 5 paintings for his gallery in Thailand which was fucking crazy. He said he loved my work! If I hadn’t listened to my friends, I never would have been on that roof painting. I had no social following; it was just off the back of the strength of that one painting he saw me doing. By March we went into lockdown, I focused everything on these 5 commissioned paintings, and it created momentum.
I started trying to learn my new neon style in the street and created TikTok videos of me experimenting (neon paint behaves very differently to normal paint). I started creating on Instagram too and my following started really taking off. I don’t need to do commercial work anymore; it changed my career forever.
I think we find it hard to talk about making positive effects on people from our work; no one wants to sound like you're bragging. It wasn't until I started doing stuff during lockdown, where the feedback I was getting on almost daily basis was: “your work has brightened up our lockdown”. It made me realise that people were getting a lot from my work.
Did you always know you’d make your career in art?
For about 10 years I was doing illegal graffiti art: trains, track sides, abandoned warehouses, the street, wherever I could find a surface. Then in about 2010, a lot of my contemporaries were getting sent to prison for doing it; I realised that I was basically on that path.
Back in the day I was training to be a primary school teacher. At that point I was really involved in the graffiti scene. I was telling the kids to behave during the day and then running around the train tracks at night leading this weird double life. I quit doing graffiti and it was then I made my company for commercial work. It was a space for all these incredible artists that I knew to pay their rent, because at the time, it was really impossible to get any opportunities. Now I have a lot of fun in my career and social media gives me a lot of freedom in the jobs I take.
What is the most difficult canvas you've ever painted on?
Years and years ago when I used to paint trains. It was a whole military operation breaking into a train yard, climbing over fences with bolt cutters, waiting for hours in bushes for the trains to come.
What was it about painting a train that was so worth the risks?
That was me as a young person getting caught up in the romanticism of the graffiti culture, which started in New York. Guys over there would paint trains that would then ride around the city showing off their art. You can’t do that with a train in the UK as its more than likely to get buffed before it rides around the city. It was sort of an ode to graffiti history. It was also the thrill and adrenaline rush I got as a young male. It sounds dramatic but at times it was life and death when you’re running over live rails. It’s a bit wacky from the outside, doing something that can land you in prison but when you’re in that subculture it sounds fun. In 2010 the fun started to become a bit more real, you realised people were dying doing this as people started to take more and more risks to paint. There’s a bridge we used to paint near Gatwick airport, if you step back, you're going to fall 100 feet to your death. It’s quite natural to stand back and look at your work but if you did that at this location it would be a disaster. As I’ve gotten older and maybe a little bit more sensible, I just started to realise that the risk was outweighing the reward. You get more responsibilities in life and you think: do you want to go to prison for painting on a wall or a train? It didn’t feel as tangible anymore.
Giving away 1,000 prints of your work is incredibly generous, what made you do it?
When I was about 18, I was walking around Brighton, and I found a piece of street art. It was a small piece of cardboard with a little doodle character on it blue-tacked to a lamppost. I pulled it off and I still have it. The excitement of finding this little piece of original art was something that I always remembered and something I always wanted to give to people. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.
I wanted to do something with a real impact, and I thought putting on my first solo show would be a good enough excuse to do it. I wanted to direct people to something when they found my work. 100 pieces didn’t sound enough and neither did 500. 1,000 sounded like a lot so I decided to just go for it. My girlfriend came up with the idea of having the skulls looking in the direction of North, South, East, West. I hid 250 in each side of London.
I sketched the skulls and then had 1000 screen prints made. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done but also the most rewarding and I very much felt it built a stronger bond between my followers. Our plan was to get up super early in the morning and distribute them all over London during a weekend. We hadn’t accounted for people waking up with us and literally hunting them down as we put them out though!
Initially when I first came up with the idea, I started questioning whether it was bad one, after getting rejected by publications and all sorts when I wanted to publicise it. I spent hundreds of hours finishing each print off by hand and spent two and a half grand on them. I was worried it was a really bad decision, but when I started hearing stories of people making friends from the treasure hunt, they were things I could never have planned for and beautiful to hear. I got quite emotional about it when I was walking through London seeing all these communities coming together, interacting with each other over finding the art.
Do you have any advice for people who are scared to take the plunge with their creative ideas?
If it scares you, then you should probably see where it takes you. The chances are, it could be something really, really good. Think about what has and has not been done before, what can you do on a grand scale that is going to capture people's attention? If you capture people's attention, then you can start to make a change.