David Bowie was a genie who loved to drink gin…at least in the world of Dave Wakely he was. A sign painter and artist, Dave’s work even embodies the same kind of tripped-out, cosmic and socially conscious spirit of the late Bowie. The latest in a run of artists to display their work inside the Constellations cafe and bar, Dave’s canvases offer commentary on everything from the blood diamond trade to television’s bewitching effect on our minds. Entitled, ‘Pass the Love Grenade,’ the exhibition will run throughout September, embellishing the space with colour as our famous brunch returns for the Autumn. Curious to find out more about the artist who decked out the cafe with a six-armed Ziggy Stardust, we sat down with Dave to learn about the world of sign painting.
To the uninformed observer, myself especially, sign painting can seem an archaic practice reserved for dusty countryside pubs and canal barges. However sign painting, as Dave tells me, is undergoing a massive resurgence: “ It’s like a lot of things in culture, many people have just become sick of over-digitisation and oversaturation. It’s like an apex has been reached and when that happens there are certain types of time proven practices that people turn to. You could liken it to the vinyl revival or the popularity of old-school tattoos. Vinyl has come back in a big way as a specialist market and that’s what sign painting has become too. There are still sign painters out there, a lot of them just happen to use Apple Macs these days. They have new ideas and new tools but they are still using that traditional skill set of a sign painter.”
Away from his personal artistic endeavours, Dave is frequently commissioned for his talents: “I recently worked on an old bank that was turned into a child friendly cafe on Aigburth Road called The Little Eatery. I did all the window painting and all the window signage. I also did work for the Buddhist order recently. They bought a pub called the Plumb of Feathers in Southampton and I’ve just completely redone it all – I’ve kept with the tradition of the pub but reimagined it to incorporate their Buddhism.”
Whilst a level of artistic licence does find its way into much of his work restoring and reimagining old signage, Dave explains that sign painting is in fact an oddly unique artform: “Sign painting is an artistic pursuit that has a right and a wrong – whereas other areas of the arts – take Picasso or Dali for example – they did many things by accident that worked out and happened serendipitously. Sign painting is very strict in that respect because it’s intrinsically linked to graphic design; it has to be right, otherwise it looks off. There is a right and a wrong with negative space being just as important as positive space. We’re all so accustomed to looking at signage in our day-to-day lives, that even ordinary people are pretty professional when they look at it, so it has to be right. The time and the technique of it does need to be honoured and people do use the root form of it as a trade. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t branch out from it and use sign painting as an expressive art form as well.”
With his psychedelic style, Dave has certainly taken this expressive licence on board with his latest exhibition in the Constellations cafe: “With my artwork, I use all my experience of being a sign painter and create work that is heavily inspired by this but is also much more abstract. All of my art pieces have got a rationale; social commentary and a lot of things that I visually try to express in my work. For example, the ‘BUDR’ piece is largely a statement on the fact that people in Western culture flash diamonds around but, at the end of the day, someone may very well have had to mine that rock under some form of slavery. ‘Budr,’ is the Welsh word for dirty; therefore it’s ‘dirty diamond.’
This theme of manipulating language to marry the worlds of signage and expressive art runs throughout much of David’s work. Most evident in his piece, ‘Jinn Genie,’ David’s explanation for his careful choice of words is linguistically creative and joyously convoluted: “The Jinn Genie is one that I’d been promising a friend I’d do for some time. Initially, I started to create a piece about a Gin Palace, but then David Bowie died about a week after I’d started it. I’ve been really influenced by him and was really affected by the fact that he’d died – he was such an incredible figure in performing arts, fashion, LGBTQ rights and so much more. Because of his status, I almost saw him as being like a buddha, all sitting, omnipresent. The word genie is an anglicisation of the word ‘jinni’, which is the Arabic for genie. But jinni is the singular and jinn is the plural. The ‘Jinn Genie’ piece is actually saying that he’s the genie’s genie – Like he’s the musician’s musician or the people’s poet…Gin was also his favourite drink, a gin martini. It’s certainly very cryptic so it does require an explanation, I’m always willing to explain my work to people so long as they’re willing to meet me half way, so to speak!
Dave Wakely’s ‘Pass the Love Grenade’ exhibition will run until 22nd October in the Constellations cafe and bar. With brunch service restarting on Saturday 23rd September, be sure to head down to catch Dave’s mind-bending sign writing inspired works.