Photography by Rob Weir
Interview by Carina Claassens
If you’ve been to Shoreditch on a sunny day you would have noticed John Dolan and his dog, George, sitting on the High Street. George sits patiently while John draws portraits of him and the buildings opposite. In this in depth interview we find out exactly how John became the artist he is today.
Where are you from?
Goswell Road in Islington. I’ve lived in London all my life.
How old is George and how were you brought together?
He is six years old. I was living in shared accommodation at the time and a couple of rough sleepers bought him for the price of a strong can of lager off a mad Scotsman. They had him for about a week and then gave him to me.
How did you train George?
I got him when he was one year old and he was one of those dogs who would nearly bite your hand off when you tried to pick up his ball. He was a cat chaser; he chased foxes. I just have an authoritative voice if you could say that. I had dogs growing up. You need eyes in the back of your head with dogs like these, especially when it comes to food. It’s just using your voice in the right way really. You don’t train a dog with your hand, you train him with your voice. With these types of dogs, they just love you and show so much love anyway – he’s very loyal. He’s a great bloody dog.
How long have you been drawing?
All my life, all my life, I’ve always had a natural talent for drawing – my grandfather was a good artist. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve actually picked up a pen and started drawing the way I am now. I spent many years in and out of jail and came out one day and I was homeless. I climbed into a building site, slept there and would get out in the morning before the builders came. This particular day I was in this building site, in Whitechapel behind the mosque, and there was a security guard that I didn’t know about. I had to jump over a wall – I landed okay but my ankle gave way and arthritis kicked in. As a result I couldn’t duck and dive. I had to literally walk up to people in the street and ask them for money.
I would never have dreamt of doing something like that but I had no choice. From there I started sitting down and when I got George I started sitting down with him. I trained him to sit in front of a hat and I would stand away from him and people would take his picture because he’s a beautiful dog. In the summer time I made a fortune but then the winter kicked in. I had to wrap George up because he was cold and it actually made for a good picture. I found it embarrassing just sitting there watching people throw money into his hat so I started drawing again. I started drawing just to get over the embarrassment and my drawings got better and better. The idea was to teach myself watercolour and I started drawing buildings. I started to draw houses and once I watercoloured the pictures and did all the rest of it I would put a calling card under the doors saying, “I’ve drawn your house, would you like to view it and buy the picture?”
I wasn’t a building drawer. What happened was I was sitting opposite the buildings that are on the other side of the road from where I usually sit, the old decrepit buildings, and I started drawing them to practice and get it right. I thought I would do it with these ones because they’re rotten old buildings.
Today I’ve sold more than 500 pictures of those buildings and they take me two hours to draw.
A John Dolan building drawing (note Burning Candy Crew):
Do the drawings of George sell well?
People started asking me for drawings of him and I would walk out of the house with four or five – they take me about 20 minutes to knock up – and I take them out and they sell. The only time that I don’t really sell any stuff is when the weather’s gloomy but when it’s sunny, sat where I sit, I sell loads of pictures.
What is the most you’ve sold in one day?
Who or what would you say inspires you?
I like Gilbert and George – they walk past me every night and George always says hello to me. I love them. I don’t mind Tracy Emin. Jackson Pollock blows me away. And of course some of the old masters.
So you’ve just always had a natural talent?
When I was 13 I lost an art contract. My grandmother worked as a cleaner and took one of my drawings in to show her friends. It was a fantastic picture, I copied it out of an old comic book – my grandfather used to buy me comic books.
A guy looked over her shoulder and said, “I work for a meat company in Spitalfields meat market, and I’m looking for a freelance artist. If your grandson can do us a trademark we’ll give him £5.” I just couldn’t deliver the goods; it was too much pressure for such a young mind.
Would you say that you are a street artist?
Yeah, I’m in a book about street art as a street artist. Up until the point that I went into the book I didn’t know what I was or who I was. If you asked me now what I am, I would say a street artist.
Have you ever sat anywhere else?
I pretty much always sit in the same spot on Shoreditch High Street.
Because of those two buildings across the road – that’s all it basically is.
I can draw them with my eyes closed. In the summer I’ll go sit in Covent Garden and Southbank. The thing is, I’ve been sat in Shoreditch for such a long time that I don’t have to put signs up. People know me and if they want a drawing they buy it.
If you couldn’t draw and you had to do something else, what would it be?
I don’t know, fly an aeroplane? It’d have to be something good, not something bland like working in a factory or putting cream in doughnuts. It would have to be something good.
What do you do when you’re not drawing?
Sleep (laughs), because I’m always drawing. Even when I’m at home I draw.
What do you draw when you’re at home?
I usually finish pictures that I started on the high street or I’m given stuff to draw. A lot of people order drawings.
Do they just approach you on the street and ask you to draw something?
Yeah, “can you draw my dog?” or “can you draw my girlfriend?”
What’s the most general thing that people ask you to draw?
Where they live. They give me photographs.
What’s the most unusual thing?
Nothing yet, I’m still waiting for something strange.
Do you ever work in other mediums than you do now?
I sometimes work in charcoal, only the basics. I want to start using spray cans. I’ve had a little practice and I’ve got the gist of it.
Would you say your favourite thing to draw is buildings?
Anything really, anything that is a challenge. If I’ve never drawn it before, even better. I’m having real difficulty with a picture of a girl that someone gave me about a month ago. It’s of a girl’s face. She’s very pretty but I’m just not very good at drawing girl’s faces anyway. It’s not like a man’s face that’s crinkled and if it is it’s covered in make up. She’s a stunning girl but I just can’t bloody get her eyes right and I’m banging my head on the table. The amount of paper I’ve wasted…
I assume that most people’s reactions to your drawings are good?
Yeah, I get told every day that I’m very talented. It’s so nice and it’s strange because drawing is such an easy thing for me to do.
Have you ever had a bad experience while sitting on the street and drawing?
Not so much while drawing. But yeah, every Friday night – it’s nothing worth talking about – just drunk idiots you know. I am financially troubled and that’s why I have to do what I do – I’ll never badger people or ask people for money. If someone puts a bit of change or a £20 note in George’s cup I’ll always thank him or her. If they put a note in the cup and I have a picture to give them, I do.
If George could draw what do you think he would draw?
He’d probably draw me. I’d like to think that he’d do a fine job of it as well.
You say you’re a street artist. To what extent do you identify with the other artists you see on the street?
Like me they also stand or sit in the cold doing what they do. They’re open to criticism. I mean the amount of times that people walk past me and go “ah that’s shit”.
So it’s a bit like public art? You’re both public artists?
Yeah. I’m envious of people who paint on the walls because it can be there for a long time. I love it. There’s a lot of good stuff in Shoreditch and Great Eastern Street. I painted my living room wall for a little while.
Street Art London: Thanks John!
In September Dolan has his first solo exhibition at Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch.
Over 40 international street artists and graffiti writers will also collaborate with Dolan as part of the exhibition.
GEORGE THE DOG JOHN THE ARTIST
19-26 September 2013 (10AM-6PM)
Opening 7:30PM, Thursday 19 September 2013
Howard Griffin Gallery
189-190 Shoreditch High Street,