blondey mccoy: palace's 'it boy' turned artist
“Skateboarding taught me how to be confident and I haven't managed to shut up since then.” Ahead of his fifth solo show, skateboarder-designer-artist Blondey McCoy talks us through his collaboration with Damien Hirst, and art as a form of therapy.
Blondey McCoy is quite the prodigy. He is a pro-skater for Adidas and Palace, a muse to photographer Alasdair McLellan (who has lensed him for various fashion bibles including the cover of i-D), an artist about to launch his 5th solo show Us and Chem. this Thursday (including a collaboration with Damien Hirst no less), is the Creative Director of the brand Thames and can play the entire back catalogue of The Smiths on the piano. All this and he has just turned 20 years of age.
Of Lebanese and British descent, Blondey describes his heritage as "half and half, chips and cheese" and has cut an impressive dash as a stylish boy about London town since his early teens. He carries a confidence that is neither cocksure nor threatening and he wears clothes exceptionally well. He sports an England tattoo on his forearm and his charming smile reveals a missing front tooth or sometimes a gold cap takes its place whilst jewellery of chains and rock and roll rings randomly decorate his person. His effortless style straddles a handrail between skate-rat and the meat rack of the Dilly Boy's -- though seemingly disparate, both underground gangs share a swagger learnt from the London streets they stride. His eccentric amalgamation of references are worn proudly throughout his outfits and show a natural leaning towards cultural appropriation, with his pirating and pillaging from subcultures both past and future drawing a comparison to the late great Malcolm McLaren. McLaren stole from the poor and gave to the rich and celebrated community, inclusivity and culture in a way that mirrors that of the tribal Palace family, of which Blondey is the face. And what a brilliant face it is. His nose is big and beaky, his hair is naturally curly and he talks with a twang that in a parallel life could've seen him live quite happily as a cheeky chappy market trader if he wasn't so terrifically talented.
For Blondey, skateboarding was a watershed moment, nothing came before but everything came since. "Once I became aware of skateboarding, any prior ambitions, if there were any, were axed." He started hanging out at Slam City Skates lingering on the peripherals, gently making friends. "I didn't say anything until I was about 13. Skateboarding taught me how to be confident and I haven't managed to shut up since then." Whilst hanging at Slam, he noticed the illustrations on the boards which led to him search out artists like Mark Gonzales, a hero and inspiration to this day, through their joint Adidas sponsorship he is lucky enough to count the legendary Gonz as a friend. "I get to see Gonz a bit through the trips we do together. He is a pure artist, he doesn't showboat, he scribbles on napkins, casts them aside and people pick them up and cherish them forever. It's not fine art or over-educated: like his skateboarding it's a compulsion."
During the 2012 Olympics a picture in the local newspaper of gymnast Beth Tweddle doing the splits grabbed Blondey's attention. He tore it out, and having looked at the London landmark river for hours a day during his formative years wrote THAMES proudly across her crotch. From this disparate collage, he played around on his mum's computer, turned it into an all over print then made it into a shirt. "I was 14 and I didn't know anyone else doing it at the time, but I knew that it could be done. It wasn't a conscious decision to make Thames a brand, but I felt the need to do it and to put things in a box. I liked the word Thames; it either connects or divides London, depending on your general mood."
On an average day he starts at ridiculous o'clock, often woken up by a startling idea before skating to his Soho studio from his Covent Garden flat before the commuters arrive. A day is never not working, either making artworks, planning collections, shooting look books, modelling in fashion stories for magazines including Vogue and Arena Homme+ or appearing as a cameo in the recent Alasdair McLellan-directed video for The xx all figuring. And after a long day at the desk, what better way to unwind than a piano lesson? Having recently mastered Abba's The Winner Takes It All he is currently fingering 1959 by The Sisters of Mercy.
But it is his fifth solo show, the forthcoming Us and Chem., which stands as his most ambitious, impressive and personal work to date. No longer branded with Thames, the 13 piece mirror work sees him using completely original material for the very first time. "I used to go to the magazine shop on Great Windmill street and buy 80s magazines and newspapers and make collage work from them. That shop closed down so it forced me to work in a new way." Having suffered a dark cloud of anxiety last year, which then led to a spell of depression he used this exhibition as a way of catharsis. And like when Harry Potter casts forth his Patronus charm to shine light upon the dark, Blondey continues to use his art to defeat the internal demons he once faced. Sobriety soon followed and the change in lifestyle has seen his already scorching ambition set to furnace.
The new works are an unfiltered window into his world and feature a curation of tea pots, ashtrays, dead flowers, Prada shopping bags, Limoncello, piano sheet music and photographs of his mates at Disneyland. "Anyone that knows me well will recognise something in these pieces. It was natural for me to make work that was more personal, I don't feel I had the choice. When an idea comes I need to make it happen." He shows fragility and confidence at the same time as he lights another cigarette, before emptying an overflowing ashtray. "I hit a point last year, when I realised that not everyone can or should like what you do, so trying to please is both futile and depressing. It's a mental state you have to achieve as an artist or any creative expressive person: if you think it's perfect then it is. You only have to ask yourself who you're making it for."
Printed on mirrors and glass and framed on leaded and sash windows respectively, the talking point piece is the sensational collaboration with Damien Hirst. Having hung out in Venice for the opening of his controversial Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition, it was Hirst who suggested the hook up. "Damien saw the mock ups of the mirror works and said 'Do you know what? That would look fookin' beauty printed on a massive spin painting."
So Blondey returned the compliment and visited Damien's studio. Upon entering the building he bore witness to Damien stood on a moving platform wearing a full boiler suit and gloves ensemble whilst stood next to buckets of house paint, as he joyfully recalls. "It's incredible there, like the Death Star, these huge doors open and canvasses are placed on this axis before Damien shouts 'just make it spin really fast'. Then he throws the paint and pours acid on the canvas and you have no clue how it's come out until it slowly spins to a halt, it's completely random and Damien did this one especially for the show. "He's like Leeds's answer to Willy Wonka… living proof of the premise that life is what you make it." The parallels are clear to be drawn between a younger Damien and the current headspace occupied by Blondey, as he further elaborates upon his older peer and collaborator. "I imagine he felt somewhat incompatible with the world as he knew it, buried it for a while in the act of celebrating his improvements to it and ultimately ended up creating his very own. I find both him as a person and his story very inspirational." This is a crossroads in the life of a young man with the city looking constantly at his next move and hopefully he has finally found what he is looking for. "This show has been a revelation to me. It's not for financial gain or recognition. This work came out of a compulsion to make it. Of exercising a certain feeling or emotion. I make art first and foremost to stay sane… it's expression as a form of therapy."
Us and Chem. shows at the Heni Gallery, 6-10 Lexington Street, Soho from 27 July to 27 August.
Text Ben Reardon
Photography Mike O'Meally