ATM in his studio in Acton
Tell me about your painting. How long have you been doing it, what determines the choice of species you paint and how important is location in that choice?
ATM: I’ve been painting birds on walls for just over five years. I’ve always had a particular love for birds, ever since I was a child. When I first started painting street art, it struck me that birds are very powerful symbols of environmental degradation. When they disappear, it often means that a lot of other species such as insects and plants are disappearing with them. Birds can be a visible marker that something is seriously wrong, the canary in the coal mine. But it’s really their beauty that I want to communicate, not just their importance. They are a powerful symbol, but each one is also individually unique and special.
A Kestrel on a temporary housing block on the South Acton Estate, London.
I always try to choose a species which lives or used to live where I’m painting or has a connection to that place. So far, I’ve always painted native species: when I went to the US, I was painting US species, and elsewhere in Europe I’ve done the same.
To find specific locations in Britain, I first do some research to find out what would have lived there. I want to make the point that the environmental crisis is not something which is only happening somewhere else, in Africa or wherever: it’s happening here too. I also want to draw attention to species that many people don’t even know exist. For example, when I’m painting turtle doves, or a snipe, people often don’t even know what they are or are unaware that they could disappear without many of us even knowing!
Since you started painting these birds, what kind of reactions has your work had from people on the street?
ATM: People absolutely love what I’m doing, they really do. While I was painting on the South Acton estate, near where I live, people kept coming up to me to thank me and shake my hand! They’re generally very appreciative, they value the paintings and they’re interested, which is great. Wherever I paint, people show real respect – my stuff almost never gets tagged, so there is real respect there. More often than not, any problems I have or obstacles I face come from the council or the people who own the buildings. To take it to a bigger scale, working with the local council (Ealing), for example, to do more in central Ealing, is really difficult. In this country, except in certain specific areas like Bristol or Shoreditch where it is embraced, ‘street art’ still has such a negative connotation. It’s often considered to be vandalism or graffiti. That’s very different to a lot of places in Europe. In Germany, for example, it’s much more accepted and is embraced as a respected form of urban expression.
What would you like people to feel when they walk past your work?
ATM: Well, I want them to feel what I feel when I see birds, which is an awe and wonder. Birds are the most incredible creatures, the way they fly, the way they’re put together and the harmonies of their plumage. I know it’s conventional now to explain everything in terms of evolutionary processes, random mutations, natural selection and all that but, to me, that doesn’t explain the plumage and the fantastic colour harmonies in birds… To me, they look like they have been created by a supreme artist! Just the beauty and the subtlety and the complexity of it all. So, I just want to communicate what I feel, first of all, and then hopefully, if people feel some of that too, then they’ll want to do something to protect them.
A gannet in hunting mode, painted on the South Acton Estate, London.
In urban environments, it can be easy to feel as if you are completely removed from nature, with all the devices, the technology, the concrete. Do you think work like yours can help to (re)connect people, even if only for a moment?
ATM: Yes, we are removed from it in a way, but at the same time, that’s an illusion. We go to the supermarket, we buy our food without thinking or having to think where it comes from, but we do still depend on food production, which depends on habitats that are healthy and are able to be replenished. The more things get degraded and exploited, the less we’ll be able to take those things for granted. But it is still just about possible to walk around thinking that everything is fine. I want my work to contribute to getting the message across that all of us are dependent on a healthy environment and yes, to help people feel a connection.
You have recently started painting a series of species on banknotes. Can you tell us how that idea came about and why you are doing it?
ATM: Originally it was an idea for a book that Bob Osborne, a friend of mine, had. Other people have painted over or defaced banknotes in the past, but he had the idea of making an exhibition – at the Saatchi Gallery in London – and a book. When I started doing them, I realised that it’s a really appropriate metaphor: as well as the banknotes being beautiful objects in themselves, to paint a bird on top of that is such a brilliant metaphor for the fact that so much destruction of habitat and disappearance of species is purely about money. They’re disappearing because people want to profit from natural resources, whether it’s timber, rare timber, mining, deforestation, hydropower or trade in the species themselves.
A Woodcock on a one pound note