ATM dedicates much of his time to painting gorgeous images of threatened bird species on walls. His work has become a familiar and well-loved feature of many urban streets in cities far and wide. Synchronicity Earth is working with ATM to explore aspects of the relationship between finance and environmental degradation and the disappearance of species around the world.
I met ATM to talk about his work, his thoughts about the environmental crisis we are facing and ask him what he hopes to achieve through his art.
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.
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.
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.
Is there one species of bird you would like to paint on a banknote that you think suits this metaphor particularly well?
ATM: Well, I’d particularly like to do something around hornbills. Most hornbills are critically endangered, their casques are used for carving – it’s called gold or red ivory – and there’s a huge illegal trade, as with so many animal species and animal parts. They are just such incredible birds, and obviously it’s not just them that are at risk, it’s also the forests they live in, in Southeast Asia, for example, a lot of which are being chopped down at a terrible rate. The hornbill is one of the most visible and immediately impressive species, so I’d like to do more with them.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you would like to reach with your banknote series, and do you generally consider the kind of audience you want to reach through your work?
ATM: For the birds on banknotes, it would be great to put them in front of people who have got lots of money and who actually could bring about real change. It’s all well and good with the art on the street appealing to normal people just walking around but, you know, whether they’ve got the capacity or desire to do anything concrete is another matter. To reach people who really do have some financial power or political power would be fantastic.
It would be really something if you could create a huge painting of a bird on a building in the square mile (London’s main financial district)…
ATM: Yes, exactly. That would be fantastic. It would be a great way to achieve what I want to do, to bring these images and these conversations to a new audience, to people who don’t necessarily want or need to think about conservation in their everyday lives. No doubt some people do, but many people can live their lives without ever really thinking about it.
You mainly paint native species, working a lot in the UK and Europe particularly. Yet given that three quarters of all species – and 90 per cent of bird species – are in the tropics, is there an argument to paint species that are not native, to draw attention to the biodiversity crisis that so often seems to remain out of sight and out of mind?
ATM: It’s true that up to this point, I’ve only painted native species. I haven’t been to Borneo to paint a wall there, but in a way that wouldn’t reach the people here so yes, I would like to do some of that. It would be fantastic to paint a hornbill somewhere in London. I’d love to do a series of paintings with a general theme, for example, paint an insect, a bird, and other species together to give some sense of the whole, a narrative, as opposed just to one separate species here and another one there. My concern is that each one becomes just another image when I really want my work to have a story, a narrative, a meaning. I guess one way to do that, if I was to paint species from Borneo, for example, in London, would be a series of different species from that region, perhaps a tree as well, something that begins to tell story of a whole ecosystem, because that is what we’re losing in many cases.
Nice idea… A lot of creativity is rightly spent highlighting the extinction crisis and all the species and habitats we stand to lose, but maybe it would also be interesting to flip the narrative: rather than saying these are all species that are disappearing, to instead highlight some of the stories of species starting to come back as a result of conservation and restoration work, to give people something to really get behind and feel good about?
ATM: Yes, I’d love to do that, because I know that the terrible stories and negative messages can really make people feel depressed, powerless and helpless. I’d like to do some paintings which focus on an area where regeneration is happening, a specific area, and show some of those species that are coming back. That would be a fantastic thing to do.
Thinking about the way people value the natural world – or do not – what do you think of the trend towards describing nature in terms of ‘natural capital’ or ‘ecosystem services’?
ATM: Well, I guess on the one hand it can encourage governments, big organisations and councils to view what they have in a different way. The fact is that people generally tend to think in financial terms, especially at most levels of government. It’s all about money so, in a sense, I can understand why environmental issues are being presented in those terms.
At the same time, looking at it from a different perspective, it can be disastrous because it’s reducing everything to financial value, something that has already happened across so many other areas of human life. We’re not citizens any more, we’re all consumers. I hate that word consumer – people talk about consuming the arts, but it takes away any view of life as a spiritual journey, or awareness of those things that give life true value, things that are impossible to put a monetary value on. So on the one hand I can understand why it might be necessary, but on the other, I really do hate it because it just reduces our whole lives to work – consume – die!
Finally, when (if ever) do you feel optimistic for the natural world?
ATM: Well, even though it seems inevitable that millions of species are going to disappear, or are disappearing already at a terrible rate, there is also an incredible resilience about nature. Left untended for a while plants start growing through tarmac, splitting concrete, reclaiming places. I remember when I lived in Berlin, walking round old cemeteries from the 19th century with these huge mausoleums of very eminent families. There were these very powerful figures, great dynasties, and there would be a huge 50-foot tree growing right through the middle of one, splitting it in half!
It also reminds me of a painting I did on the island of Utsira in Norway, right out in the North Sea. I painted a Red-breasted merganser on these big black rocks, above which was a German radar station from WWII, this great rusting shell. It’s just this idea that yes, humans are having a huge impact, but nature has the power to recover. That’s something that gives me hope. The radar station has since fallen into the sea!
Obviously certain ecosystems will simply disappear and be no more, but when you look at the whole picture and the previous mass extinctions, for example when all the thousands of species of trilobites disappeared, or more recently the disappearance of so many huge mammals, thousands of incredible species… 99 per cent of all species that ever lived are extinct. In human terms the contemporary extinctions are a disaster, we won’t see that subsequent recovery. The daily facts and figures of what’s being destroyed are really hard to face, but from what is left, nature evolves to fill the spaces and the niches in totally unexpected ways, so that gives me some comfort.
Watch this space for more on our collaboration with ATM. See more of his work at atmstreetart.com. Follow ATM on social media: @atmstreetart’