British Graffiti Artist HUSH Is a Visionary

The former advertising art director's show at Heron Arts rethinks the dated idea of “the global village.”

SF Introspective ‘Blue’ by HUSH.

In 2018, what does the global village look like? Like a middle-aged man from Newcastle, England, who speaks with a thick British accent; who likes wearing a U.S. company’s sweatshirt that features a Native American figure; who listens to charged, ’90s rap; and who makes paintings that spotlight Asian, African, and European women along with disparate graffiti styles. 

In short, the global village looks like HUSH. Yeah, he goes by just one name — one that is essentially gender-less and could reference anything from the schmaltzy 1970s band The Carpenters (and their song “There’s a Kind of Hush”) to the Iranian village with the exact same name. But you don’t need to know HUSH’s name to know his artwork, and to sense its multiple influences. HUSH leaves small and large clues on his canvases, which are on exhibit at Heron Arts. 

“The painting and symbolism are almost biographical of my life and experiences,” the artist tells SF Weekly.

HUSH, 41, is rooted in graffiti culture, and his works in “HUSH: Analysis” at Heron Arts have what are HUSH’s trademark patterns: vertical strips festooned with disparate, graffiti-influenced lines and designs — as if they were ripped from overlapping posters on a public street corner. Emerging out of these strips and quasi-rips are the faces of Asian women who HUSH draws with their eyes tightly closed or diverted from the viewer. Their hair is submerged in blackness and the patterns of overlapping designs. With their red, lipsticked mouths, the women become like shrouds of desire, clothed in the language of the street but closed off from the direct gaze of the viewer.

“My works point towards graffiti-writing aesthetics, and the females are almost there to beautify it — to put it in a different context — because it’s almost seen as aggressive or masculine or brutal, disruptive, and ugly,” HUSH says. “With the context of figures, people say it’s beautiful or decorative, so I’m playing with the idea of how people see graffiti and tagging.”

HUSH still paints, collages, and wheatpastes works in the streets — around four times a year, he says — but he does his art increasingly within his 2,000-square-foot Newcastle studio, increasingly for an art market that has elevated his work in value and stature. His most elaborate pieces sell for more than $100,000, he says. And commercial enterprises — car companies, makers of beauty products, and the like — have pleaded with HUSH for years to lend his name and his artistic sensibilities to their wares. He kept saying no, only to relent last year when the luxury Swiss watch company Hublot convinced him to do a designer timepiece.

HUSH worked as an art director for advertising agencies — “I was getting paid by corporate companies to do bullshit adverts, and I wanted more honest work” — so he knows the pressures of commercial enterprise and the fervor to “brand” artists. HUSH says he’s still making art on his own terms; Hublot had virtually no input on his design. (“To keep my artistic integrity, I’ll produce what I produce,” he says.) And his visit to San Francisco was a chance to surround himself with the hip-hop that he loves (the celebrated DJ QBert performed on opening night) and the people who love his work. HUSH is genuinely grounded in different culture. He’s not appropriating them as much as he’s inhabiting them — respectfully, engagingly, provocatively. He lived in Hong Kong for three years, where manga comics became an influence. He frequently visits the United States.

“I’m British, but we borrow off American culture all the time,” HUSH says. “The first QBert tape I got was in 1997, I think. Hip-hop. Street styles. Skating. Graffiti. Street art. Designers. Typographers. Musicians. All those cultures matter.

“I’ve always traveled, and that’s been a big influence,” he adds. “And these days, the way social media is, the majority of people think I live in the States. People will say, ‘Oh, do you want to meet in Greenwich Village at 12 o’clock on Saturday? And I’m like, ‘Do you know that’s six-and-a-half thousand miles away?’ The way the media works, and the idea of ‘the global village’ — it’s a small world. With art, you’re accepted by a big community, by people from all backgrounds.”  

HUSH: Analysis, through Feb. 6 (Saturdays, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and by appointment) at Heron Arts, 7 Heron St. Free;


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