On first glance, wirrow’s work is deceptively simple. It’s quirky and cute—but there is a darkness and a pinch of heartbreak that give his characters and their stories resonance and poignancy. The longer you look at his works, the more you realise that wirrow is baring his soul.
As an underground artist, wirrow’s work is reactive and has a DIY community ethic—being created to be shared—the reason a digital medium works so well for him. He works anonymously and started out by posting tiny drawings around London for people to find. More recently, he has published ‘The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories’ series in collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This came to fruition through Gordon-Levitt’s creative community site Hitrecord.org, which wirrow is now involved in as a global curator.
We caught up with wirrow to find out a little more about his creative processes…
What is it about anonymity that you find so appealing or essential to your work?
On a personal level, it’s kind of like putting on a mask and going out dancing, you’re free to go as weird and silly as you like. But also for people appreciating the artwork, I prefer them to have their own relationship with it and not have to think about me as an artist. I remember overhearing at a Van Gogh exhibit in Amsterdam what little kids were saying about the strange and wonderful style of art they were seeing, compared to a lot of adults being like ‘poor guy was so depressed.’
Also I think it’s easy for someone in the arts to end up creating a sort of exhibit of their private everyday lives, and I’d rather get rid of that temptation.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I really love kids art and stories. About seven years ago I made a pact with myself that I would only make art that kids would like. Obviously I want everyone to like it but if a kid sees something I’ve made and it doesn’t resonate with them in some way then I’ll feel like I failed and scrap it. Not that I dislike more ‘complicated’ adult sort of art but I’ve just enjoyed setting this boundary for myself, and I think it brings out the best of my creativity and forces me to strip things down to their simplest/purest form.
“About 7 years ago I made a pact with myself that I would only make art that kids would like”
Who have you been influenced by?
I LOVE reading about ancient mythologies, particularly creation myths. Seeing how artists of different cultures and civilisations made sense of their world through symbols and stories that resonated with them, along with the startling similarities they all share just fascinates me.
I also love art that feels like a collection—a lot of the modern artists I love present their art as if it’s findings, or kind of like a bestiary of magical beings, creatures and trinkets. It makes me feel like they’ve created their own little universe and I’ve been invited in to take in the surroundings. I think that’s what I try to do with my stuff, create a little wirrow microcosm and invite people in. Take your shoes off first though.
When/where do you feel most inspired, what is your ideal creative environment?
I love walking, I spend most of my days on long walks and that’s where I come up with ideas. when I’m drawing or iPad-ing I like to move around places in London—cafes, theatres, various freelance workspaces. In the summer I work outside a lot and tether, there’s a really nice spot in Kings Cross by the river. Oh sometimes I like to just walk around a museum with my iPad and write/draw on the go.
“sometimes I like to just walk around a museum with my iPad and write/draw on the go. ”
How do you go about creating one of your images, from words and sketch to finished piece?
I tend to note down words and turns of phrases as I hear/think of them, (often yoinked from billboards, signs or snippets of overheard conversations). Eventually when I think of a story idea I browse my collection and sort of piece it together. So I have a large collection of ‘tiny stories’ and also a collection of sketches and illustration ideas, so I cross reference them and see what goes well together. I hardly ever create an image for a specific story, I like the process of curating (seemingly) unrelated stories and drawings.
“Affinity Photo was the reason I was able to make the switch to an iPad Pro 12.9 as my MAIN device for professional work… Coupled with the use of an Apple pencil, I have now genuinely found my favourite work environment so far. ”
Even your digital work has a hand-crafted feel, is it important to you to retain that style when working in digital formats?
Yeah I love that organic feel, and it’s only recently that I’ve allowed myself to go almost fully digital with my art, as the brushes these days are amazingly realistic. Still, I like to have something organic even with my digital stuff—I usually sketch it first and scan it in to re-draw, and I also use a lot of scanned-in real textures. I take a photo of any texture I find (old books, paper, walls etc) and keep an archive of them to use.
What is your favourite piece of artwork that you’ve created?
Probably my ‘foxes in flight’ painting, it was the first time I was really happy to call something ‘finished’. We pieced it together with a tiny story by Sean Lennon for the tiny books, and I think it was just a perfect marriage of story and image.
Tell us about your ‘tiny stories’ book, how did it come about?
I joined Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s online production company (Hitrecord) and started uploading some of my animated tiny stories. I opened it up for other people to contribute their stories and illustrations and we had thousands very quickly. The idea of making a tiny book was floating around quite soon after and so Joe and I worked together curating all our favourite tiny stories and illustrations, as well as going by people’s recommendations.
Hitrecord self-published the first tiny book of tiny stories and it sold well, so Harper Collins picked it up for a 3-volume deal! It was an incredibly exciting time for me and it made me really happy to have so many great writers and illustrators (mostly working in their bedrooms) become published artists.
How has social media and collaborative online spaces like Hitrecord influenced your creativity?
Social media in general has played a big role for me, it’s how I connect with people that like my art and my customer base for my online shop. I don’t even have my website anymore, I just let people find me through social media.
Hitrecord was a little different in that it really forced me out of my comfort zone to actually collaborate with people, a skill I didn’t really have or enjoy before. It has helped me realise that I really do need other people to work with if I have any hope of finishing anything. Seeing your art remixed into something new is really exciting.
Your work has a depth of emotion which clearly resonates with people. Do you find that expressing these thoughts and feelings through work has a positive impact on your wellbeing?
Again, I find that being anonymous helps with that, personally—but yes. In general, I’ve learned that if I allow my anxiety, depression—even joy—to just be this clash of abstract emotions clouding my insides, they can be overwhelming. Making art sort of quantifies them: it forces me to put symbols and meaning to everything I’m feeling and thinking, and it then allows it all to gently flow through me. I think one of my latest drawings, ‘visitors,’ is kind of about that. Art is a great way to pour your heart out.
“Art is a great way to pour your heart out.”
Do you find your emotional honestly encourages people to share their own experiences with you?
I get a lot of emails and messages from people telling me about their experiences and what a piece of my art meant to them. In the beginning I was sure a lot of them were exaggerations as I didn’t understand how my silly drawings could possibly mean that much to anyone. But I started having the same emotional connection to other people’s art, and when I started composing a message once (to an artist I really admired,) I was just suddenly like ‘shit… maybe this is real.’
Tell us more about how your persona interacts with the wider world—I read that you text tiny stories to random numbers? Is that true? Have you had any memorable responses from that?
I still enjoy doing that, sometimes I get some surprisingly pleasant responses, I even made an actual friend from that. I also like writing them on tiny bits of paper and leaving them inside books that I like in bookshops. Sometimes I write them on paper money too—here have a little story while you’re paying for your coffee.
Do you have any future plans for your creative work, or projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell us about?
I have a few things I’m working on—an animated show project that I’m really excited for, but can’t really talk about much. Also working with someone on a tiny book of tiny meditations, and a personal book project about tiny fairytales!