Rich Simmons exploded onto the street-art scene in 2011 following his viral depiction of the royal couple Will and Kate as the Sex Pistols. His positive art messages such as ‘Just Be You-Tiful’ as well as his support for the LGBT community has taken him and his art across the world. And he has just completed a mural on Surrey Street. His success has been born out of hardship, which Rich speaks very candidly about.
Tell us about your experience with art before the Will and Kate piece catapulted you into a career in art?
I was always the ‘arty kid’ growing up – it was my passion. When I was 17 I found out I had Asperger’s. Some personal things happened in my life and I didn’t process it in the best way. Pair that with depression and social anxiety and I couldn’t handle what was going on at home.
Instead of turning to drugs, drink or self-harm – which a lot of people do in those dark situations – I turned to art. I didn’t have to talk about my feelings as long as I could draw an escape. I didn’t realise at the time but what I was doing was a form of art therapy. When I did realise, I started doing some research and on my 22nd birthday I decided to set up a charity called ‘Art Is The Cure’.
I then moved to London in pursuit of art [as a career] and lived in a warehouse [in Norwood] with no shower and no hot water or heating. After a year without much luck, the Will and Kate piece happened. Now, seven years later, I have a big studio in Croydon and artwork in galleries all over the world. It’s been a very surreal journey – you can never predict that sort of thing.
You recently went on an art trip to Azerbaijan at the end of 2011 – tell us about that?
After the Will and Kate piece, my work was in galleries next to people like Banksy. The daughter of the President of Azerbaijan set up a culture magazine called Baku and invited me to Azerbaijan as the first street artist to go there. We set up a studio, did some prints and a couple of street art pieces. It was an amazing experience.
It was also an eye opener for me – because up until that point – I was very much in my own bubble being guided by others. When I came back, I decided to explore how I could grow as an artist and carve my own path.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I always try to take things that are old, or unloved, negative or depressing and turn it into something beautiful. I guess that is a metaphor for my life.
I think with Asperger’s, I see the world differently. I have a very high creative IQ but a low emotional IQ. When I walk around London, I look at textures such as weathered concrete, old billboards and squiggles on the wall. I see beauty in those things where a lot of people ignore them. I see it and instantly my mind creates a story behind it, leading to a moment of inspiration. My work is almost a story telling process, with layers that the viewer can delve into and try to unravel. Over the years I saved 4,000 painting caps. Each one of these caps allowed me to spray something and the mix of different colours on each one tells a story. I turned them into this Batman piece [see slideshow below].
What made you want to come to Croydon?
Living in the warehouse in south London I got to know Kevin from RISEgallery and he introduced me to Croydon and St. George’s Walk [a 60s arcade reinvigorated by artwork]. I felt I had reached a point in my career where I needed to take a leap of faith to help my art grow and Kevin has been a massive inspiration for me. Seeing him transform these old, unloved spaces into an amazing space for street artists is like an art therapy for places. I see Croydon as the next big London hub. I want to be a part of its transformation and encourage other artist to come here and share their work.
You live in one of our developments, Canius House. What is it like to live in an Inspired Homes ‘micro-apartment’?
I live with my partner very comfortably – we have a beautiful space and incredible views over Croydon. We’re very happy. What I like is that my home is now separate from my studio. It’s so liberating and much healthier to have that separation. I wake up excited to get to my studio and I’m excited to get back home and relax with a movie.
Which artists do you admire the most – dead or alive?
Dead – Leonardo Davinci as someone who combined science and art together. His use of the golden ratios for the Vitruvian Man. His work on perspectives was incredible. He invented techniques. To be so creative and inventive is inspiring.
Living – I would love to do something with Banksy. He was the reason I got into street art. I would love to be able to meet him and shake his hand for making street art so accessible and respected by the public.
Which [art] pieces do you like in Croydon?
The paint jams sessions on the shop shutters, there’s a lot of respect for that. The Ben Eine piece is beautiful. The David Hollier piece is stunning. The Dotmaster pieces. I want to see Roa, Shepard Fairey and D*Face doing the side of a building too.