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Ron English - Always On-Brand

Words:

Edd Norval
July 31, 2018

In the world of street art, Ron English is seen as 'The Godfather'. Not because he makes offers that you can't refuse, rather that he is credited as being the guy that made the crossover between graffiti and the decorative style we associate with street art today.

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Graffiti has always carried deeply anti-establishment feelings. It is, in essence, a reactionary form of expression. Ron English didn't rewrite the book, rather he just changed its style. As an extension to the original sentiment of the artform, English used the materials he had at hand to fight against the 'big guys' - that is, the corporations and companies that are plastering their, in his opinion, offensive advertising all over the place.


English was a seminal figure in the ad-busting movement, where artists destroy or alter the billboards and posters that adorn surfaces everywhere with things that some people just do not want. He replaced them with subversive imagery, turning the advert back on itself, and also purportedly reflecting the shared interests of the society that they exist in. An early example was the pirating of Camel cigarettes advertising with his own characters, 'The Cancer Kids', painted in the same style as the original. The message is clear - don't use this space to sell us something that will kill us.


English isn't just an innovator of that, he's also into other kinds of mash-ups. Beyond advertising and street art, he branded his own style 'POPaganda' and merges high and low-brow styles of art to gain simultaneous insights into each of them. In his world, comic books characters can be going about their business, interrupted by their usual friends and foes, with subtle (or not so subtle) guest appearances by iconic and historical artistic imagery.

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They all boil down to the concept of questioning the world around you - the accepted narratives. It's about holding the people to account that would usually manage to escape it. His grotesque and over-the-top figures are almost satirical in their existence. His culture-jamming, which spans both the POPaganda work and his billboard hijacking, is about questioning unrestrained consumerism. One character has stood out here, a grossly obese Ronald McDonald called MC Supersized. This character has his claim to fame in Morgan Spurlock's everyone-has-seen-it documentary - Supersize Me.


English found out that whoever plays the McDonald's clown was not actually allowed to each the food - due, it seems, to its unhealthiness. His figure then was an answer to a question: ‘What would Ronald McDonald look like if he actually ate at McDonalds?' The grossly benevolent figure is what he imagines the outcome to be. In a comically perverse twist of fate, the figure has been packaged in China (it was already a popular 'toy') and reproduced on such a mass-scale, that people there actually believe, or did - that Ronald McDonald was actually obese.


This reappropriation and its entry into popular cultural context is all part of the life-cycle of his work. To adequately infiltrate and critique the advertising industry, his work must in some shape or form, become a part of it. This mass distribution shows just how easily people will accept the information that they are presented with, regardless of how absurd it may seem. It stands to reason that those who were genuinely duped into believing it will likely not be as keen on consuming a Big Mac again in the future.

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A true activist, English wasn't content with advertising billboards, he wanted to take it to the supermarkets. Particularly enthused by the way cereals are branded, “To sell cornflakes to kids, you can’t just show a picture of a factory, so they came up with these endearing cartoon characters with big eyes to represent the corporation - It’s kind of brilliant.” English thought this could be his next territory of war. So, armed with faux-cereal boxes he launched the Cereal Killer series.


Reverse-shoplifting gave him the ability to embed products into their natural environment, tackling problems at the root. His cereals had names like 'Fructose Peddlers' and 'Cocoa Puffed Paunch'. They're very possibly aimed at adults over children, however, it tends to be parents buying these cereals for their kids - again, attacking a problem at its root with the effectiveness of the best advertising.


Ron English is acutely culturally aware. His understanding of societal make-up and group psychology is what has led him to create so many relatable and iconic artistic endeavours. His roots in graffiti are clear. Keeping that flag flying is crucial, as is making art that challenges perceptions outside of the gallery. Re-jigging posters and placing items into supermarkets may have been done many years ago (by Ron English) yet it seems that there is still a lot of potential left for these means of communication.

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