Though visual art has been affected by varying technological advancements for decades, we are often still fortunate enough to witness the new, exciting ways that digital technology transforms the modes by which art is made and received.
London-based creator Reuben Dangoor is one such artist: he has, over the course of the last few years, slowly reshaped the ways in which we understand art production. At 27, he has developed both viral videos and viral paintings, the latter of which convey such realism that it’s hard to imagine they were made using a tablet and computer. His “Legends of the Scene” series specifically pays tribute to grime MCs, presenting them as 18th-century nobility. The paintings were so well-received upon their release last October that Dangoor was offered an opportunity to exhibit them at the Tate Modern just two months later, in December.
Beyond his expansive “Legends of the Scene” series, Dangoor also illustrates, directs music videos, and sings—fully exercising his creative freedom to capture ideas at the right moment. The FADER recently spoke with Dangoor about the aesthetics of digital creation, grime, and going viral.
Did you have a creative upbringing?
I was born in East London, in Hackney, which is where I spent most of my childhood before moving to North London. My dad always took a lot of photographs, and he had a darkroom in the house. My mum always did linocut and printmaking. It definitely rubbed off on me. From a young age, they took me to art exhibitions, even if I probably made a bit of a fuss about it back then. [Laughs]
What medium did you become interested in first?
Drawing was always my main thing. I have stacks of drawings in my house from when I was younger. I must have been drawing every day. You know how at school you get labeled? I was known as the guy who drew pictures.
How did you get into painting, design, and directing videos?
With everything I do, it always comes down to having an idea, not just a look. I always run with the medium that best fits the concept. A lot of the stuff I’ve done revolves around music, whether album covers or music videos. It’s just about whichever medium can truly communicate the idea.
How did your “Legends of the Scene” series start?
It started off with the painting of Skepta on a horse. I’ve wanted to do something about grime for a long time; I’ve been around it since I was very young. That was the first piece that kicked it off. After painting Skepta, I realized how rich a series could be. I had a weird suspicion that grime was going to make a bit of a comeback, so it felt like the time to put something out.
So how did the series end up at the Tate?
I sent some of my work to the guys who do the television show, People Just Do Nothing, which is now on BBC Three. I gradually got a good rapport with them and ended up doing promotional artwork for the series when they went from doing it online to the BBC.
The Tate was putting on this "Late at the Tate" event, where they bring in interesting people from all over the country and put on a show at night. The guys from The People Just Do Nothing were asked to host it. Just by chance, the first few "Legends of the Scene" pieces had started to get some attention online, so their manager offered to put them in front of the Tate. The Tate jumped on the idea of showing them. It was just a sequence of happy accidents.
Which painters have you looked up to or tried to emulate in your work?
One of my favorite painters is Hans Holbein. He has an amazing painting in the National Gallery called The Ambassadors. It's so detailed. It's just these two guys with all these objects behind them on tables.
Apart from it being technically amazing, if you were from that time, there are elements of the painting that would speak to you. I wanted to do something similar with the grime MCs and have these small details that might relate to songs they've made. I wanted to make it so that 16 or 18-year-olds in the gallery would understand the details and the messages.
In general, I work from the 18th-century period, when painters depicted people who were in positions of power, or people who normally had a lot of money. They had these portraits painted of themselves and were being celebrated for who they were. I liked the idea of celebrating these grime artists in a way they weren't being celebrated. They've been doing it for so long, so the historical slant really made a lot of sense to me.
What are some examples of the messages in the “Legends of the Scene” paintings?
One of the paintings, "The General of Newham," is of the artist, D Double E. He's wearing a general's outfit, because he's in a group called Newham Generals. If you look at his medals, one has a Street Fighter logo, because he had a single that went down really well in the U.K. called "Street Fighter Riddim." The microphone is in the place where a general would normally have a sword—the mic being like a weapon. In the right hand corner, there's a little building, Newham Town Hall, in reference to where he's from.
“I like the idea that these pieces are digital trying to emulate analog. At first I wondered if people would be angry at the fact that they aren’t oils; then I just realized that I don’t care.”
With the Stormzy piece, if you look in the background, there's another painting in the image, which is Wiley. Stormzy's a lot newer and younger than the other grime MCs, but he often pays tribute to Wiley in some of his songs as the "godfather of grime." The fact that he pays respect to Wiley made me interested. Hopefully the younger fans who see Wiley in the background of the painting now have a gateway into the history of grime. You've got Wiley on the mantlepiece as an ancestral figure, and you've got Stormzy in his Adidas tracksuit. Stormzy also often references his dual heritage of being Ghanaian and British, so the respective flags are hung in the background.
As for Skepta, he often wears the all-white ensemble, so giving him the all-white horse seemed to complete the outfit.
How did you create the paintings with a tablet?
I use a Wacom tablet, so none of them are actually made with real paint. Oil paints are pretty expensive and messy, and I just didn't have room in the flat. I like the idea that these pieces are digital trying to emulate analog. At first I wondered if people would be angry at the fact that they aren't oils; then I just realized that I don't care. I own the fact that they're digital paintings.
A lot of the process follows similar principles. You have to make brushes and do layers. You scan in textures. You work with what you have, in a way. Oil paint is seen as quite an elite form of art. It's luxurious and expensive. Digital is seen as throwaway or low-res—masquerading as the real thing.
How did you start making viral videos? Do you see them as part of your artistic practice?
That was a few years ago now. The "Being a Dickhead's Cool" video went really viral when it came out. It always starts with an idea that resonates with me, but it's nice when the idea also resonates with other people. A similar thing happened with the paintings.
I made the video without expectations; a friend and I wrote and sang it. Then it blew up massively, which was weird. I don't see it as a separate part of what I do; it’s just a different aspect of what I'm able to do. A few opportunities came from it. It was my first introduction into the advertising world. I was suddenly in offices where people were like, “Can you do what you did with that song, but with an online betting company?” [Laughs]
Do you consciously emphasize humor in all of your work?
I don't think it's conscious. Most of what I do is a visual punchline just by accident. It's whatever makes me laugh. I do things that don’t take themselves too seriously. Humor has become a recurring theme, but I don't really know why.
Beyond just depicting music artists, how have you gotten to work with musicians creatively?
Often I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. Working with Stormzy happened because his painting was one of the first in the series. That one got the most attention very quickly. His team reached out to me right after I posted it and asked me if I wanted to be involved in designing his upcoming tour.
For the Diplo video, I had just bought a camera, because I really wanted to make music videos. I was making a no-budget music video with a couple of my friends, the producer Raf Riley and the singer Etta Bond. Raf had been doing things with Diplo's Mad Decent label. When that video came out, Diplo saw the video I did and sent me a message asking if I wanted to do something. I pitched an idea not knowing how I'd actually make it. It took me and another guy a month to do it, just sitting in a room on a computer. Ellie Goulding is actually in the video; she's one of the girls in it. She was one of the first people that showed up.
The beauty of all this internet/social media malarky is that you can do something, put it out, and if it's a good idea that resonates, people get ahold of it. That's how I've been able to do what I do.
Do you think you have a sense for what will go viral?
I think it's just because I'm of the generation that knows. The internet's been apart of everything we’ve been exposed to. It's not something we’ve learned; we just have some sort of understanding. If I think something works or makes me laugh, then so far, when I've put those things out, they've had the best response back. I'm just trusting my gut, knowing I'm happy with something, and putting it out. Whether it's a viral video about the gentrification of East London or something about grime MCs being seen as nobility—those things are catalysts that kick off an idea quickly in my head.
So what's next for you?
There's another painting coming soon. It's the first time I've worked with some people in the scene directly. I worked with DJ Logan Sama and Trapstar. I'm really excited for people to see it. It should be out soon. I put up some new experiments on my Instagram that I'm quite happy with, which will potentially become a new still-life series. There will be a lot of bits and pieces coming on my website soon. I don't want to give it all away just yet!