‘Weirdness, art, and stuff’ - Foka Wolf and Tat Vision do Christmas
The Birmingham artists talk fame, loss, friendship, and their festive variety show
Good morning readers — welcome to Tuesday’s Dispatch.
Our main story catches up with two Birmingham artists who are known for their sense of humour. Foka Wolf’s guerilla art on street walls and bus stops; shop windows and billboards, has brought him national press attention (although he maintains his anonymity with his trademark fluorescent balaclavas). Will Douglas is known for his surreal YouTube show Tat Vision, but perhaps more so for this infamous piece which got people talking last year. They want less chin-stroking and more fun and laughter to be had in Birmingham’s art world — and they are throwing a Christmas variety show this Thursday to show you what they mean.
Before that, our Brum in Brief leads on the news that equal pay issues are far from over at the council; the grand reopening of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG); and we also recommend some showstopping, live entertainment for tonight.
Brum in Brief
🗳️ GMB the union has opened a ballot for strike action with its members at Birmingham City Council over delays in settling equal pay claims. The BBC reports: “The union, which said it was the council's largest staff union, stated the ballot would begin on Tuesday and run until mid-January, with more than 3,000 workers asked to have their say.”
🎨 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is dusting off its world-famous Pre-Raphelite collection for its first showing in five years. The works will be shown as part of the Victorian Radicals exhibition in the Gas Hall which is currently closed to the public. Victoria Osborne, Curator of Fine Art at Birmingham Museums Trust and one of the exhibition’s co-curators, said: “This exhibition highlights one of the great strengths of Birmingham’s collection and also highlights its importance as a centre for the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century.”
🚆 From Sunday, it will be easier to get a train from Birmingham to Nottingham as an extra service-per-hour is being added on the CrossCountry line. The BBC reports: John Robson, from CrossCountry, said the new timetable will mean "better train performance for passengers".
🎷 The Spotted Dog’s Tuesday jazz night gets a festive makeover tonight with the Christmas Jazz Big Band. Get there early because “this one is always absolutely rammed out the door” according to the pub’s Facebook page.
💃 Burlesque shows aren’t so common in Birmingham but this one at the Symphony Hall sounds pretty spectacular: “Expect fun, feathers and fabulous costumes as we pick from the finest selection of specialty artistes, cabaret and circus stars, comedians and champagne showgirls!” 7.30 pm tonight. Tickets £32.50.
‘Weirdness, art, and stuff’ — Foka Wolf and Tat Vision do Christmas
Birmingham’s oddest artists talk fame, loss, and friendship ahead of their festive variety show.
By Kate Knowles
Birmingham artist Foka Wolf thinks that the city could do with a bit more humour. “Some of the art and music scenes in Birmingham can be a little chin-strokey, a little gatekeepery, you know?” he says. His friend Will Douglas, a fellow artist who makes the silly and surreal YouTube show Tat Vision, agrees. The two artists are looking for something more playful. My reading? Less Centrala and Ikon gallery, more a group of mates making art at the pub.
“We’re talking about Popworld on Broad Street, of course,” Douglas deadpans. We laugh at the idea of po-faced party-goers trying to dissect the meaning of Steps’ ‘Tragedy’ on the dancefloor over a bottle of Irn Bru WKD. Foka, somewhat more sincerely, clarifies that he himself is part of some crowds which can be a bit too serious for his liking.
In an effort to bring a little lightness and festival spirit to the Birmingham winter, Tat Vision and Foka Wolf are holding a Christmas variety show at Nortons in Digbeth. On Thursday 14 December, they’ll bring together artists, comedians, and musicians from across Birmingham for, as Douglas puts it: “weirdness, art, and stuff”. “We just wanted to do something that is trying to cross pollinate different scenes and get people to listen to music they wouldn’t necessarily always listen to,” Foka says. Sensing he has erred into ‘highbrow’ territory, he jokes: “Yeah, we’re gonna lock the doors and make people listen to metal music!”
Longtime collaborators, the pair were a few years apart at the same school over a decade ago. Foka, who makes satirical streetside murals, was a little older, and knew of Will because he “used to make these weird films”. They bonded at a house party over a mutual hatred of someone (who remains nameless, but whose recollection sets them off cackling). They are chatting to me in the studio they share, a gloriously dated premises near Hurst Street. It’s a squat, brick building flanked on either side by two tall and shiny new towers of flats. Walking its corridors feels a little bit like I’m in a pastel-coloured and less horrifying version of The Overlook Hotel. There’s some anxiety about being the last old school spot standing, Foka tells me. He says the inhabitants are very conscious of the developments happening around them, and there is speculation this building will get sucked into the jamboree.
Foka Wolf hides his identity behind a day-glo balaclava, but has steadily built up a name for himself in the art scene. Even if you aren’t familiar with his name, you may have encountered at least one of Foka Wolf’s works. I walked past giant black-and-white prints of Ainsley Harriott’s head pasted in multiples on a wall in Bearwood for months before I knew it was by him. His work uses billboards, brick walls, and bus stops as canvases. He has worked with the Brandalism arts collective to target global corporations like Kellog’s and Toyota, demanding higher wages and calling out use of fossil fuels. He plastered images of inmates exercising in orange jumpsuits over large displays by property developers showing off private “state of the art gymnasium and fitness studios” for luxury flat dwellers.
In Tat Vision, Douglas finds tat in charity shops which inspire funny, abstract short films, often with an undercurrent of horror reminiscent of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. In one episode, a pair of clogs entraps Douglas in a frenzied dance from which he can’t escape. In another, a sock puppet-making kit inspires a psychological meltdown. (Not all episodes are footwear related.)
Douglas’s most famous collaborator is probably Joe Lycett, nowadays a fixture of primetime telly. Douglas himself had a little taste of national recognition last year when one of his sculptures, inspired by a viral meme, made the headlines. Four Lads in Jeans was a tongue-in-cheek homage to an internet famous photo of four young men standing outside All Bar One in very tight trousers. Some people loved Douglas’s sculpture, others didn’t get it, and a few outright hated it. Douglas said at the time he relished overhearing people remark on the work in public without knowing he was responsible. “Negative comments are just good kindling for the fire. It helps spread it to the people who do understand,” he told the Guardian.
The attention hasn’t changed Douglas. “It was just a few months, really, and then I just kind of got back into it. There was a lot of pressure to do something else. And then I was just like, no, it's fine. I’ll just have fun again.” When his sculpture went viral, he had only recently made the jump from years of office work to being a full-time freelance artist. The attention was “a nice little pat on the back” as if to say, “off you go, you’re OK,” he says.
Last year, an old friend and Tat Vision crew member died, quite suddenly, from a heart-related illness. Kyle Bentley was an “energetic, larger than life” lightsaber enthusiast, and old friend of the pair, Douglas tells me. Bentley’s initial Tat Vision character was a porcelain-covered entity called Bric a Brac, but before long he transformed into Electronic, a glowing creation covered in neon lights. Hanging in the studio ‘office’ (a small room with a leopard print chaise longue and a couple of beaten-up old office chairs) is a photograph of a smiling, bearded Bentley with a young girl grinning widely. “That’s my daughter,” Foka says quietly. Next to it is a painting Douglas made of Bentley before he moulded a bronze papier mache bust of him.
This year’s Christmas variety show is being held in honour of their late friend. The irreverently titled Piss Mass Variety Show also features the comedian Barbara Nice and drag act Cake Boi, as well as punk band The Big Hell, synth musician Blue Ruth, and artist hellocatfood, on its bill. There will be a tombola; volunteers are raising money for the British Heart Foundation. A “super secret special unannounced guest” is also planned, whose identity is being kept under wraps. And, of course, a Tat Vision pantomime show will take centre stage.
“I think Birmingham's always had a problem of people not communicating properly. So we're just sort of trying to create a little bit more of a bigger network,” Foka explains. This is something The Dispatch has highlighted previously: Birmingham is large and can feel segregated; its cultural identity is a bit indistinct. Foka agrees. “There’re a lot of people here, and what we find is — especially with Will’s live shows and that — people are here, and they are willing to participate, but it needs banding together,” he says. “That's why we thought it'd be better just to sort of clump a few scenes together in the same night, and just see what happened.”