Hackney People: Stik

The Hackney street artist talks about his iconic work, being homeless and his love for the borough he made his home

"I STARTED making art on the streets because, as a homeless person, they were the safest place to keep my work,” says artist Stik, whose images can be seen from Hackney to Jordan, and are even found inside the homes of rock stars Elton John and Brian May.

“For a while, when I was homeless, I used to carry my drawings around in a bag,” he explains. Adding: “Then I got evicted from a squat, lost the bag, and with it went a year’s worth of work. So the streets became the best place to put it.”

The journey from being a ‘homeless, struggling artist’ to a figure so well renowned he can go exclusively by his moniker Stik, and whose book went straight into the Sunday Times best seller list when it was launched last month, has been ‘tough, rough and chaotic’.

Those first paintings, on the walls of Hackney Wick were, he says, 'my way of communicating with the outside world. As a homeless person, it was the only way of making myself visible and understood'.

He drew stick figures – just six lines and two dots for eyes. Now an iconic style, it emerged in those early days simply because: “It was the easiest way of drawing a person fast enough to avoid getting caught,” he laughs. 

They may be simple, but these familiar figures are extraordinarily expressive. Critics have attributed their power to the years Stik spent as a life-drawing model. 

Stik explains: “I spent years earning money as an artists’ model at Central Saint Martins. That’s how I got my education. It taught me a lot about balance and how to give drawings that spark of life.”

It was moving into Mare Street’s St Mungo’s Broadway hostel, however, that Stik marks as ‘the turning point’ in his life.

He says: “One of my favourite pieces of work is one I did on a chimney in Mare Street (above). It’s gone now but it was opposite the hostel. When I moved in I could see it – as if it was watching over me. That’s when things started to improve. 

“At St Mungo’s I got the support I needed and I was able to lend help to other social causes. The work became more political.”

Perhaps the most famous example is ‘Big Mother’, the UK’s tallest piece of street art, painted by Stik last year over the entire height of the Charles Hocking House in an Acton council estate. Depicting a mother holding her child, it is a comment on the lack of social housing in the area. 

His work has also taken him to Japan to tackle recycling and Norway to look at renewable energy. But Stik emphasises: “My pieces are not overtly political – it’s down to your own interpretation.”

These locations might be a long way from Hackney, whose streets and issues he truly understands, but, he says: “Wherever I go, I talk to the residents about the issues that are most important to them. Street art is an open forum for discussion. From a historical perspective, it’s the biggest art movement of all time, influencing and involving the most people.”

When Stik was offered a book deal last year, it took 12 months of hard work to put together all his work. He says: “I looked back over my life. It was difficult because my life has been chaotic, but it was very cathartic.”

When it launched, last month, it met with stellar reviews. Stik was pleased, but had already moved onto his next project: a mural in Homerton hospital (above). He says: “It’s of a sleeping baby and it’s about how vulnerable the NHS is, and how much we need to protect it.”

Hackney remains at the heart of his work. He is giving a first edition copy of the book to every library in the borough he treasures, because, Stik says: “Hackney is my home. It’s the first place where I understood the meaning of the word community.”