Have you ever seen a piece of artwork, fallen in love with it and just known you had to own it? It’s only happened to me on a couple of occasions and one of those was during an episode of the BBC’s Junior Apprentice of all places. June 2010 saw a selection of artist Tom Lewis’ work chosen by the plucky young entrepreneurial contestants. Both teams chose Tom, but Zoe Plummer and team Revolution won Tom over with their enthusiasm for his work. Like me, Tom was watching the episode at home, except he was “shit-faced” and surrounded by friends; it was a turning point in his career to date. “I thought it might be very cool,” he says. “But it was actually ridiculous, which was very, very cool!”
With a year between filming and Tom’s episode of The Apprentice airing he had plenty of time to prepare, but the public reaction was beyond his wildest dreams.
“I was playing it down in my head and trying not to get excited. The battle has always been getting [my work] in front of enough people, whenever I have done it’s gone well.”
What followed was a “crazy” time which saw him driving a transit van full of prints to his local post office and his phone ringing non-stop for three weeks.
“I think I started speaking faster because I was so stressed and excited.” he says. “I must have sounded like I was having a bit of a breakdown, but a good one.”
I wonder whether that kind of exposure has brought any negative aspects. While Tom is cautious to say no, “incase something really shit happens”, it seems it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“You get approached by people wanting to cash in,” he says. “You get people saying that they can help you make money or they want to manage you to get a slice of whatever you’re doing. It’s very difficult to know how to tell which of those people are decent people. I’ve nearly done a couple of things with people that I’ve later found out some rather bad things about.”
On the positive side many people find inspiration in his art. His facebook profile features pictures of ‘fans’ with his characters tattooed on torsos, arms and shins.
“People keep sending me pictures of themselves in various states of undress with massive tattoos,” he says. “These people are not fucking around. A guy got his side tattooed with that big winged guy; that’s huge and he’s only twenty-one or something. It makes me worried that if I ever decided to sell out and start selling stuff in Tesco they’d all be just fucked. It feels like I now have a certain responsibility to keep going, which is good.”
Tom’s own inspiration comes from “a mixture of weird places”. An early obsession with ninjas and manga, coupled with admiration for films such as Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ all come together to portray an authentic sense of the orient in the Legend Series pieces.
In particular the text used in neon signs which features in various pieces including The Legend of Akaika Swamp. Born out of Tom’s experimentation at college with graffiti tags and automatic writing, the signs aren’t supposed to mean anything.
“I used to share a studio with a Japanese guy called Harry,” he says. “I used to check with him that I hadn’t offended anyone. The last one I said ‘if you had to guess at what that said?’ and he said ‘it looks like you’ve just set the word ‘Rodney’, which made me laugh for ages.”
"I really want to make some big life size geisha figures with trees coming out of them and real neon signs hanging off them."
Using a mixture of Japanese and Korean ensures the text should be illegible yet familiar.
“I think it’s a common phenomenon when you’re dreaming,” he says. “You try and read text but you can’t read the words. That part of your brain is asleep. Someone told me that once. But, I like that thought that you know you should be able to read it, but you can’t because it’s not quite real.”
As well as the Eastern influences some of the pieces look like a snapshot in time from that particular characters life, which is exactly what Tom is expressing in his pieces. “They all come from stories,” he says. “When I first started they all just had maybe a couple of seconds either side of what was happening in the picture. As it goes on I feel like there’s more story in the pictures. Ultimately I would like to make a film, but I don’t have any clue how that would happen.”
While many people may have been tempted to rush out more pieces or cash in on their fifteen minutes, Tom has waited until now to issue two poster pieces. At £15 they offer new admirers an entry point into collecting his work. With his prints starting at around £125 and and an original fetching £12,500, Tom wanted something “people could just buy without thinking about.” Initially concerned people may just buy the posters and stop buying the prints, he needn’t have worried, as he says the response has been “weirdly amazing”. It’s a testament to how popular his work is amongst followers that emails are flooding in thanking him for releasing the posters.
“It’s really strange because they’re still giving me money,” he says. “They shouldn’t thank me I should be thanking them!”
Keen to do a big solo show next year with sculptures, installation pieces and paintings, at one point he describes a piece he hopes to make. “I really want to make some big life size geisha figures with trees coming out of them and real neon signs hanging off them.” Tom’s not sure “who on earth would buy one?”. But, even as he’s saying it I’m wondering whether I could fit one in my flat.
This modesty comes across throughout the interview. Whether Tom is talking about the surreal Apprentice experience or the continuing support from fans, you get a sense of genuine bewilderment that his pieces mean so much to people.
“It’s still baffling to me that as many people seem to care as they do.” he says. “I spend all day on my own, normally in the studio, hiding away just doing stuff. It’s quite weird that there’s people out there paying any attention. It seems strange.”
A1 posters and limited edition prints are available from www.tomlewis.co.uk