Steph Warren: Surviving Banksy
Born and bred Hastonian, Steph Warren is one of the United Kingdom’s leading authorities on the graffiti and street art movement, having worked with both Banksy and Ben Eine back in the noughties as a young woman at the forefront of a very male-orientated and secretive world. Owner of Stella Dore Art Gallery (previously based in East London, now in St Leonards). I caught up with the gallerist, curator, art and mural facilitator — the woman on whom Banksy based his ‘Sweep It Under The Carpet’ mural.
Photography by Toby Shaw
We meet on a rainy summer’s day at Porters in the Old Town. Steph turns up with her sidekick, Eddie, a 12-year-old Jack Russell. Notoriously grumpy (Eddie, not Steph) I can hear Steph’s dulcet tones way before I can see her, reprimanding Eddie for barking and being a grouch. On a rare day off from her St Leonards-based art gallery, Stella Dore, we laugh and chat about how her infamous dulcet tones have recently featured on the critically acclaimed BBC Radio 4 podcast; ‘The Banksy Story’.
“It’s been a mad couple of weeks since it was released” explains Steph, “I’m still getting my head around it all to be honest, but I’m pleased I’ve done it. It’s been cathartic, that’s for sure…and saved me a fortune on therapy!” she laughs. For those of you who haven’t listened to the podcast (you can listen above), it tells Steph’s story of her time as a former member of Banksy’s secret printing press, ‘Pictures on Walls’. For three years, Steph worked directly with the elusive and anonymous artist who is now one of the biggest names in the contemporary art world. She did this all before his rise into the stratosphere.
Steph’s story of that time isn’t all hunky dory though (you may need a tissue listening to the podcast) but 20 years later, with life a lot rosier, swapping London for life back home in Hastings, I asked Steph why she’s only just told her story publicly now.
“To be honest, James the podcast producer tracked me down via old limited company records, and then he wore me down for a year until I said yes to an interview. He was very persistent, he actually came into my gallery at first pretending to be a customer”, she laughs.
“The timing felt right, I’d processed a lot of what had happened to a point, and being part of that movement, including some incredible, mad and historic Banksy shows that I worked on. It was good to get stuff off my chest to be honest. Banksy was my boss and friend, I even used to house sit for him and his family – but his identity I would never disclose (drat for us!) my story is mine, it should have been called the Steph Warren story with some Banksy facts”, she laughs. To be fair, we have to agree, that she certainly was the star of the podcast.
“It’s been cathartic that’s for sure and it’s saved me a fortune on therapy!”
“Banksy and I aren’t in contact anymore, but he’s a clever man, I learned a lot, and I think that him funding the migrant rescue boat was incredible, huge respect for that. My father treasures a book Banksy signed for my parents where he wrote thank you for your daughter”.
From Banksy, to opening her first Stella Dore Art Gallery in East London, Steph then went on to work with another infamous graffiti and street art star, Ben Eine. Creating many huge murals worldwide especially in the U.S. such as ‘More Light More Power’ in Winwood, Miami, along with ‘Scary’ in Rivington Street, London. “They were mad, and also bad times,” she reflects, “but I do really enjoy painting and commissioning murals big and small”. Closer to home, Steph is a huge champion of local street artists, having recently worked on a large mural with Abraham.O who she cites as her current favourite artist, and Stan Cush at Hastings Pocket Park. “I didn’t get to paint as much as I’d liked on this mural, but it was such a great experience, the artists wanted to be there, they were enthusiastic and they really are both amazing, true talents. Apart from stability and sanity when choosing artists to work with now (slight chuckle) I look for magic, because that’s what art is isn’t it? It’s alchemy… turning nothing into gold!”
Steph is a big fan of graffiti, especially the writer 10 Foot. “I also like spontaneous protest graffiti which is humorous and funny,” she says. But what actually is the difference between, tagging, graffiti and street art?
“Tagging is graffiti, and graffiti and street art are almost polar opposites but from the same discipline. Different ends of the same beast. I suppose one is quite positive and the other is destructive. There are a lot more rules in graffiti, self-imposed rules by graffiti writers: what you can go over and what you can’t. It’s less mainstream than street art and it’s about letters and words. It’s more about dominance for the writers, whereas street art is for everyone, it is more community. You can paint any subject, whereas graffiti is more anti-community and it’s all about the writer. I think graffiti is an inevitable outcome of capitalism and advertising which makes people feel powerless. It’s a concept I definitely learned from Banksy: how advertising undermines you to sell you things. It can make you feel bad on your way to work, just to sell you a toothpaste!”
I can’t help thinking how very true that is, and I think of St Leonards’ very own Banksy mural on the seafront depicting the toddler building Tesco sandcastles.
As our lunch comes to an end and Eddie is now agitated, yearning for a walk, our chat turns back to her gallery: Stella Dore on Norman Road, celebrates its 5th birthday this year. “A riot of colour, and a true art solace which is so much more than its aesthetics if you look underneath,” she says. But what plans does Steph have for the future? “More murals hopefully! More new artists to champion, work with and curate. More shows, and also the development of a book and podcast idea that I have.” When asked how she wants her job title to be listed on this interview as we wrap things up, she laughs, and says “Art Survivor.” I can’t help laughing too, she’s actually a true champion and so much more. We can’t help thinking, who needs Ken/Banksy anyway?