Artist, speaker and twat. It's not exactly how we'd describe Mr Bingo, but it's how he introduces himself on his website, immediately giving you a glimpse of his humour.
Prior to making money from selling art, Mr Bingo was a commercial illustrator for 15 years, working for clients such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, TIME, CH4, The Mighty Boosh and The New York Times.
An archive of the thousands of illustrations from this period apparently doesn’t exist online because he "got bored once in a motorhome and deleted his entire portfolio website". You can see a small selection of work from this period here.
In 2015 he launched a Kickstarter to fund a book about his Hate Mail project. The campaign featured a rap video and a diverse selection of rewards including being trolled, having your washing up done, going on a date in Wetherspoons, being told to fuck off on Christmas Day and getting shitfaced on a train.
It was around this time that he decided to never work for clients ever again and focus on being an artist which he’s done ever since. With a fresh Advent Calendar for 2018, we chatted to Mr Bingo about this and more.
You’ve had quite the career so far. How do you describe what you do to your friends and family?
To be honest I genuinely don’t ever feel like I’ve done anything (and I promise I’m not trying to be humble). I even get flown around the world and asked to speak on stage about what I do, or what I’ve done and I’ll never fully understand why, but I say yes because it’s a very fun way to live.
My real friends aren’t that interested in what I do, which is what makes them proper mates. They do follow me on social media, so they kind of know what I’m up to all the time. They also think I’m a self-obsessed ego-maniac, so they’ll do everything they can to not allow me to be the centre of attention.
My family are old fashioned and British, which means success isn’t something that’s celebrated, so they also don’t show too much interest. My Mum and Dad sort of get what I do, they actually came to a talk I did at Hay Festival (because they’d heard of Hay and wondered why the fuck they’d invited me) so they actually sat and listened to me going on about what I do for 55 minutes and they couldn’t interrupt me! They live in a small Brexity village and when they try to explain what I do to their friends, there’s a lot of confusion.
Does creativity (and humour) run in the family?
My Dad is an estate agent and my Mum is a speech therapist, so I can’t say I grew up in a particularly ‘creative’ household.
The only creative person in my family is my Auntie Penny who has never had a job and has worked her whole life as a specialist silkscreen printer, printing on fabric for theatre, TV and film. So she’s been a big influence on me. Everyone else in my family has the basic 'box ticked life' of working 9-5, having wives, husbands, kids, a car, a house, a garden, DIY, watching TV, cooking, taking trips to Homebase... you know, all the normal stuff that fills up your entire life.
After the famous Hate Project, you decided to ditch clients altogether and focus on personal stuff instead, living the dream. How's that turning out for you?
I’m not sure what ‘living the dream’ is, but not working for clients is definitely the best (career) decision I’ve ever made. I don’t miss clients, briefs, deadlines, meetings, phone calls, compromising, drawing other peoples ideas and watching good stuff get watered down. Now I live a life of freedom which has taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get to, but I think it’s been worth it.
Before, when you were working for other people as an illustrator, were there any nightmare clients?
To be honest, most people I worked for were genuinely lovely and I don’t really have anything negative to say about them; they gave me opportunities and they gave me a good career as an illustrator which is what eventually led to what I do now.
I guess one of the problems of working for clients is when they don’t give artists enough freedom. The artist generally knows what they’re doing and they’re good at that thing. The client comes to them because they can’t do that thing, so when they try to interfere too much, that’s when it goes wrong. It’s the same with music as well.
One thing I really don’t miss is waiting to get paid. Some of the big corporations like Condé Naste had contracts which said they’d pay you three months after the publication came out. Fuck that. Now I make a living out of selling art and I get paid when someone buys something.
Equally, if someone works for me, I have a policy to pay within 24 hours of receiving the invoice – it really is that simple. Freelance illustrators get treated like shit when it comes to getting paid. I’m out of that game now.
We all get asked to work for free. How would you respond if someone asked?
It’s a tricky subject this because almost everyone (including me) works for free at the beginning of their career. This doesn’t happen in most industries I don’t think, but it’s an accepted norm in the ‘creative’ industries. So I guess it’s important to know when is the right time to stop.
It’s also about judging how much the company is taking the piss or not, which is a very grey area of course. It’s difficult when you start out to strike the balance between going out there, saying yes to everything and being the most enthusiastic person in the world versus immediately valuing yourself and putting a price on everything which can give you a slightly false arrogance and an ego at a young age which will put people off working with you.
The reason it's a big challenge for creative people to overcome is because when you first start out, you’re so excited that you’re suddenly doing this hobby, this thing you love, as a sort of job, that you almost can’t believe you should be getting paid for it as well as it seems too good to be true. It doesn’t feel like ‘work’ because it’s the thing you already loved doing in your spare time anyway, so you’re a lot more likely to accept not being paid for it.
Is there a client that you’d find hard to turn down? (Or can all 'clients' fuck off now?)
Everyone can fuck off apart from charities which I dedicate a proportion of my time to. The only thing I’d ever consider is a collaboration with someone I really admire, like Tyler The Creator or someone.
You're clearly not afraid to take risks. Do you still change things if they're not working? Or is older age calming you down?
I actually don’t think I take risks really. At the end of the day, I’m an educated, white man, born in the right place at the right time, so if I take a ‘risk’, it’s not really a very big risk in comparison to a lot of people.
Also, most people don’t realise that life doesn’t have to be as it is, it’s just that most people just accept it, because it makes people feel safe to conform. All I’m doing is rejecting the notion that life should be a certain way and I’m making up a different life, which still involves a lot of the normal things like exchanging money for food and a roof over my head, I’m just going about getting that money in a more unusual way.
I’d say getting older has had the opposite effect of calming down. The older I get, the less I care, the less self-conscious I am and so the more outrageous I can be.
You’ve recently launched your 2018 Advent Calendar. Can you tell us a bit more about that and the making of it?
It’s an Advent Calendar with 25 naked people in, wearing gold clothes which are printed over the top in scratch-off ink, like the same ink you get on lottery scratch cards. The people are numbered 1 to 25 and each day in December you find the number and then scratch the person's clothes off. I use real people as a reference for the drawings and just over 400 people applied for the 25 positions.
Once chosen, I then hired a pub for three days and co-ordinated each person to come in for a half hour shoot. So this year's Advent Calendar is set in a typical British pub scene, with people drinking, kissing, dancing, playing pool, arguing, playing scrabble and fighting.
A really nice extra thing about this year's Calendar is that a filmmaker called Lee Holmes made a short documentary about the project and the people who are involved in it and the reasons why they wanted to be in it. I didn’t commission the film, it’s just something Lee wanted to make, which is great because there’s no agenda or influence from me, it’s just an impartial view of the project.
We loved your talk at Craft in Manchester. You mentioned the typical profile of lottery winners. If you were to win £10m (not that you match that profile), what would you do with the money?
That’s a really tough one. So many people see money as a curse and I’d honestly be really tempted to give the whole lot away and carry on exactly as I am. But I’d also be tempted to buy a house and create a pension which are things that I don’t (and may never) have. Or just invest it all in outrageously stupid and giant ‘art projects’. This is all very hypothetical though, as I don’t gamble.
You’ve given talks up and down the UK and all around the world. Does your work get different reactions from audiences depending on the place?
I was always worried that my sense of humour and ideas might not go down so well in certain countries but it appears to have a real mass appeal which is surprisingly lovely.
It’s a super cliche thing to say, but speaking and telling jokes all over the world makes you realise that a lot of humour transcends all cultural boundaries and deep down, we’re all pretty similar.
There is a bit at the end of my rap video that goes, "it’s gonna be bigger than the mother-fucking bible", which really shocked a South African audience because they’re super religious, but they can’t have been too offended because they took me out clubbing in Johannesburg after the talk. I guess my humour is very ‘British’ so it does probably get the biggest laughs in the UK.
Humour is central to what you do. But who makes you laugh?
Monty Python, Brass Eye, The Day Today, Alan Partridge, Bottom, The Office.
You seem to be quite a natural at public speaking. What tips would you give to the rest of us?
I guess, like anything, if you want to try and become good at something, do it a lot. I became better at public speaking by literally putting the hours in and learning what works and what doesn’t on stage. I’ve also seen a lot of talks at conferences over the years and I see what I think is dull or boring or unnecessary and I try to avoid those things as a speaker.
A good tip is to be yourself. Don’t try to be funny if you’re not funny, don’t try to be too earnest if you’re not talking about something that doesn’t deserve that level of earnest. Be honest and talk about what you know.
We can't imagine it, but has there been anything that’s held you back?
Probably. There's loads of other stuff I’d like to do like music, filmmaking, documentary making, putting on an event… but my self-confidence isn’t big enough in these areas so I stick to what I know, which is turning my ideas into art stuff.
Is there anything about the creative industries that you’d change?
No, because I’m not in the creative industries really, I kind of operate on my own outside of them. So, selfishly, they can carry on as they are… it's none of my business!
Can you share any advice for those keen to move away from clients and make a success of things?
Work harder than everyone else, be possibly prepared to sacrifice personal life to make it work, and only do it if it suits you and you really enjoy the thing that you do, as you’ll probably have to work harder than people who have regular jobs.
What’s next for you?
I have absolutely no idea and that’s just the way I like it. The only known is that I’ll need to die at some point.