When you walk through Brighton’s streets, it’s impossible not to come across some of his artwork. For almost ten years, Martin Middleton has been spray-painting on Brighton’s phone junction boxes, turning them into colourful cassettes. They have become the trademark of the inspiring street artist, who is commonly known as Cassette Lord.
When the weather is good, Martin tries to go out at least once a week, taking with him; his stencil and different spray paints, to redo some of his artworks or create new ones. He reckons that there are currently 20 or 30 cassette artworks all over Brighton and Hove. How he got into turning junction boxes into cassettes was accidental.
When painting a mural with one of the youth projects he used to run, he saw that there were two junction boxes sitting right in front of it. Wanting to make them match with the wall, he asked the council for permission to paint them as well and promptly got offered to do all the phone boxes in the city, an offer he accepted straight away.
Already having several cassette-related artworks back home, the street artist realised that they would perfectly lend themselves to being transformed into cassettes as well. Once the first cassettes appeared all over the city, it didn’t take long for people to recognise his artwork, especially after he had started to sign them with Cassette Lord, a name he had come across in a totally different context but matched perfectly with his new project.
“A few years ago, prior to all that, we had a really big house party at my place and the theme of the party was ‘fake super hero’. I made a whole costume out of cassettes strung together, shirt, trousers, crown,… and I thought I was ‘cassette man’ or something like that. At around 2 in the morning, my friend came up to me and asked ‘So, you’re Lord of Cassettes then?’ and I just said ‘yes’ as a joke. Then, years later, when I started spraying the cassettes, the name came back to my mind”, Martin remembers how the two separate strings, the new-born art project and the name he had acquired years ago came together.
Although the name and the project were simple accidents so to say, there is no denying that the cassette as a retro object has got a strong symbolic meaning for the similarly named artist:
“It symbolizes art, music, memory, and intimacy. I kind of use and repeat it as an object because as everything is digital now, people seem to be craving the physicality of things like cassettes. That’s what inspires me about it. It’s a really cool object. The idea of repeating a shape over and over again, much in the way Andy Warhol did, really appeals to me. For me, that’s the way to make an impact on people. Advertising uses lots of repetition and I think sometimes art has to use the same weapons, so to say. You just have to repeat it and then alter it slightly. That’s how you get people interested”, the 43-year-old street artist explains.
Strong colours, hard outlines, and a strong touch of retro, that’s what characterises his style. The street artist says being influenced by big Pop Art names such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Claes Oldenburg, manga and, of course, graffiti. Although he claims that his artworks are mainly just about colour and shape and keeping the cassette as sort of a branding tool, there is a message attached to his artworks:
“I like the idea of combining man-made objects with nature which is a really strong contrast. I think we live in a very organised and mechanised state at the moment and crave the spiritualism of the countryside. Combining machinery with animals is a nice idea for people. For instance, I take a stag and put a cassette in his body so that it turns into a haunted spirit.”
Having said that, the artist has a very strong stance when it comes to what art should be like and what it should do for people. “I think art should be out there. It shouldn’t be shut up in a gallery. It should be in the landscape and touchable and tactile for everyone. When it’s part of people’s landscape, mentally and physically, that’s when art comes to life”, Martin describes his understanding of art.
Being radically opposed to elitism and art being exhibited in a closed gallery might seem totally normal for a an artists who does a lot of work out in the streets but the man behind the Cassette Lord-signed spray-paintings is far from being a normal street artist who started his career writing graffitis at night during his teenage years.
Having been into art and drawing ever since he was a little boy, Martin passed a university degree in Fine Art before starting off his own business writing and designing signs for pubs. It wasn’t after he had started teaching art and got involved in a project called Artscape where he worked with young offenders that he discovered spray-painting.
Taking them out to the streets to paint murals as part of their rehabilitation programme, the artist and mentor quickly found out that his protégés wanted to see quick results. Looking for a faster way to do the murals, he came up with the idea of using spray paint and stencil. The results were instant and the first cassettes followed not long after.
Working with these young people was a great experience for the street artist: “It’s brilliant. You get such a variety of young people and some of them are simply amazing. If you can engage them and get them creative, then sometimes art becomes the vehicle and they start to talk to you about things. We did some great murals around Brighton and they got a real sense of achievement out of it. All it takes is to get them out of their normal routine to allow them to look around and start making improvements in their lives. Art is invaluable for that.”
Martin still dedicates one day per week to working with the Brighton Youth Centre. The rest of the time, he spends working on commissions and his personal projects, either in his studio or out in the streets spray-painting some more phone boxes. The street artist has even started to enlarge his repertoire of musical objects that decorate Brighton’s streets. Under his experienced hand, the boxes turn into ghetto blasters and mixing desks but the most popular ones remain his trademark cassettes.
The street artist even has a proper Facebook fan page, although he isn’t quite sure about how he actually deserves this honour. “I don’t know how I ended up with the Facebook fan page. I guess, when you are doing things on the street, it just becomes recognised. People have a collecting mentality, so they like to collect street art they identify with and they share it”, is the only possible explanation he can come up with.
Despite the one or two incidents where the street artist had to face people criticising his works along the lines of vandalism, his phone box artworks are largely approved by the general public. “By large, it’s really positive but you get the one or other who doesn’t like it. Once, I was painting a box in Hove and this guy came up to me pointing at my artwork, saying ‘I really hate these. Hove isn’t about street art and graffiti. Hove is about hanging baskets and plants and old ladies with their dogs’. I think he expected me to get angry and to argue with him but I just said ‘No that’s cool, you don’t have to like it’. In the end, he even stayed there for a little chat”, Martin recalls one particular incident.
Other than the odd by-passer who criticises his work, there are other graffiti artists who write over some of his pieces, trying to start an argument. But the experienced spray-painter keeps his cool and even sees the positive side of it.
“Sometimes, other artists will enhance your artwork. They put something over the top and it will just look really good. The best thing that can happen to you as an artist is to have some sort of weird collaboration. Once, someone came along and put two faces over the spools of one of my cassettes and it just looked great”, he says with a little laugh. He knows that when you put your art out in the street, you have to expect a reaction.
While these are rather “forced” ways of creating art together, Cassette Lord is always on the watch for new talents and like-minded artists he can ask to collaborate with. For his project “Mixed Tapes”, the artist prepared white cassettes that only had the black outlines on them before giving them to other artists to fill them with their artworks. The idea behind it was to visualise the way people would put their songs together on so-called mixed tapes back in the days.
Other than putting his cassette spray paintings directly out in the street, Martin showcases his artworks in several Brighton venues such as Studio 45 at The Open Market where people can always find the one or other artwork signed Cassette Lord. At the moment, he has also got work at Cafe Plenty and the Station Bar and is looking forward to sending some spray paintings and neon pieces to a little retro cafe/art gallery in France.
To check out his cool artwork, visit one of the Brighton venues mentioned above or just take a walk in Brighton’s streets. You will sure come across one of his cassettes! For more information on the artist, visit his Facebook page.