Mr Bingo is very good at being mean to people. He tells people they will never amount to anything, that they are shit with boats, that they fit right in the center of a Venn diagram with Hitler on one side and Ronald McDonald on the other. In fact, when he compiled all those jokes — in the form of humorous, caustic illustrations on the backs of postcards — into a project called Hate Mail, it took his career to the next level.
A long-time freelance illustrator who grew up in Kent and now lives in London, Mr Bingo was paying his bills via client work for the likes of The New Yorker, The Guardian, Time and The New York Times a decade ago. Hate Mail began on a drunken whim in 2011, when he posted on Twitter that he’d send the first respondent a postcard with an offensive message on it. More than 50 people replied in the first minute.
The winner was a man named Jonathan. The note he received read, “Dear Jonathan, Fuck you and fuck your shit legs,” accompanied by a sketch of a pair of rather ugly legs. From there the Hate Mail service was born, in which Mr Bingo would periodically allow people to pay him money in exchange for his vitriol. He’s sent more than a thousand in his career, the best of which he collected in a fine art book after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015.
After the success of the campaign, Mr Bingo gave up his contract work to focus solely on selling art to fans via the internet. Now he lives out his days drawing and creating whatever strikes his fancy, from “cock plants” to a four-panel print of a ponderous dog that Mr Bingo will fill in with the text of choice from the purchaser, a kind of high-art meme. (A particular favorite of mine is this cheeky observation of life in the year that is 2020.)
As anyone who spends a few minutes engaging with his work can tell, Mr Bingo is not a conventional artist. But he’s also not one of those overtly unconventional artists hiding behind a thin veil of irony and eccentricity. No, Mr Bingo more or less feels like someone who just wants to draw things and make people laugh while earning enough money to live comfortably. He’s a guy with whom you’d like to have a beer, a quality not often ascribed to people who make art for a living.
Over a series of email correspondences, InsideHook spoke with Mr Bingo about a range of topics, from his creative process to social media’s role in the contemporary art market to his wildly popular Advent Calendars, which are sadly on hiatus this year.
InsideHook: When did you start considering yourself an artist? Was there any sort of catalyzing moment for that to happen?
Mr Bingo: There was actually an exact moment. It was August 2015. I’d just completed funding for my Kickstarter campaign. Almost 4,000 strangers had just pledged £135,000 to me within 28 days, in return for ridiculous conceptual “art” rewards. I decided that this was the point in my life that maybe I’d crossed over from Illustrator to Artist and I deleted my website, made a personal vow to never work for clients/companies ever again and started my online shop, which I have lived off ever since.
At first it was hard to accept that I might be an artist. It was a big scary word that I felt was reserved for people who’d been classically trained in fine art, were serious, had large messy studios with paint everywhere, listened to classical music and exhibited their work in serious gallery shows for serious art collector people. Now I have a very different view. Anyone can be a self-titled artist, it’s basically just someone who makes stuff.
What place do you think humor has in the art world? Do you think you can make funny things (a la your art) and be taken seriously in the art world? Does that even matter?
I personally believe there is a place for humor in the art world. At the same time, I have no interest in the art world and have no desire to fit into it or be accepted in any way. So it doesn’t matter. I consider myself someone who exists in their own little bubble outside of the traditional art world. I draw silly pictures, put them on social media, I make prints and objects and sell them directly to my audience through my online shop. There are no agents, managers, dealers, publishers, galleries or any of that stuff, it’s completely independent and DIY.
I found an old interview in which you claim to not know shit about museums or art galleries in the sense that you don’t know where you would want your art hung, but the implication is that you aren’t familiar with museums/galleries. Is this still the case?
That “interview” is me chatting to someone outside a pub 10 years ago! I wish things like that disappeared from the internet in some kind of natural “cleanup” ever so often and only the last couple of years worth of stuff existed!
Maybe my answer is the same, though. I don’t really ever imagine my work hung in museums and galleries, it all seems so formal and serious. Maybe one day? I guess if David Shrigley can end up in The Hayward Gallery then maybe I can follow in his footsteps and be in a gallery one day. Another thing that puts me off making work for galleries is that it always has to be big enough to fill the space and I’m generally comfortable making things on A4 bits of paper or smaller. So if I did have an art show it would need to be in a small venue like a toilet or something. For now, I’m happy making my small things and having them in 20,000 people’s homes instead. People’s homes are my art gallery.
You’ve sent out thousands of Hate Mails. You can’t just come up with each one on the spot, right? Do you have to have a bank of ideas that you come back to?
I sent Hate Mails on and off over a five-year period. For the entire time period there was a little bit of my brain constantly switched on and whirring in the background, trying to think of new ways to insult someone via a postcard. I was totally obsessed with it and would constantly pull over on my bike or stop mid conversation or run out of the shower to write the ideas in my phone. I’m glad I don’t do Hate Mails anymore because that bit of my brain is a little bit more free and less frantically searching for ideas.
What about your other art? Do you have a strategy or practice for keeping track of ideas?
My strategy for keeping track of ideas is simple: I email them to myself from my phone. When I’m at work I write them down on lists of paper. I keep the bits of paper on my desk, and if I haven’t “done” the idea within a couple of months, it goes in the bin. Generally if I come up with an idea which I think is really good, I’ll work on it the day I come up with it and abandon all other projects. The hierarchy of projects just keeps changing all the time depending on what mood I’m in and what I feel like doing that day and which one excited me the most. This is the beauty of working 100% for yourself — there are no deadlines, no priorities and you can’t let anyone down.
As a result of your Kickstarter you had to go on an absurd number of dates and meetups with people to fulfill all the rewards you offered. I know that was tough and time-consuming for you, but you must have some good stories to tell …
It was a great time in my life and also quite a hard time. I can’t think of any specific great anecdotes from meeting any of those people, but the whole thing was an amazing and life-changing experience. I told strangers on the internet to fuck off, I did strangers’ washing up, I went on dates with strangers, I got drunk on trains with strangers, I trolled strangers for a week (each) and I phoned strangers on Christmas Day and told them to fuck off.
Here are two quite boring things I learned from this experience: 1) People have this preconceived notion that meeting up with strangers is dangerous and risky and that people will be “weird.” I found quite the opposite, everyone was really nice and I felt safe with them. And 2) However tough you think you are, everyone has a breaking point.
Looking back on it with rose-tinted specs, all of that stuff was brilliant. The reality was that I tried to deliver 3,752 rewards within the space of a few months and I lost touch with all friends and family. The only people I interacted with were strangers who’d backed my Kickstarter; I lived, breathed and slept my Kickstarter for months on end with no days off and I think I officially hit that thing that people term as burnout. So if I did a Kickstarter again, I’d do it differently. I’d underpromise more, add another 500% to the contingency planning, be less conscientious about delivering it on time, put my health above the work and worry less about letting the backers down.
Usually you’d be doing extensive photoshoots with naked people at this time of year to turn them into the world’s best advent calendar. Did COVID get in the way of that?
COVID did not get in the way of it, I simply managed my time differently this year and ran out of time to do that project. Most things I do are relatively quick (some are started and finished in a couple of days), but that’s the one project that takes a few months from start to finish and a crazy amount of planning.
2020 is the first year I decided to work less and take weekends off. Up until December last year I worked (on average) around 350 days a year and didn’t really do much other than work for around 20 years. I’m not proud of this; it’s just something I did and never really questioned until I turned 40 and wondered if there was more to life than dedicating most waking hours to work and art. So now I take weekends (and quite a few evenings!) off and if I don’t have time for a project, I just let it go.
It will be back next year, though, as I love it and it has a really loyal audience who are hungry for it (being in it and buying it).
Where did that idea come from?
The idea started with the scratch-off ink as a process. I’ve always thought it would be great to incorporate it into a bit of work one day and in 2016 I hit upon the idea of scratching people’s clothes off to reveal their naked bodies. It was originally just going to be some sort of print with no meaning … then I added the Advent Calendar as a vehicle for it to give it a bit more structure and make it more of a cross between a novelty game and bit of art.
What are your views on social media’s role in art? Obviously it’s been huge for you, and it’s really served to democratize things, giving people a chance to be seen who normally would have no way of reaching an audience, but is it also hopelessly diluting things?
I wouldn’t be here without social media. Other than the occasional magazine interview or radio appearance, I rely on it 100% to get my work out there. I think I was lucky in that I graduated in 2001 and MySpace appeared a few years later. I immediately created an account as Mr Bingo (and not my real name) and began using it as a platform to store “fans” and share new work with them. So I feel the internet and social media grew in tandem with my career, and I’ve always tried hard to be “good” at social media as I realized quite quickly how powerful it is as a thing to get your work out there.
I guess there’s a rather old-fashioned perspective that talented people used to be a very rare type of person who would appear on stage or on TV or published in print, whereas with the internet, anyone can become famous or have some kind of online profile instantly, and yes, that does dilute things a bit. Smartphones and apps now allow everyone to be a filmmaker, music creator, animator, graphic designer, etc. The playing field is now leveled.
Can you even be a successful artist nowadays without a social footprint?
As I said previously, I’m not in the art world so I don’t know how it works in 2020, but I’d guess it’s an old enough industry to still operate in the traditional sense of having agents and galleries and collectors. If you were starting out now, I’d say it would be a huge hurdle to attempt it without social media.
I know you’re not going to tell me your name, so I won’t ask. But if you could choose any real name for yourself — not a nom d’artiste, like Mr Bingo — what would it be?
Skeeter Johnson, Foolish Kev, Scruff, Micky the Box, Eddie Spoons, Pete Carpet or Cool John.
Are there any clients for whom, if they came knocking, you would break your moratorium on client work?
Louis Theroux, Tyler The Creator, MF Doom, Grayson Perry, Tim Key.
Finally, what’s the most fucked-up piece of art you’ve ever made?
I don’t really consider anything I’ve made “fucked up,” but I think my liberal taste threshold for what’s acceptable is a bit broader than most peoples. I drew a dildo in the shape of a cross once (each tip of the cross was the head of a penis) with a little Jesus hanging on it that was published in a magazine once. Looking back, that seems a bit outrageous now and maybe a bit over the top, but no, I don’t really think I do fucked-up art.