For three decades Zooki has been a major part of the Birmingham graffiti scene, helping to shape it into what it is today. If you know about Birmingham graffiti, then you will know about this man. His abstract letter forms have evolved over the years into a very distinctive style that is often accompanied by his unique style of b-boy characters.
I linked up with him down one of Birmingham’s many canals to drop a piece and have a bit of a chat. Zooki is one of the most humble and positive artists I have had the pleasure of hanging out with; it is always good to see a writer that’s been active for many years still dropping and enjoying painting burners on the regular.
Would you like to introduce yourself?
My name is Zooki, I started in ‘86. I was down with TSK, The Style Kings, DSR, UBA, FKS, SFX, yes, yes. Oh and TWC, UGF. I was down with loads of crews. Like all of us down south side, it’s all been one crew anyway because we all bounce around together. We were always together. That’s why we kinda started SSM – South Side Mafia ya know. It united us all.
I like it when a crew continues growing. Adding new writers that’s the way it should be. It’s good.
It’s fresh. Fresh creation.
So we did the painting last week…
We were having a chat whilst we were painting and we were on about how you never used to get photos of your older paintings. Is this something you regret not doing now, looking back?
Totally. I totally regret not taking photos of paintings, to be honest. I don’t know… I was very one minded when it came to graffiti. I was like you bomb it, you piece it, don’t need to take photos. It’s gone. It was only supposed to be there for that amount of time. I’ll just move on to the next one. But I do… I totally regret not taking photos of my pieces.
So these days, when a piece pops up on Instagram or Facebook that you haven’t seen for 20 years, I bet it’s a pretty good feeling?
For sure. Most of the time it’s like, what’s that nasty thing. But you know, one will pop up and I’ll go bloody hell. I didn’t even remember doing that painting. In a way, not taking photos when I was younger was a good thing because they pop up every now and again and it’s like wow, did I really do that?
Or shit, I did that.
To be fair, there was a lot of them Joe because back in the days, we were all bombing, it was more bombing. Every weekend we’d go out painting, but they were the developing days, where you could just throw all kinds of stuff in there.
You started with some of the greats like Zed and Goldie, right?
Goldie started way before me. Goldie was probably one of the greatest inspirations for us. I didn’t just use to look up to him. We’d go down to Heathtown… Zed used to take me down there. I think the first day we went down and met him, I had to go down a couple more times. He didn’t become just the person I was looking up to, more a friend. He would proper school us up on things you know. He was a good friend
What was it like watching him rise to fame through the years with films and fucking all sorts? We also had him in the first issue, it’s madness man.
That was just nuts. That was like mind-blowing. I remember because I used to buy loads of records and this was Angel… Goldie’s record called Angel Synthetic and this record just blew my mind. I remember running down to Selly Oak Park with this record going to tell everyone, ‘yo look what my man’s doing’. He’s just gone from strength to strength.
You’ve seen a lot of writers come and go over time. Is there anybody from back in the day that you’d love to see come back?
Oh yes. There are a lot of friends of ours who have passed away who I’d love to see… obviously, I’d love to see all those boys come back. Guys like Peb, Jinx is another, 16, 18 when they passed away. Through graffiti, just living their dream. They were mates and unfortunately, Peb got hit by a bus, just crossing the road, didn’t see it. Jinx was caught bombing on a roof overhang in town, fell through a skylight. But yes, there are loads of writers that I’d love to see back writing again. I always love when you see an old face re-emerging and start painting.
You’ve got like Mode 2 as well. I’d love to see Bando. I’m sure he still paints, but not like before. I did see something; I think it was on the news maybe. I saw there was a 3D piece from ‘83 and it had a Mona Lisa background and I think it was a 3D piece. It looked to me as if, to anyone who didn’t do graffiti back in the day, if you didn’t know 3D, you’d think it was Banksy because of the Mona Lisa piece in the background. So he must have been heavily inspired by 3D. Standard isn’t it?
I’d love to see Korsa painting more. Come on Korsa. We want to see Korsa painting more.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a read of your piece in a new book that’s coming out, Smashin Brum and in that you talked about your short stint in prison?
Her Majesty’s… I think the whole thing is shot to pieces man. The way they treated us back then was disgusting. It’s a shambles. For writing, graffiti people get locked up for years. It’s just stupid. It’s a waste of fucking money. It’s a waste of someone’s talent, what’s the point and it doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s stupid. From fucking painting on a train…
But they don’t understand. A graffiti artist doesn’t always think about themselves, we’re supplying jobs for people. There is a whole network of people that have got jobs because of us. Haha.
Back in the day, there was no CCTV or surveillance.
There was nothing like that back in our day. You could take your time. You wouldn’t have to worry. You wouldn’t even get helicopters up in the sky until the late ’80s. When they first brought the cameras out here, because we used to hit the buses heavily… we’d sit on the bus, you couldn’t look anywhere for space. You’d go on certain buses, it would just be bombed out inside and out and when things got on top… when they started to crack down, they introduced the cameras on the bus. That’s the first kinda CCTV I ever saw. They put a camera at the front of the bus. But the joke of it was they weren’t even fucking real.
There was the Timesaver line that went from Birmingham to Coventry or to the Airport. So the tourists or people who were coming off the plane from their holidays would get a clean bus into the city. You might get one in there. The rest of them were all dud. In the mid-90s, that’s when they started really. I noticed the cameras then really picked up.
I bet the buses looked amazing, all bombed to fuck.
I started when I first ventured out to do graffiti in ‘86, that’s when I thought, this is what I gotta do now, I wanna do graffiti. But you have to remember, it was all hip-hop back then. So if you went to school, hip-hop would be everywhere. If you went to the park, you’d have a dance or people would be breaking with ghetto blasters everywhere. So as a kid you’re trying to find how can you play a role… what’s your part in all this?
Were you arty before or was it just graff?
I used to love drawing. I’d spend all hours a day just drawing, all day long. I was drawing all the time. As a kid my old man, one day he came home with loads of wallpaper. He could decorate the house. But he didn’t decorate the house, not straight away. We were going to but he left it under the stairs and I got them out. I obliterated them. I just would draw all over them, all over the wallpaper. He was like, what are you doing? Haha, so I was always creative as a kid. I would just stay in all day drawing. Good days.
Do you spend time doing canvas and stuff now? Do you enjoy all that as well?
Yes, it’s just another element to graffiti. It’s still graffiti; we’re just doing it on a canvas or whatever medium we’re using. I always believe that if you want to be good at anything, you’ve got to work out… I don’t think no one can just get straight up and say ‘yo I can do this, I can do that’. You’ve got to work there. So for me, graffiti you’ve got to be drawing. So I’ll be drawing all the time. Not so much when I was a younger graffiti writer, but then when I got to about 30.
When I think of Birmingham graffiti, you and Korsa are the top boys. How important do you reckon he was to what we now know as Brum graffiti?
Well with hand on my heart, I think he kinda saved graffiti in Birmingham in a lot of ways. He inspired a whole generation. Definitely got me off my backside to start painting again because I almost dropped out of doing graffiti altogether, just becoming a rave head. I’d go down the road, I’d see Korsa tags everywhere. He absolutely held the city up to ransom and I talked to that guy straight off.
Do you think Brum’s style has developed from him?
Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say developed from him but he’s definitely one of the most iconic graffiti artists in Birmingham. Say in the U.K full stop.
Just to finish up, any words of wisdom to any young writers?
Just believe in yourself, be passionate. It’s not easy to make a career out of graffiti but it will give you a happy life. I wouldn’t want them to expect much out of it, just enjoy the journey because it is a fantastic road and you get to meet some good people and develop so much and you’ll blow yourself away.
One thing I really love is looking at the Birmingham scene now, a lot of the younger guys: Gypsy, Tempo, Cofie, Paser, Ziner, Voms these guys they work hard, they’re all young guys, they all hold down a job, got Mrs’s, but once a week they’ll meet and they’ll go do a piece. That kinda thing inspires me, I think that’s how it has gotta be dropped. And just big up Birmingham! All Birmingham crews big up.
I’d like to give a shout out to Tec 269, Zed, Dez and Flake TWC, Sneak TBL, Zomby DDS, Korsa, T Bone, Hoaks FKS, Sketch TSK, Coast (RIP) and Sneak TBR.
I haven’t mentioned some of the guys from Birmingham, our city, who have inspired me. There were loads of them guys that don’t get the recognition that they truly deserve, like Prize NTC, Chase UBA, Atiske UBA, Setone DSR, Fab 392, Astro UBA, Wez, the Resistance Crew, there’s a whole heap of these guys that I have to take my hat off to them and thank them, because without these guys I wouldn’t be here.
Most of all I want to thank my beautiful wife Sarah.