You might have seen the humorous posters and questionable advertisements on show across Birmingham and London. In episode two of 'In Conversation With' we spoke with street artist Foka Wolf, who has been labelled the 'Birmingham Banksy'. We learnt about how it all started and the feedback that the work receives on a daily basis.
G: So to start, I know a lot of your responses in other interviews have been varied to this question and I know you won’t give it away fully now but is Foka Wolf a collective of artists or is it just yourself?
F: Well the thing is I’ve got lots of people around me that I like to bounce ideas off so I do get a lot of help from friends so yeah I would say it is a collective.
G: Can you tell me a bit about your background before you started under the name Foka Wolf?
F: So I’ve been doing street art for about ten years but when I started out it would mostly be illustration based and I would stick little pictures around the city. Then I started to do these split up head pieces which again I would put up around Birmingham. So I did that for a bit whilst working my normal job which was on a construction site, I did that for about five years. I decided to go freelance as a designer about three years ago now. In that time I started to make fake classified adverts on stickers which I would just put on lampposts around the city. They would have a fake number on for just bizarre, weird abstract things. It was good for me because it allowed me just to throw my ideas out there and onto something. I didn’t really care about the spelling or how something was worded because I thought that added to the charm of them so I kept that up for a few months.
G: Can you remember the first piece you did?
F: Well I can’t remember the first sticker I did. However I knew someone who could do large format printing for quite cheap because that’s how I used to paste up my original illustrations so I thought I could get these classified adverts blown up massive for very little money. Last April I found out you could get a Skype number for like £5 a month so I got this random 0121 number. I thought, who are the easiest people to bait into calling this number and I thought of 4×4 drivers. So I had this idea of sticking something roadside at some traffic lights to basically piss off 4×4 drivers and get them to call this number. Within around a day of it being up it went viral on the internet, it got mentioned in newspapers and was put on sites like LADbible. I thought shit, I was doing the other stuff for years which no one gave a shit about and then I did this, which just blew up. Then we obviously had the phone number…
G: People call these numbers don’t they because I know on most of the ads you put out you leave contact details, so do you get a lot of responses?
F: Yeah they do. At the time we had the number set up on the computer in the studio so it would ring out loud. Me, William and a few others would answer these phone calls and record them, it was a lot of fun. I then had a baby so I stopped doing it because it was a bit time consuming with no sort of return and I needed to start making money. I did that for a few months and then it was at that point I realised I could probably start doing more activism stuff because once you’ve got that reach on the internet I thought ‘oh I should start doing something good with this’ so I’d still do some weird stuff but then throw in some activism stuff. For example, there is this new building not far from the studio. They had pulled an old church down and I stuck something up in addition to their poster and advertisement. The tagline I had was “Erasing history to maximise profit”. I printed something on a box which was like a police robot unit and then left it outside Digbeth Police Station.
G: How did that go down with them?
F: Yeah it was good. The actual police station messaged me and said they loved it. That’s the thing, the only people that get pissed off at the stuff I do are just basically idiots.
G: Like people who take themselves too seriously?
F: Yeah and you could kind of tell that from the answerphone messages. Some people would genuinely be pissed off and then you could tell that some people knew they were a part of the joke so they would just play along with it.
F: I’m starting to move away from the black and white posters because you have to be pretty stupid to think that it’s a real advert. So I’ve started putting more ads on buses because people are so used to looking at real adverts that if you put a fake one in there it doesn’t really register with them, whereas the stuff on the street will be seen as street art so having something in an advertising space does really trick people. It’s like with The Conservative Party one, which went massive in the summer, copywriting blogs were picking it up and basically saying how not to write because they all thought it was a mistake in the copy. They all thought they were really clever spotting this mistake but the joke was on them.
G: Yeah because I remember seeing this when it surfaced and it was a pretty well-known account that got loads of retweets and likes on the tweet but he basically said something along the lines of ‘there was an actual team behind this’. So some people obviously believed it came from the conservative party which is kind of worrying in a way.
F: Yeah totally and these are like bloggers and copywriting experts who are trying to critique something and they didn’t actually realise it was a joke, which is amazing in itself. With my work I’m trying to hit the people who are not listening or don’t care. The perfect way to get their attention is to get them with the joke first and then hopefully they think about what you are trying to say because if you hit them in a blunt, obvious way like ‘Trump is bad’ then people are just gonna switch off.
G: So I know you just mentioned the Conservative ad and putting the ads in places that are more believable, I believe the Conservative one was on the underground so how did you manage to pull that off?
F: I just did it quickly at like 6PM in the day.
F: Yeah people were watching me doing it. I had these Spanish guys behind me saying it was great and patting me on the back. People don’t care.
G: See I would have imagined you would have had to do that early in the morning or late at night, especially on public transport, not at rush hour.
F: That’s the thing, it kind of tricks people because it’s not like I’ve got a pen writing my name into something. People wonder, ‘is it his job, is he meant to be doing it?’ So I just do it in the day time with a high vis jacket.
G: That’s your camouflage?
F: Yeah well it’s like hiding in plain sight isn’t it. People don’t look up anymore, well I don’t think they ever have. They walk to work and just think there’s a guy in a high vis doing his job. They don’t think there’s a guy doing graffiti.
G: Where did the idea for the name come from?
F: So I used to do Airfix models with my dad when I was younger. He used to buy me them and the Foka Wolf one always stuck with me because I got to swear in front of my parents and then I thought it would be funny to have it as a street art name because it sounds like a swear word but if you dive deeper then it’s actually double offensive.
G: I remember saying to a few people who I was going to meet today and told them Foka Wolf and they had to double check what I said. So I suppose it gets their attention.
G: So I was in Camden a few months back and I saw your wings paste up. A group of tourists approached it and started having photos with it completely oblivious to the fact it was actually wings made up of a bunch of dicks. I was just wondering if you have ever personally witnessed people interact with your work and if so how does it make you feel?
F: I’ve got photos of people with a proper photography set up with those wings in Digbeth not realising they were penis wings. I did the Voodoo for Kids poster in Canon Hill Park and a lot of people called up the number on that. A lot of religious people were pissed off with it and I received death threats. The head of the Pentecostal church of Birmingham wanted to have a meeting with me. In the end someone ripped the poster and had ‘Christ is King’ where it originally was which I thought was pretty cool.
G: Have you ever just walked down the street and saw someone looking at your work?
F: Oh yeah because people double take with stuff don’t they.
G: Is it a good feeling when you see that?
F: Yeah I suppose. I like it more when they fully interact and call the numbers, I think that’s funnier because it’s kind of like an open forum then. I think it’s also pretty candid because when people are looking at it you can’t really get much information from that but when they call it’s anonymous so they can’t really be tracked. I had one guy that sung a whole Raidohead song down the phone. I should have saved them all but at the time I was trying to…
G: Work out what the hell was going on?
F: Yeah exactly and I was more focused on making a living rather than collecting the calls. You’ve obviously got to record them all and edit them but now they’ve obviously disappeared which is a bit shit. I know the concept works though so I will probably get another number at some point I reckon.
G: I know death threats are pretty high on the list of feedback for your work but has there been any other stand out comments from your stuff?
F: I loved the Voodoo for Kids one. I just liked how it looked as a poster too and we had some funny encounters on the answer machine. So that probably caused the most responses which I just found hilarious, especially as it was only like the third one I did.
G: I can imagine you got some backlash from the Conservative one too, so when you get stuff like that does it affect you at all or do you just brush it off and makes you want to do more?
F: Yeah there has never been a point where I thought that I want to stop doing this. That’s a big reason why I’m trying to stay semi-anonymous with it because it gives me the freedom to do this kind of stuff. If it was my real name attached to this stuff then it would be a completely different story. I don’t really care though, yeah they leave death threats but people do that on the internet everyday don’t they.
G: In general where do your ideas for your ads and messaging come from and what inspires them?
F: They usually come from real adverts. Adverts in general just piss me off. They lie to people, they make people feel bad about themselves and basically just try and trick people into giving them money for whatever shit they are putting out there. I do appreciate a good advert and good design though so I can’t help but look at them. I would look at some and analyse them, I would think what if we changed this about it or what if we changed that word. Then just general stuff that’s happening in the news and in culture really. I did the Roadman Chat one during the time where Grime was getting massive, it was at the Brit Awards so it was starting to become commercialised so I thought it would be funny to glorify a sub culture.
G: So I know you want to try and stay anonymous but you’re speaking at Glug so are you worried about keeping your identity from a big crowd?
F: Oh no because we’ve got this box here that we’re making.
G: You’re going to stand in it?
F: Yeah I’m going to take it and put it on the stage. I haven’t quite finished it or figured it out yet.
G: That’s one way to do it I suppose.
G: So you must have gone viral from your work a few times now, so what is the feeling like when you see that buzz going around about your work?
F: Yeah it’s cool because it’s good to know that they work. I think it gives me some kind of approval because I’ve seen comedians and people like that who are sharing and speaking about it so it backs up what I’m trying to achieve. It just kind of confirms and tells me that I’m on the right sort of path. I don’t put my name on a lot of the things though so when some of these things go massive, I never get any credit coming back to me unless you either follow me on Instagram or know what I do. The Conservative party one was massive. There were memes going around of it, nothing like I have ever done before. The ad was blank though so nothing came back to me which I didn’t mind. I think if I would have put my name on it then people would have realised it was a joke and it probably wouldn’t have gone as big.
G: Yeah and I guess some people sort of clocked after a while that you were behind it?
F: Yeah because I’ve got quite a good following now people would tag me in it and then like the meme sites would tag me.
G: I know a lot of artists sign their work or leave their mark so is that something you would never do?
F: Well I’m starting to leave little logos or little Easter eggs now so people can understand it’s me. I’m not after those people who already know it’s me though, I’m after those people who are just on their daily commute or whatever they might be doing.
G: I suppose it comes down to the time and place. So with the Conservative party ad it made total sense not to leave anything on it but with just a personal piece then you could leave a signifier that it is you.
F: Yeah that’s it because I still do stick up the split up heads and illustrations. With things like that I will leave my name on it because it’s just nice for people to associate it with me but like you said with the Conservative one it just wouldn’t have worked any other way.
G: I’ve always wondered about the work that you do and street art in general. Do you do any research before putting stuff up, more specifically about the legal side or if there is potential for you to land in deep water with it?
F: No I just do it.
G: Really, is that part of the fun too?
F: Yeah that’s it because I think the worst that can happen is that they ask you to take it down or you get a cease and desist. In my head I think it would be brilliant if G4S came out and were like you’re in trouble for this because it would just play into my hands because it would give me massive publicity then. In a way I’m trying to bait them into doing that. A few times I’ve tried to bait a big company to come out of the woodwork and question a fake advert because then it would be like I’ve won the game then. Have you ever seen The Yes Men?
G: No I don’t think so.
F: Basically they would go around and apologise on behalf of Big Companies. So if BP had an oil spillage they would act as BP representatives and apologise on TV for this event. Then it came out that they were fake and BP would have to retract that apology.
G: Talking more about Birmingham and how the city is growing at a rapid pace, how do you feel about that personally?
F: Yeah I think it’s definitely a good thing but at the same time people have got to be careful to not get left behind. It’s going to grow at such a rate that the people who are already here are going to miss out on the benefits of it. Gentrification is a bit shit but at the same time a good thing because before Digbeth had apartment blocks it was like an industrial shithole. One thing with Birmingham is that it doesn’t really champion the independent scene so you’re going to get all these multinationals coming in and bulldozing the whole thing. So I think now is the time for the Independents to pull their socks up and get in there before they do. I think there is massive potential here but I just worry that the local people are going to miss out. For example, I like the guys from Ghetto Golf but they’re from Liverpool so people are starting to realise something is happening here so more and more people are going to jump on it.
G: It’s good and bad in a way I suppose.
F: Yeah it will be interesting to see what happens.
G: For you as an artist though is it more exciting as there is no doubt going to be more building sites where there is potential for more ideas?
F: Yeah definitely there are going to be more targets and more stuff to play with. At the same time you’ll get these apartments going up and they’re basically going to be private land so you can’t sit on these places too long. The city centre has got it now, they’ve basically got their own private police force so it kind of narrows it down with the stuff you can and can’t do. That’s why I’m trying to do more stuff that looks real or even get money to do actual legal ones because no one can touch that then.
G: I think you mentioned it but what’s been your favourite sticker, poster or event you have done so far?
F: Yeah probably the Voodoo for Kids one. I’m starting to do these ripped up adverts that really interest me. It’s two real adverts stuck together so they’re acting as one. They’re going around buses in Birmingham at the moment. They’re on my Instagram if you haven’t seen them.
G: Is there anything you’re really into at the moment?
F: I’d say this book. The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. The whole thing is about synchronicity and when I read it a lot of weird, synchronicity stuff started happening in my life which was just odd so I’d advise anyone to read that.
Massive thanks to Foka Wolf for taking the time to talk to me and showing me around the studio!