We arrange to meet the phenomenon that is Mik Artistik in the opulent surroundings of Leeds Art Gallery’s Tiled Hall Café on the hottest day ever. Your average person might have rescheduled, but Mik Artistik isn’t average.
He arrives looking every bit the artist he is. He’d promised Tweeds – but instead was rocking a cool shirt and shorts. He’d cycled in from Armley, was dripping with perspiration – and is clearly a very fit 67 year old.
We’ve been eager to catch-up with him, as his band: Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip new album ‘Sharp’ has recently been released – and they are in the middle of a summer of gigs and festivals. At the weekend, they were at Lancashire’s Beat-Herder Festival…Before that, it was 8 shows at Glastonbury.
What was that like?
Mik: “It was amazing. Vital. Wonderful. Warm. Everybody’s there going: “Glastonbury’s on!”. I’ve been there since 2007. There was a big gap between 2019 – ‘the Hole’ – and now, so everybody’s a bit rusty. A bit off match fitness.
“Glastonbury’s great because it’s usually run like a well-oiled machine. It’s freaky – it’s weird and wonderful, but actually the background stuff is run like a Premiership football club. When we all came back we were all greyer and more lined and pot-bellied – and I was worried. I thought: ‘I don’t know if I can do eight shows’.
"I just plugged into the crowd and they lit me up. You feel a million dollars – and then you’re riding on that for a month. I’m still buzzing: I had about four pints over the weekend and a few brownies and some coffee – that was it, but I’m high as kite [currently]. I’m ten-foot tall. I’m frightened of nothing. I could play any stage – because I’ve been to the mountain. I’ve been to Glastonbury.”
Mik confirms what we all think Glastonbury must be like: “It was wonderful. We had big crowds. There’s an enormous sense of goodwill. People are just so relieved to be out of work and away from their everyday problems – and they’re just gonna listen to the stuff they want to listen to.
“I was being lit up by all the stuff around me. It’s not Armley. It’s not the centre of Leeds!”
One poignant moment that clearly affected our artist, was when he was approached by a woman, who simply asked: “Would you like a glass of water?” She provided Mik with refreshment, when others were asking for autographs and selfies. She later returned and asked if he’d like a cup of Yorkshire Tea – and a biscuit.
Again Mik was grateful: “I nearly started crying. There’s an awful lot of kindness that mushrooms up from unexpected places. It gives you faith in humanity. It reaffirms why you do this stuff.
“Despite raging heat and Covid and shit government really under-performing – and the panto that is politics at the moment – you see that life goes on, people carry on and look after each other and then go home.”
Do you see your role as some of the ‘fuel that allows the rest of us to go on?
“I dunno. Sometimes I feel like the conductor – and sometimes like the third fiddler. I’m kind of there…but I feel like I’m watching them [the crowd] disappear sometimes. I’m kind of like one of the servings at a dinner.”
Mik Artistik’s journey really began when he secured a place at Bradford School of Art. Born in Ireland but raised in Leeds, his remarkable story stems from leaving school feeling crushed and not particularly hopeful for the future. After being bullied at Grammar School, his dad confirmed that ‘life is like this – you go to work – you get kicked down.’
"I went to work on the buildings, shovelling concrete. That was awful. Then I worked in a printing place because I thought that was kind of ‘arty’, but I ended up coming home covered in printers ink.”
Mik then searched for a ‘clean’ job – and found one as a clerk at an insurance company, before moving to an oil company: “I ended up drawing on the invoices, because it was driving me to tears.”
Surprisingly, they failed to see the talent waiting to explode and ‘they let him go’. A friend urged Mik to apply for Art College – and he did: “I was very nervous. I did a few drawings and turned up for the interview. There was a lot of people with portfolios and stuff – and I had these drawings wrapped up in a rubber band.
“I thought: I’m going to get humiliated again. It didn’t look good.”
Standing in the queue until it was his big moment – Mik was reluctant to go in when called. “The guy behind the desk looked at my drawings and said: “Very Good. Excellent”. – I went from 0 to 10’ tall. And that was it. I had 4 years at Art College.”
At the same time, music was becoming a thing in Mik’s life. Punk was happening. With a friend and fellow student called Mark Manning, the pair started to make music.
The Final Year Show sounds like it might have been a ‘dicey’ moment – as Mik had unframed pen and ink drawings stuck up with bluetack. But predictably his works shone – and he even started selling the pieces at the show.
“It was 1978 – and there was a lot of conflict going on about who I was – and what I should be doing.
“I’m an artist. But I didn’t know how good I was. I’d sold a few prints. But I retreated again and went back to working on the buildings. Back on the Dole. Back to tedium.”
But he never stopped drawing…
In 1982, in a bit of a trough, Mik knew that he had to do something. He came off the Dole and decided to live off his wits. He had no idea what he was going to do, but knew he had to wake himself up. At this juncture the much-reported Tie Salesman was born. The incentive of making enough money to pay the rent kept him ‘hungry’.
“One day, in a laundrette with a friend, I started scribbling with a pen and a piece of paper while chatting. (I was 27.) After 20 minutes it was finished – and it was good.
“I thought: this is going to save my life. I’m a portrait artist. Thank God. I’ll be okay”.
Mik tested his theory out first in a pub in Seacroft: “I approached a guy sat at the bar and told him I do portraits – and asked if he’d like his portrait done. He said yes. I drew him and he paid me – then I heard “Will you do one of me?” – and that was the start.”
So why the paper bags?
“A few months later I was in Ireland – and went to a bread shop and saw these paper bags sitting on the counter for the large uncuts – and it just clicked. I thought: Oh My God, what a cool thing to have – your own paper bag."
Mik acquired some bags and then in spite of friendly advice, headed to a pub to ply his trade. Again the direct approach: “I asked at guy at the bar: I do portraits on paper bags. Would you like your own paper bag? He said yes. So I drew him and he paid me – and I was complete. That’s me now – I’m sorted. I’m gonna just ‘bag’ people – and that’s what I do, I meet people and engage with them and have them in my life for 15 mins and soak them up. Hear their stories.”
Mik: “I would be in all sorts of places: factories, pubs, police stations – and I’d draw people. I thought ‘these people need recording. Preserving.’ I would just capture people as they were – and then I’d go home and write about them.
“They’d tell me about their mum who was a ballet dancer or she’d run off with a guy to the seaside – and then they went off in a plane…fantastic stories – and I’d come home and write this stuff down. I amassed all these stories and now I’ve put these intense little meetings together.”
In Lockdown came the first book: 'It's Irrelevant' - a collaboration with Robert Galeta. “Let’s do a book. It was a really lovely project – and we made some money out of it – because for me it has to make some financial sense.”
The artist stands aside and the businessman appears: “Do you want an ice cream for your work? No I want F#@$ing £30. I want paying.”
Now a new book called ‘Bags of Life’ is on the verge of release, which collects decades of the paper bag sketches together with something of the lives of the subjects Mik discovered while sketching them. It is an incredibly meaningful and important social document.
“It’s new territory. I’ve never hustled for a book before. I’ve hustled for gigs, for portraits – but never a book.” I think he’s going to be fine.
Mik Artistik loves hearing peoples stories – and now there’s a further added dimension: Podcasts. Mik’s bandmate Johnny suggested it – and it became another lockdown project: “What do I do? – You just talk to people.
“When doing the paper bags – people opened up – and unloaded to me.
“They’re all lights. They’re all candles. They give off a light – a warmth – a heat – and it’s what we need…
“It was a cosmic joke. It was mischievous – but at the same time made some kind of sense. You have to celebrate the ordinary."
The hustler becomes philosophical: “You can make a judgement about somebody – but it’s always wrong. People will always unbalance you. You can make an instant judgement about someone – 'He's a Knob'. But that knob might end up taking you home and giving you a new jacket or something.
“And you think: That was a nice thing to do – even if his manner was fairly gruff.”
At the time you were sketching, were you aware that it was social history you were collecting – and it was changing your perception of humanity?
He's clear: “I was making a living. It was a physical act to draw. I was dancing with the pen.“
There are still drawings happening, but more by commission now. "My profile allows me to get jobs.”
And so to the music: Although he grew up in a house of musicians – the music came later.
Mik: “The music didn’t happen until 2004. Prior to that – from ’94, I’d been doing stand-up. I think I had a meltdown in a pub. There was a band doing 'Honky Tonk Woman' – and they were awful – but looked so pleased with themselves. So at the back I started to sing 'Pretty Flamingo' (by Manfred Mann) and gradually the whole room joined me and the band walked off.
“I was told: “You come up then if you’re so clever”…So I went up – and then just started to talk about the joys of smoking and pinball. I was gabbling on. When I stopped – the whole room erupted.
“I developed some jokes, stories, poems. I Did that for about 10 years. I went to the [Edinburgh] Fringe (in ‘97). Played comedy clubs across the North. I didn’t think I was a comic. I was just standing there saying stuff.”
Artistik cites Reeves and Mortimer. Johnny Vegas, Spike Milligan and Charlie Chuck amongst his Inspirations. “I was once told by an old Comic…Just amuse yourself –don’t worry about the audience. Make yourself laugh.
“I love words. Cartoons. People like Robert Crumb. I love language and stories. There’s always been this ability to tell a story. Pictures and Words – and Music…”
Next we move to The Wardrobe [venue] in Leeds – and their Jazz Open Nights:
Mik again: “I used to hate Jazz, so I would get up with them…they’d jam and I’d talk to the crowds. It worked.
“The music propelled the words along quite nicely. It was a mattress to bounce the words. I was inspired."
Eventually – with a couple of lads he decided to do something with his poems and their music – and that’s how Ego Trip started back in 2004. They’re clearly having enormous fun.
Initially it was scripted – but he could sense something was happening. Often an intro telling a story…was longer than the song. Improvisation was building.
He explains that when on stage: “I watched eyes widen and smiles getting bigger. People were loving it.”
We have to talk about ‘Sweet Leaf Of The North’. Is that a metaphor? It has certainly sparked something in people other than me: including Iggy Pop.
“It was just a little whimsical thing. It happened – and when we got back to Leeds, I thought I’m going to write a thing about this little passenger we had. No importance. It wasn’t funny. It was just an enchanting story. There was no meaning. It was a bit of an obstruction to the driver!
“It was a bit of garden waste that has been elevated. You just get it out there – and you hope that people get it.
“I just tell a story – and people laugh. It’s a toddlers tale. Iggy Pop. Big Lads travelling home from Burnley: “Will you do the leaf song?""
But you’re aware of how its resonated. You’re selling merch?
“I’m a hustler. I want to eat. I want to survive – and I want the people around me to survive. The band – we look after each other.
“We’ve got a song: we are a business. I don’t care what you lot think about me. I just want your money. I’m not here to expand your subconsciousness. I want your cash. And people laugh."
Mik seems slightly baffled at all of the ‘meaning’ fans bestow on his work.
“Like: what shall we call the band? Lets call it Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip… It sounds preposterous – and its not. It’s just a joke” he explains.
I ask if he thinks the 900 people waiting for him on a hillside in Glastonbury recently, understand that – or are they searching for something deeper in his words?
“I’ve no idea. I ask ‘em. Why are you here? What have you come for? They just laugh and come up afterwards and give me a cuddle – and nearly break my heart. Some of the stories – I get choked. I’m stunned by it all.
“People tell me: you don’t realise the effect you have on people – and I don’t. I’m a 67 year old guy who’s no idea what he’s doing. I’m just trying to get some work and earn a crust – and hopefully people will buy a book or a CD. It’s a product. And it’s lovely. I never thought I’d have an LP with my name on it. My God – am I dreaming?
“I’m kind of celebrating – materialism.” We laugh. I think at the irony of what he’s just said.
“People are living their life. Accompany them. Respect them. I always have a healthy mistrust of everybody – including myself. People can be extraordinarily wonderful and extraordinarily awful.”
You’re not going to stop are you? Are you just going to keep going?
“I’ll never retire. I’m an artist. I’ll just have to carry on doing this stuff. It keeps me young and vital and I’m in the swim –and it’s great.”
Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip are at Otley’s Black Horse on Friday July 29.Tickets: https://www.seetickets.com/event/mik-artistik-s-ego-trip/the-black-horse-otley/2291452