David Shrigley has an MO when he tattoos people. He takes a fresh new ballpoint pen from a box. He gives a warm yet somehow inward smile. Then he leans forward and asks, “What are your interests?”
Like a therapist's invitation to share, the question prompts a spilling of personal details from his “patients” – men and women who have agreed to be drawn upon in fresh new ballpoint pen by Britain's undisputed king of doodles. Sometimes they confess they don't know what they want him to draw. “That's OK,” Shrigley says, still wearing that half-grin, “because you have absolutely no say in the matter.”
After a few minutes, Shrigley cuts their monologues short and gets to work. On the arm of a film journalist “with a thing about the north”, he draws the word “north”, and an arrow pointing up. On a quiet young woman, he draws “sex” and “drugs” on her arms, then “rock” and “roll” across her knuckles. There are teacups, a noticeboard, an eagle that looks like a pigeon. On someone's leg, he writes “arm”.
It's all a bit of a piss-take, which makes Shrigley's tattoo project – he has now stopped after a few hundred, many of them made permanent by the recipients – of a piece with his dark, hilarious art, the cartoons that Will Self has described as the work of a man sent from the future to collect “images that, while ostensibly of the mundane, nonetheless explain why it came to pass that humanity destroyed itself”.
“Look,” says Shrigley, tall, friendly, sharp in a dark polo, in a voice that sounds perpetually on the verge of breaking into a giggle, “I don't recommend anyone get them made permanent. It's a bad idea. Look at this list.” He holds up a sheet with about 20 names of people who signed up for his tattoos at the Abandon Normal Devices festival in Liverpool.
“Only… Alice Middleton has any sense,” he says, identifying the one person who hadn't booked a subsequent appointment at a tattoo parlour to get their drawing inked for real. “I mean, they're not even really designs as such. But I do think it's an interesting enough conceit that it can be an artwork that adds something to our idea of what it means to be tattooed.”
He has none of his own. “I find it strange,” he says. “I can't imagine anything being permanent enough. Maybe love for a football team. Or a dog, maybe.” Just as Shrigley is a tattooist with no tattoos, so he is now an opera creator who's never been to an opera. The work in question is 'Pass the Spoon', a work of musical theatre about cooking, for which Shrigley has written the libretto. The piece, which features singers and a chamber orchestra and will premiere in Glasgow on 17 November at the Tramway, stars June Spoon and Phillip Fork – two TV chefs addressing the audience as if it were a television studio.
“Various root vegetables get interviewed in order to ascertain their suitability to be involved in a soup,” Shrigley explains. Other characters include an alcoholic, manic-depressive egg named Mr Egg, and Banana, the voice of reason.
“There's also a shit,” Shrigley says, “who's a kind of metaphysical character. And a dung beetle, who is similarly... metaphorical.” Casting a fearful pall over the proceedings is the cooking show's upcoming guest: the sinister-sounding Mr Granules, “who does something rather nasty”.
He wrote the story ages ago. “Initially it was a play, but I always knew it would be sung. I mean, it's not like Pirates of Penzance. But there's a certain rhythmic quality to it. I wrote it knowing the music would provide the narrative glue.” So he kept the piece on the shelf until he was able to partner with composer David Fennessey, as well as director Nicholas Bone. “I was encouraged to go ahead with it because of David and Nicholas, so I know it will be good in spite of my contribution.” He smiles. “The first opera I will ever have attended is the one I wrote the libretto for.”
This deceptively amateurish quality about Shrigley's projects is reminiscent of what US radio host Ira Glass has said about the difficulty of creating art yourself that lives up to the high expectations you have of others' work, and how the only solution is to keep creating – a solution that chimes with the great discipline Shrigley actually applies to his drawings, diligently filling 30 pages a day.
But Shrigley says the quote doesn't really apply to him. “I never had that gap between what I wanted to achieve and what I was achieving, because I never really knew what I wanted to achieve,” he says. “But I will say that it takes time after art education to achieve anything good. You can't really expect to be brilliant at art at 22. When you're young, you occasionally do make brilliant stuff. But you don't know it. Or if you do know it, you don't know how you got there, and you can't do it again. A characteristic of good artists – and I'm not saying that I'm a good artist, of course – is knowing if your work is good or not.”
He says he's starting to learn to distinguish the two. “But I'm still not very good at it. I still make ridiculous decisions, like writing the libretto to an opera.” Speaking of ridiculous decisions, has anyone ever reacted badly to one of his tattoos? “Nobody's done anything really BAD, but there have been some embarrassing situations. Young women want to show you their knockers. In the full glare of the public, they get carried away. It is not appropriate. And you don't deserve it – let's face it. Also, it gets me into terrible trouble with my wife.”
Then he asks for my interests. After a minute, when I mention I'm Canadian, he stops me. He takes up a fresh new ballpoint pen. On my left arm, he draws a hockey puck. Then he writes in it, of course: “puck.”
Dazed Digital: What will you be doing when the apocalypse comes?
David Shrigley: I'll probably still be trying to finish Infinite Jest.
DD: If you were a wrestler, what would be your name and catchphrase?
David Shrigley: Stephen Fry. I'd be a wrestler who does everything just like Stephen Fry.
DD: Did you draw in school, and in what classes was this most appreciated?
David Shrigley: When I was very young, I had a reputation for drawing the best dinosaurs in my class. I was first out of 25. When I left art school, I was 25th out of 25.
DD: Have we become one in body as we are in mind? Do you wish to see the evidence?
David Shrigley: Yes to the first question, no to the second.
DD: Where (from any genre) do you get your inspiration from?
David Shrigley: I listen to the Fall a lot, and I suggest this person to do the same.
DD: Do you consider Banksy and Antony Gormley to be your peers?
David Shrigley: More Banksy than Antony Gormley.
DD: What's with all the shoes?
David Shrigley: [Enunciating each syllable slowly:] I like shoes, got a problem with that?
DD: Are you funny in real life?
David Shrigley: Yes.
DD: What do you think of your teenage sister's posters?
David Shrigley: My sister is 46.
DD: What do you think of the Quickening? You look a bit like the guy from The Highlander.
David Shrigley: I thought The Highlander was rubbish.
DD: Doodles have become culturally significant. How lucky are you, and how much lower can we sink?
David Shrigley: I'm lucky. As for how low I can sink, just wait and see.
Pass The Spoon, November 17-19, 2011, Tramway, 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow, G41 2PE. More info HERE