Pin It
The Death of Shaimaa Sabbagh
The Death of Shaimaa Sabbagh by Craig Boagey

Illustrating sex and violence in the age of media saturation

Craig Boagey’s new book turns memorable photographs sourced from the internet into striking illustrations

A quick flick through your phone’s screengrabs reveals a collection of shocking, salacious, even bloody moments from contemporary media. Snatched from the internet, images of murder, sex, violence, shame and shock are shared between friends and across the web. Often, these stills spread through the popular consciousness like wildfire. 

Responding to the way we document contemporary culture, British illustrator Craig Boagey reworks moments of tragedy, nudity and narcissism sourced from the internet into hyper-realistic drawings. Released via Ditto today, his work – which covers thirty years of events from across the globe – has been compiled in a publication called Recital.

Beyond the thrill of porn and violence, Boagey invites the viewer to reflect on the way we see and absorb images today. Below, he offers us a first look at the book, insight into his ever-so-relevant work, and a short accompanying film made in collaboration with video artist Eddie Whelan.

Hey Craig. How did you get into drawing with pencil?

Craig Boagey: I've been using pencil for as long as I can remember, since I was a kid. I've always enjoyed it from as far back, and always been able to draw well technically at least. When I was young I'd see a lot of really crappy pencil drawings around where I grew up of celebrities and I'd imitate them. It was pretty much the only art education I had before I studied it properly, there weren't any galleries that were accessible, and they taught me nothing in school. So it was basically these pencil drawings I'd see, the really low quality ones, with nothing interesting going on other than trying to capture an exact likeness.

How did the collaboration with Ditto come about?

CB: Me and Ditto started talking about the idea after having conversations about the work. It was great because through speaking to them they seemed to really get what I was trying to do. And that was pretty rare actually, people have their opinions but they're usually wrong. I think we both realised the subject matter is very direct, and not for everyone, but Ditto thankfully wasn't phased by that, if anything they embraced it - which I loved. These drawings have been with me for a bit of time now, I wanted to make sure that when they were eventually released it was with a publisher who would get them and who would also embrace them. I think Ditto has done both.

The images you reworked span from the 70s to the 00s. Why did you choose to take a retrospective look on news?

CB: This is important to me because I'm very aware that a large number of people think I'm trying to make some form of protest art, or that I have some political agenda maybe. And it really isn't the case, but I like that people think it is. If I were to draw subjects of today then it feels even more like I'm trying to make social statements or whatever. When really, I don't want to do that, it would feel kind of exploitative to me, creating art off of the back of a recent tragedy. I'd rather look at issues and events which have already been digested socially but that are still in some cases very relevant. The Columbine shootings being a great example, a trend we still see today. So in that respect, even though the subject matter is retrospective it is still very relevant, just not directly.

Some of the images are explicitly violent – the one of Shaibaa Sabbagh, shot in a Cairo protest or the corpses of the two teenage shooters of Columbine High School - in particular. You paired them up with the smiling portraits of both victims and executioners. Can you talk me through the process of choosing the photos you want to draw?

CB: I like a variation of images, I think the work would quickly become very bland if I was just drawing violent scenes. That's also why the red drawings are so important, they break up the intensity of the blue ones. Ditto have juxtaposed the two colours literally side by side. In terms of finding images, I’ll spend a good few hours browsing websites, looking for stories which are interesting to me. I don't necessarily fish out a story and try and work around that, it's more to do with a particular image and work from there. If I find something I like visually, it may have no context initially. For instance the "A Veiled Birth" drawing which opens the book, I had no idea what that was when I saw it. It didn't look real, but I thought it was so beautiful. It was only afterwards I discovered its back story. Something else I try to think about is the ambiguity of an image. I don't want to just draw confrontational type images. In fact, I prefer the works which are completely innocent in their appearance. The Columbine high school portraits being a good example, or "The Smiling Girl".

“Recital” is both about tragedy and porn – drawings of violence are intertwined with sex scenes. Psychology studies have shown that violence and sex activate similar parts of the brain. How do the two themes relate to one another in your work?

CB: Sex and violence are both very primal activities, that's one of the reasons I find them so interesting. To be violent or have sex can be very animalistic, and in our daily lives we very rarely get to be that. It isn't the main reason why I draw what I do though. Taking away the psychological aspects, I also think there is another relation to do with how we view and process what is going on in the world, especially through the internet. Tragedy and porn, sex and violence, it's all juxtaposed together online and that is something I'm aware of.   

Some of your drawings are blue, some red. Do the colours have a specific purpose?

CB: They do yes, especially with the blue drawings. I was really into going to those late night free art talks at the National Gallery for awhile, and I started to learn about the significance of blue. For a long period, painters were only allowed to use the blue colour on Virgin Mary's veil. I always loved that connection with the idea of purity and virginity. Blue is very calming, and that is good because a lot of these subjects are the complete opposite. I think that balance between the two tones works. Another strong connection to the use of blue is through the portrayal of the devil, which was originally depicted in blue, not red. The cover of the book is a drawing I did of Lucifer. The red is slightly different, it's a very violent and confrontational colour. But this time the subjects are sexual and innocent. So I guess I'm trying to somehow reverse the meanings of the two colours. Although I also think that making sexual drawings can just be really fun, especially after being consumed by something pretty dark and serious.

From 9/11 to war in Gaza the book depicts tragic scenes of injustice – has your worked always been informed by political issues?

I think the work does portray scenes of tragedy and injustice but it's not necessarily why I choose them. If you are deciding to work on something which contains a very delicate and difficult political issue or tragic event, you will always get that element of injustice. Even if I don't aim to make political work, the images I depict are very much political naturally. It's more to do with how we view tragedy more than anything else, that's one of the main focuses of the work, and is what I'll continue to focus on in the future.

"Recital" is available to order here