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Spirit of Toughness: Art Against Knives Selects John Costi

The arts charity selects its nomination for our special Casio G-Shock award, which celebrates inspirational people who have triumphed over adversity

Nominations are open to the public for the Casio G-Shock / Dazed “Spirit of Toughness” Award, which is designed to recognise and reward emerging talent that has made its mark despite facing significant obstacles. We also asked more established creative institutions such as Somerset House and London-based charity Art Against Knives to nominate young people they feel deserve the £5,000 prize; here we meet the latter's choice, John Costi, who left prison to go into art therapy and is now starting up his own gallery in north London.

Dazed Digital: Can you introduce your story?
John Costi:
I suppose my story began with problems at school and getting into trouble in my area, and escalated from there. I was sent to prison for some time for five armed robberies at 19. While there I had to do art therapy to access paint – prisoners weren't allowed paint in their cells in Feltham. The therapist knew I was into graffiti, and when the opportunity was provided for a refurb of the healthcare wing, thanks to the King's Fund, he told the bosses and they asked me to paint six pieces for them. In return I would be allowed to transfer to an open prison. So I went from having no paint allowed to the new position of 'art orderly', getting spray-paint given to me as well as  extra strip searches for security reasons. The refurb was a huge success – last I heard there had been no damage and the violence there had stopped. When I was transferred, I realised that I could do so much with art. I went to an open prison in Suffolk and did art classes with people with autism and Down syndrome, and painted a further six paintings. I was then transferred to another prison in south London which meant I was able to see family more, study and work. I worked in a charity shop in Camden and enrolled on a course at Kensington and Chelsea College which I passed with distinction, and was awarded Learner of the Year by the borough's deputy mayor. Then I was accepted into Central Saint Martins, and I am about to go into my third year.

DD: How did you get involved with Art Against Knives?

John Costi: I became involved in Art Against Knives when the amazing Katy Dawe called me at about 8am after a big night out. I had recently done an interview with Arts London News and she'd seen it, and I suppose felt maybe there was something I could do to help. I knew straightaway it was a positive thing and was excited too. We met, spoke about London and its violence and what we could do to help change it. Gun and knife crime has affected nearly everyone I know. Now it's two years later, and I feel I have the same energy from then and I try to spread it.

DD: Who has been the most inspirational figure in your life?
John Costi: It's got to be my mum. She's the toughest person I know and still the most caring.

DD: What do you think today's youth are most focused on and looking forward to?
John Costi: I don't know. I see a lot of creative young people and they seem pretty fashion-conscious. I don't know if enough of them want to change the 'road mentality' – there is still a lot of hype and as an older person now I try to tell them it ain't worth it.

DD: What are you most looking forward to next?
John Costi: I've got my dissertation and degree show this year, so I have to focus a lot on that. I am also building a gallery in north London on next-to-no budget. It's a lot of work but I look forward to it. We have a great space and hope to showcase some great work by great people.