Inspired by the spirit of Punk, DIY culture and rebellion, Tinsel Edwards (born 1979) is a Glasgow-based artist whose provocative paintings combine bold text and imagery, offering an often challenging but humorous commentary on a variety of social, political and cultural themes.
Tinsel graduated from Goldsmiths College in 2001 (Fine Art BA) and lived in London for 19 years before moving to Scotland in 2017. She is also the co-founder of A-side B-side Gallery in Hackney Downs, London.
Tinsel often collaborates with her childhood friend and art partner in crime Twinkle Troughton. Together they have created several public ‘art stunts’ including kidnapping a banker and dressing as traffic wardens to fine 500 cars with free artwork. From 2000-2007, Tinsel was one of The Fairies and a singer in The Fairies Band.
She was invited to speak and present work at the first edition of The Art Conference, held at The Ugly Duck building in London and produced by Tina Ziegler. In 2015 her work was selected to be part of Dismaland, Banksy’s ‘bemusement park’ in Weston-Super-Mare. Banksy is a collector of Tinsel’s work and previously invited her to take part in a Santa’s Ghetto exhibition. Tinsel has exhibited widely across the UK and in Germany, Austria, Poland and America. She has worked with Jealous Gallery, The Pure Evil Gallery, The Art Car Boot Fair and Galerie Michaela Stock in Vienna amongst others.
I recently discussed with her her work on the housing crisis in the UK…
You’ve been making work in response to the housing crisis since 2012. Why did you choose this subject? (I’m glad you did!) Did you have a really negative and unforgettable personal experience with it or witnessed somebody close to yourself in discomfort because of the issue?
Wanting to make work about what’s happening with housing was borne from an intense frustration about the injustice of the situation. It wasn’t necessarily from a really negative and unforgettable experience, it was more like a gradual realisation. From around 2007/2008, it became apparent that rents in London were rising at a much faster rate than people’s incomes. It was from my own personal experience but also from the observation of what others were going through (nearly everyone I knew!). Secure housing and having somewhere to call home is a fundamental human need, but it started to feel like renting a room or flat in London was perilous, rents were being increased frequently on the whim of a landlord. Because there is such a high demand for housing in London the landlords could name their price and the flats would be snapped up. This made things feel scary, people are on a one year tenancy which gives landlords the opportunity to raise the rent at the end of each year, and I heard stories of this happening on a regular basis. I believe it is greed that has fuelled the housing crisis.
My personal situation was also precarious. I was a single parent and at the time my income from employment wasn’t enough to cover the monthly rent, housing benefit helped to make up the difference but I was constantly worrying that the landlord would increase the rent. Housing benefit is capped, which means if the rent goes up the benefits don’t increase, so when the rent went up we were forced to move. The scariest thing is that all of this is increasing the numbers of people who are homeless in the UK.
The high rents and increases were forcing people to move out and away from their local community, their children’s schools. There is no security, there are stories of multiple occupancy in tiny spaces. It all felt so wrong and watching it happen was so frustrating. Why was this being allowed to happen, and why wasn’t the government doing anything? All of these feelings started to tumble out into my artwork.
The housing crisis is a global phenomenon but I suppose it has unfolded in a very uncommon way in London. This city happens to be the playground of the transnational elite. A billionaire Emirati sheikh or Malaysian tycoon can buy property over here remotely—very often holiday homes that might remain empty for much of the year but that will surely escalate the prices of the surrounding areas, making rent unaffordable for the average citizen (even respectable, well-educated workers like doctors and teachers), forcing young people to postpone or just abandon their dreams of starting a family. It is such a shame.
Look at the way market forces are running riot—they have created a situation that should be utterly avoidable and totally unnecessary in 2018. I have been thinking a lot about this aspect of capitalism that is simultaneously nasty and idiotic. In his book Slow Burn City: London in the 21st Century (2016), the architecture critic Rowan Moore breaks down the problem very well.
You must have done your own research over the past few years while investigating the subject for your projects. Where all did you go? What all did you read? Who all did you speak to? And what were your findings?
It is crazy that this has been allowed to happen. There are so many empty properties across London that are owned by rich oligarchs from across the world, often new builds bought off-plan. London’s properties are treated like shares. They are purely for investment and there is no consideration given to the impact that these sales will have on the local communities who live and work in those neighbourhoods. The Bishops Avenue in Hampstead (aka Billionaire’s Row) is a fascinating place. Most of the houses are boarded up, and they have been left to deteriorate whilst the price tag goes up. At one point I was wanting to make a series of paintings based on these properties, visually they are fascinating, but I had so many other strands I was following with this body of work I never got round to it.
Once I got stuck into this artwork I became so focussed and driven! My research led me to lots of different books, articles and films, I found out about organisations such as Generation Rent, March for Homes and grassroots campaign groups like Focus E15. Lots of housing estates were under threat such as the Heygate and Aylesbury Estates in South London, the New Era estate in North London, and the Carpenters Estate in East London, they all had a story and groups of local residents campaigned hard to save them from being demolished or sold on. Each story is different.
I looked at Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, which is a first-hand account of life in East London in 1902. The parallels with contemporary London were scary. An exhibition at PEER Gallery curated by Fugitive Images called Real Estates, a film by Andrea Luka Zimmerman called ‘Estate, A Reverie’ about a Hackney Housing Estate which was about to be demolished. There is a heartbreaking film called Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle that looks at the problem across the UK not just London.
I constantly came across articles in local and national newspapers reporting substandard homes for rent, or properties being used for multi-occupancy. For example, a shed in a living room being offered to rent, a house with a tree growing through the window, a tiny and overpriced studio flat in King’s Cross that rented within half a day. These stories and images occasionally inspired paintings.
Tell us more about your modified estate agent signs that you put together for “Dismaland”, Banksy’s bemusement park in Somerset…And have you really met or had a talk with BANKSY??!!!!
I modified a whole load of real estate agent signs, subverting the branding and imagery to tell the real stories from London’s streets. Screen-printing and painting over the found signs, some of these were displayed at Dismaland and others were put back out onto the streets where they were found. Banksy invited me to be part of the show, which was amazing and out of the blue! But no, I never met him. I just feel really lucky to have been part of such an exciting and now legendary event.
You are inspired by the spirit of Punk, DIY culture and rebellion. Who are the artists working with a similar approach that you look up to?
I love it when artists do their own thing and have a strong, unique voice sometimes with disregard to the rules and the establishment, or at least the norms and trends. I find I am drawn to artwork when there is a story to it. When the art is executed in a polished and sophisticated way—for me it doesn’t make it better. Rather, I like it when you can see the ‘wobbly lines’ and the traces of the person who made the work. In the punk era many people formed bands without knowing how to play, I like the spirit of that. I like the idea of artists making artwork within limitations and the limitations can end up making the work more innovative. For example, Jenny Holzers’ A4 paste-ups that she made at the beginning of her career.
The ‘art world’ is a complex and funny thing. There is a hierarchy, there are cliques and it can be elitist, I like seeing artists who do their own thing outside of those perimeters.
In no particular order, here are some artists whom I admire and who I think have the spirit of punk, some of them my contemporaries and some from a long time ago—Esther Pearl Watson is a painter from LA who I have recently discovered on Instagram. I love what I have seen of her work. Recently I saw some really interesting paintings by Rabiya Choudhry in her solo exhibition at Transmission in Glasgow. Then, Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo, Billy Childish, Rose Wylie, Monster Chetwynd, Jeremy Deller, Margaret Harrison, Sarah Maple, Grayson Perry, Harry Pye, Magda Archer, Lucy Sparrow.
You often collaborate with your childhood friend and art partner in crime Twinkle Troughton. (I love the names together—“Tinsel” and “Twinkle”.) The two of you have created several public ‘art stunts’ including kidnapping a banker and dressing as traffic wardens to fining 500 cars with free artwork. What do you find appealing about such participatory/interactive initiatives?
Twinkle and I haven’t collaborated in a little while now, and I miss it so much! She lives in Margate and I live in Glasgow so the distance makes it more difficult to work together, but we will do again, it is always lots of fun. It’s nice to laugh lots when you are plotting ideas and making artwork.
We met when we were 9 years old at primary school, later we formed the Fairies Band with Tinky and Sparkle (which is another story) but that’s why we are called “Twinkle and Tinsel”. We see the art stunts as a way to engage with people outside of a gallery setting. We would always end up having conversations with loads of different people. Each stunt had a political motivation but it was often tongue in cheek, there would be humour too.
When viewers see those paintings of yours with beds next to commodes and kitchen sinks, how do they react?
Those paintings always strike a chord with Londoners, most are affected by the housing crisis so there is a familiarity with the imagery and with the language used for the titles. People express their own frustrations with the situation and often it opens up the conversation and they share their stories and experiences. I showed one of the paintings in Vienna once, and people who came to the exhibition were really intrigued by the story of London’s housing. In Austria, renting is the norm, there isn’t the same preoccupation with owning a home because people have long term secure tenancies. The people who saw the painting in Vienna were shocked to hear about how different housing and renting is in London.
I just read that Theresa May is trying to solve the housing crisis by imposing a new levy (stamp duty) on foreign buyers of properties in the UK. She plans to use the money to fund a drive that will help tackle the indignity of rough sleeping. Do you think such a scheme could work?
I think it’s a positive step which is long overdue. It’s a start and if properly managed, hopefully it can work. However, I do think that the government could be doing so much more to tackle the problem! The horror of Brexit is dominating politics right now.
If you were Prime Minister, what strategies would you adopt?
I would focus on creating lots more good quality and genuinely affordable social housing, so that councils wouldn’t have to use their budgets to pay private landlords. I would also introduce a rent cap to control the market, and prevent private landlords from increasing rent levels as they wish.
Finally, what innovative ways do you have in mind for further exploration of your themes?
I had a long list of ideas, I wanted to do a series of paintings of the properties on Billionaires Row, and of the housing estates which were threatened and now mostly gone. Another series I wanted to make was of those shocking reports in local newspapers showing horrible run down flats being rented for ridiculously high sums. I also had an idea of creating an installation, my own version of a high street estate agent with me as the estate agent! I visualised it in a shop with a display in the window and a ‘show flat’ out the back complete with toilet and bed like in my paintings. I had lots of ideas but a year ago I began to feel absolutely frazzled and emotionally drained.
I wrote a book called ‘Priced Out’ and this was published by Dunlin Press, it launched in August 2017, this was the month that I left London myself. We were priced out too! My husband and I realised that our lives were no longer financially sustainable in London so we chose to move to Glasgow. After moving cities, launching the book and with my daughter still less than one, I felt exhausted. The art I was making was becoming draining because it was such an emotional subject and I had put so much of my energy into it.
I also started to feel that the politics and the subject of the work was overtaking the art somehow. I have taken a big step back and it has given me the opportunity to reflect on my art practice and think about where I want to take it next, I haven’t stopped painting but I haven’t made any major pieces of new work, I have mostly been observing, reflecting, absorbing, thinking. Perhaps my other ideas for the housing series will be realised one day, I would like that very much but I need to come back to it with renewed energy and the time and space to make the work.