Inside Chester Market, just one hub representing the city’s thriving independent business community, you’ll find the studio and shop of local graphic artist Mark Wigan. Nestled between the butchers, cheese stalls and cafes that occupy a large part of the market, the small but busy kiosk is difficult to miss; its walls and ceiling seem to shout with vibrantly coloured paintings and clothes. Tables are stacked with yet more prints and t-shirts, alongside an army of wooden planes, cars and dolls. Amongst all this, the artist’s workspace seems a little cramped, yet there’s still space to hang a glitter ball in the far corner – a nice finishing touch.
I meet the artist in the middle of this “eclectic mess”, a description Wigan himself uses with pride. Dressed in a thick checked shirt, topped with a flat cap and one of his own neck scarves, he is soft-spoken in contrast to the way his artwork seems to speak.
Having grown up in Northwich, Wigan graduated from Hull School of Art and Design in 1982 with a degree in graphic design. “After graduating from art college, I moved to London and started working as a freelance illustrator for some magazines like i-D Magazine, NME and Time Out.” It was also around this time that Wigan started putting his designs onto t-shirts and painting murals in places such as Kensington Market and Scala Cinema in King’s Cross.
His style is vivid, comprising sharp tessellating patterns, cityscapes and bizarre caricatures. A lot of this is inspired by the youth subcultures which Wigan was documenting at the time, particularly the urban and club scenes. “I was chronicling the different subcultures in the 1980s and into the Nineties and onwards, through taking photographs and also through drawings,” he explains. “The drawings are quite satirical takes on subcultures. They’re quite humourous.”
Hanging behind me is a series of prints entitled ‘Sleepless Cities’, capturing the nightlife of places such as London and Japan – from the jazz cafes of Piccadilly to the neon lights of Tokyo. “I tend to work on a visual theme depending on what I’m doing. I don’t really do preliminary sketches, I tend to go straight for it.” Using liquitex acrylics, Wigan works with white on black before adding layers of colour. In fact, his studio so colourful it’s almost blinding, but this is not always the case. “I tend to create a lot of black and white work as well,” he says. “The work that’s on show at the moment is the colourful vibrant paintings, but I’ve got whole bodies of work which are just monochromes.”
Wigan’s career as an illustrator and graphic artist has taken him all over the world and has led to collaborations with brands such as Dr Martens, “doing installations, exhibitions, and live paintings in the stores”, as well as designing bespoke customised Dr Martens for customers. “It was quite a good collection,” Wigan recalls the 2015 collaboration. “And it was sold in stores worldwide. The exposure that got: I think I had half a million hits on YouTube through promo videos.”
On the topic of exposure, Wigan casually tells me of his meetings with the likes of artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. “I met Warhol when he did an exhibition in London, so I invited him to see some murals that I painted in Leicester Square. He saw them and said he thought the work was ‘hot’.” No small praise from one of the founding fathers of pop art. “Me and a guy I was working with went over to New York and painted the Limelight Club and put on exhibitions in the East Village. Through Warhol, we got to meet Keith Haring and other artists on that scene.”
Music has also played a large part in Wigan’s life and work, from growing up immersed in the Northern Soul scene – frequenting Wigan Casino nightclub where he acquired the nickname ‘Wigan’ (his real name is Mark Williams) – to reviewing new bands for i-D Magazine in the Eighties and even establishing his own London nightclub alongside DJ Sean McLusky. “I had my own club in Soho called the Brain Club for a number of years, which was a mixture of art and nightlife,” he says. “The whole place was covered in murals and we put on exhibitions by students from St Martins art college and we had live house musicians play there.” The club had its heyday in the period around 1989 – the “second summer of love” – and was host to musicians including Adamski, Goldie, A Guy Called Gerald and Moby. “It was quite a small venue, but it became very popular with people. George Michael was a regular there and the band Soul II Soul, and Kraftwerk even came down one time when they were visiting.”
Following his stint promoting nightclubs, Wigan went into teaching, taking the post as head of illustration at Camberwell College of Art and later head of graphic design at Salford University. “I did some teaching for about 15 years. My own work went on the backburner in that I was doing my work in research.” During this time Wigan wrote five books on illustration for Bloomsbury, including the Basics Illustration series and The Visual Dictionary of Illustration.
Now, Wigan is back focusing on his career as a full-time graphic artist, working on new projects coming out in Seoul and China as well as running his kiosk here in Chester Market. “I think it’s a good time for Chester at the moment because there’s quite a good underground of people working in digital media, people working in fashion, in art and in music.”
But this identity needs more of a push. Chester still remains largely associated with tourist attractions including the Eastgate Clock, the Roman walls and Chester Zoo, meaning the city’s creative community is at risk of falling under the radar. “I’ve had artists come here that say they think their image of Chester is ‘twee’, Wigan admits. “But I don’t think it is. I think it’s a great place to live and work as a city, but artists tend to go where other artists are. So, I can see young people in the Northwest gravitating towards Liverpool and Manchester because there’s bigger artist studio set-ups there and communities.” This is not to mention the allure of London’s art scene.
So, what does Chester need now? “I think what Chester needs to do is get more creative spaces for artists. We’ve got Storyhouse, but Storyhouse is still more oriented towards the theatre, library and cinema. It hasn’t got a visual arts gallery and I think that’s something that probably should’ve happened.”
Nevertheless, the creative community within Chester is ever-growing in size and diversity, with retail spaces becoming cultural and community hubs. Art and design students at the University of Chester have opened a pop-up gallery in the Forum Shopping Centre, currently moving next door to the now-derelict Poundworld outlet. Their former unit is to become a co-working space for the city’s small businesses and start-ups.
“It’s going back to an earlier age where you’d get somebody actually working in the market creating something,” says Wigan of these developments, not excluding his own kiosk. “I saw an interview with David Bowie online and he said why can’t you buy art in a market? Why can’t you get your Brussels Sprouts, and then go and buy artwork in a gallery in a market? That’s what we’re doing. We’re selling art actually within the market space.”
“I think it’s the diversity as well that’s important, that lots of individuals do their own thing and that we’ve got this diversity of creativity happening in the city.”
You can follow Mark Wigan on Instagram and Twitter (@markwigan), and can purchase or find out more about his work via his website: www.markwigan.com