With cries of "It’s who I am, it's in my DNA structure" ringing around you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were deep in conversation with an American rap star or someone with bearing similar levels of overconfidence bordering on egotism. But while contemporary street artist, Temper might appear every inch part of the hip hop fraternity he is in actual fact a painter from Wolverhampton. Rather than a lyrically-blessed word-jammer from downtown Detroit. We know, baggy jeans, tribal tattoos and baseball caps can be deceptive. Of course, there’s painting and then there’s ‘painting’, and we’re referring to the latter here when discussing the finer points of this Mr T.
Temper, born Arron Bird in 1971 is what’s known as a public artist. Or urban painter. Or guerrilla orator. Or graffiti artist to polite society. We appreciate that normally, the merest mention of the word, ‘graffitist’ and everyone automatically thinks of universally-celebrated Bristol-born wall-jacker – and man of hidden identity – Banksy. And him alone. Yet our man Temper’s no slouch and was doing his subway-based thing years earlier. Temper wasn’t so much born with a crayon in his hand than a spray can, and he left his indelible mark on Wolverhampton’s underpasses and suburban landscapes during his adolescence.
Speaking of his school years, Temper is at pains to recognise that school art classes don’t teach graffiti as such, and secondary school art teachers certainly wouldn’t have considered it as an ‘art form’ back in the 1970s and 80s when he was at school. Yet as he points out; "We do the same as any contemporary artist. We paint, we express our emotions but we are the true story tellers of our era because we reflect what is happening on the streets." Understandably vocally animated defending the very much underground art movement that he grew up part of, Temper adds; "It's not about one kind of art being 'better' than another. Graf artists create positive, colorful, meaningful paintings. It's a soulful art form and should be treated with the same respect as other forms of art."
Temper, a council worker’s son, had his first interaction with graffiti in 1981 at the age of 11, after being introduced to fellow graffiti artist, Goldie in Wolverhampton. In less than six months down the line Temper was creating his own street murals (his debut composition aptly titled, ‘Street Level’), heavily influenced by hip hop culture, his aerosol skills were pretty much evident from the get go. During the next few years Temper filled his time spraying his tag (graffiti nickname), bubble letters and figurative images on a succession of blank canvases. Those blank canvases being subway walls and factory units mainly, and nearly always as an illegal practice. After school Temper found employment as a grave digger, yet in his heart of hearts he harboured the dream of being a bona fida graffiti artist. Naturally that was always going to be a difficult call as back then graffiti artists weren’t recognised as anything other than vandals and enemies of the state. Well, if not the state, definitely the local community.
Temper, along with his partner in so-called street crime, Goldie became some of the first graffiti artists to break this mould and eventually not only become acknowledged as artists in their own right, but from a commercial perspective get paid for their stunning creations, which was unheard of previously. Temper himself painted youth clubs and held live demos, and went on to open his own t-shirt business in 1993. His company, BMC (Blind Mice Clothing) concentrated on designing and printing t-shirts which he threw himself into, however Temper’s couldn’t shake his graffiti habit. In 1995 Temper set about diversifying and created his first art canvas-based art collection. 12 months later and he staged his own solo gallery show in Wolverhampton, entitled ‘Footsteps’, and the artist admits that it served as a turning point for him as he had successfully experimented with other materials aside from spray paint. Over 3,000 people witnessed Temper’s work, and off the back of it he was invited to collaborate with UK hip hop label, The Jeap Beat Collection with whom he worked on 6 album covers, including one for Jimi Hendrix.
Sadly Temper’s road from concrete to canvas wasn’t without incident and in his case, personally tragedy as he lost several of his family members at the time he was finally receiving recognition for his undoubted creative skillset. This in turn led to the artist experiencing four nervous breakdowns himself as well as a suicide attempt. Temper stresses that; “The best graffiti artists are sensitive and deep. You have to use every sense you've got: Touch, smell, temperature. It’s a thinking man’s art”.
With this personal low behind him, things really began to take off for Temper as his big break arrived a few years later when in 2001, when he was chosen to design the coats for what turned out to be 100 million cans of a limited edition Sprite variant; the soft drinks company owned by Coca-Cola. This resulted in Temper’s graffiti art being exposed to an unprecedented Europe-wide audience of millions and what stands as the largest graffiti advertising campaign to date. According to sources it was without question the most successful designer can Coca-Cola has promoted in the UK. This four month campaign saw all cans carrying Temper’s tag and were released in conjunction with the Sprite Urban Games; a pan-European street lifestyle and sports concept that was being run out at the time.
Later that same year Temper became the first graffiti artist to ever hold a show within a major public gallery installation. That gallery was the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, his showcase going by the title of ‘Minuteman’. 38,000 visitors passed through his solo exhibition over a four week period and shortly after advertising supremos and art super collectors, Saatchi and Saatchi commissioned Temper to paint a wall in the offices of their London HQ. These series of events coupled with the Sprite can exposure proved to be well and truly lift off time for Temper and since then his feet have barely touched the ground as he’s been in demand left, right and centre. Premier League Chelsea Football Club hired him to originate six paintings for its stadium, whilst the graffiti artist’s signature work is also hanging from the walls of the home of the club’s billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, as well as former footballers, Ian Wright and Robbie Savage.
Arguably Temper’s best known collection to date is ‘The Good Die Young’, which celebrates 27 iconic figures who lives prematurely ended and which the artist admits was his almost immediate creative response to losing close members of his own family at that previous juncture in his career. ‘A New Day’ features 24 figurative nudes, and which are said to represent 24 hours in a day, pushed boundaries of graffiti art when launched at The Mailbox in Birmingham, selling out in just five minutes, and witnessed Temper making something of a transition away from his urban default setting and toward a more traditional design language. In 2007, Temper became the first graffiti artist to be selected for a major piece of public art. The Cube development is Birmingham's next landmark building, designed by architect Ken Shuttleworth. "He's my favourite architect," says Temper, adding; "Birmingham needed another statement building. Shuttleworth has a character and finesse in his work. He's a genius". Temper's contribution to this project was a sculpture which sits in the central atrium of the building. And his tenth and latest collection, 'Post Graphaelite' is his biggest financial success to date. The 12 large portraits, representing a different zodiac sign, sold for £1.4 million, after it was exhibited at Whitehall Palace in London in 2008.
Today, Temper can be found at his studio in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, where most recently he’s been working non-stop on a portrait of Bob Dylan for a private client. Despite his rapidly accrued successes and the underlying fact that he’s considered one of contemporary arts hottest properties, Temper still feels like he hasn’t received the full credit in the UK that he should have, when bearing in mind that he’s been instrumental in inspiring a whole new generation of graffiti artists along the way. That’s as maybe, however for all that Temper is critically acclaimed as the most naturally gifted graffiti artist of his generation and seen as something of a contemporary urban painting prophet.The artist has numerous collections, movies and comics in the pipeline, exciting projects in New York and 16-date European tours in the offing, yet remains reassuringly down to earth in light of these massive achievements; "Everything I've done is real - you can either like my work or hate it - but none of it's a lie”.