Sheffield artist Pete McKee’s illustrations are full of whippets, flat capped steel workers and bottles of Henderson’s Relish, his home city’s ubiquitous condiment. In other hands, this might feel like a hackneyed spin on northern culture. But for McKee, his art reflects a loyalty to “the working class story”.
(Click the gallery to see more images)
It is a world with which he is intimately familiar. He was born in a Sheffield council estate, failed to get into art college and ended up in a factory. In 2005, he sold his first painting. Little over a decade on, he’s worked with the Arctic Monkeys, Paul Smith and the Gallagher Brothers, both on a commemorative Oasis poster and a capsule collection for Liam’s clothing label, Pretty Green.
Earlier this month, McKee launched his first pop-up in London, which showcases his nostalgic vision of Sheffield for a very different audience. We caught up with the artist to discover how that message translates outside South Yorkshire.
Has your Sheffield fan-base helped spread the word about McKee London?
I’m far more well-known in Sheffield than anywhere else, but because of my association with the likes of Oasis and Weller and Paul Smith, I’ve got a wider audience now. It was a case of getting that word to those people directly and giving everybody the opportunity to see what my gallery in Sheffield is like – a taste of McKee in a way. I think London’s a unique city, where there’s so many different nationalities converging to one place and it seems to be working really well; people are getting what the work’s all about.
Was it a conscious decision to make your London exhibition less Sheffield-focussed?
I have two strings to my bow when it comes to my artwork. A lot of my work’s inspired by my childhood and growing up on a council estate in Sheffield – the people and the characters, the aunties and the uncles and the best mates, and the things you used to get up to. These are actually quite universal topics if you strip away the actual geographic location. We all seem to know a pretend aunt that’s looked after us at some point or have sat in the corner of the pub and tried to make a glass of coke last half an hour.
After that, of course, is my love of fashion and music; that’s where the contemporary, pop culture side of my work fits in. I’m very passionate about fashion trends for teenagers and the groups, the clans that existed, like the mods, rockers, skinheads, all that kind of movement, anything that had this very strict dress code. I’m quite enamoured by that. On top of that, the music itself is an emotive subject; people can really bond with my subject matter because music brings out that emotion. While I’m in the London shop, I wanted to tell that side of the story.
Do you find that if you work on a poster for a band, or something inspired by somebody’s music, more people find you?
It certainly helps. That passion for a band definitely puts you in that audience, but then your artwork has got to speak for itself. Simply drawing a piece of fan art isn’t necessarily going to appeal to a wide audience. You have to make sure what you do is genuine and that there’s a story behind it.
One of my first pieces for the Arctic Monkeys was four lads on a playing field in their kick-about football gear. Four lads decided to form a band and it’s telling that story, that bands don’t simply evolve famous, there’s a starting point to them. Some of them are just working-class kids and each one of them, in turn, gets an instrument, learns it. Then it’s a magical mysticism that turns one band into absolute superstars and another band to just playing a couple of local gigs and pubs and splitting up. It’s things like that that really pique my interest, not being overly obvious with what I do.
What inspired the Definitely Maybe poster?
I asked Noel to pick his favourite gigs from the past and he gave me three pivotal gigs for the band. It was this one that we chose, which was the Factory Records one. I really wanted to play with the Factory Records iconography, so the image is definitely McKee, but the iconography is Factory, with the yellow and black, warning signs kind of artwork. You wouldn’t necessarily link Oasis with the Factory movement but that was a really great gig for them.
In the future, do you think you’ll go further down the route of music and fashion, or stay loyal to Sheffield?
It’s not necessarily loyal to Sheffield, it’s loyal to the working class story and that’s something I’m wanting to explore a little bit more in my next exhibition. I do want to keep the biographical and the observational side of my work going, because that’s good for the soul to express your emotions and your feelings. But I also like that my work translates really well to posters and to fashion and other products. It’s nice and I’m in a great position where I can actually come from both sides and people accept that. I like that mobility, so I wouldn’t give either up really, just make them work in tandem.