British stencil artist Penny is known for his super tiny and intricate works on anything from currency to items as small as a postage stamp. Penny is constantly pushing himself to create stencil works that are not only beautiful, but convey a message. Currently showing his work with Plastic Jesus at Krause Gallery in New York City Penny took some time out of his crazy schedule to discuss his work, and his new show.
Alright let’s start with something easy… For those not familiar with you or your work give me a brief background who of who you are, and what you do…?
I’m Penny, a stencil artist from London, specializing in tiny acts of treason on banknotes.
Ha! Have you ever actually had any legal troubles for defacing currency?
I was exhibiting some work on Yen at a gallery in Japan and they were threatened with closure by the authorities if they didn’t remove the offending artwork, crime’s very low over there so the police are looking for things to do I guess. The worst I’ve had in the UK is the occasional death threat from offended royalists – They’d be horrified to find out I’ve had pieces commissioned by The Bank of England!
So how did you get into the stencil medium & working with currency? Are you classically trained or learned on the job?
I cut my first stencils 16 years ago at Central Saint Martins. I took a graphic design degree course there and was so poor at the time I couldn’t afford printing costs, so got by with almost every project using paint, paper and a scalpel. Ever since then I’ve been trying to push the boundaries on what is possible with those rudimentary tools.
The currency angle came about almost by accident – I was posting photos of my miniature stencil pieces online and realized that even the very smallest of stencils ends up the same size as the largest murals when viewed on computer screens, I thought I would be a good idea to paint on a surface everyone knows, so they instantly understand the scale. Banknotes also come loaded with meaning and and visual interest, hijacking that and subverting it in someway to deliver a message was very appealing.
Do you have a particular bank note that sticks out to you as a favorite?
I’ve become a bit of a banknote geek since taking them on as my predominate substrate to paint on, I could give you about 20 notes I really love for various reasons – My personal favorite is probably the Lowther Fifty Pound, from around the late 1990’s, it’s such a beautifully ornate banknote with a very British feel. It’s also got the queen staring at you with a kind of half grin, which makes it such a good background to piggyback ideas onto.
Another favorite has to be the One Dollar bill, it’s remain unchanged for about 110 years and is the archetypal global currency. When you think of money you think of the One Dollar bill, with all its connotations of power, dominance and greed – It’s the perfect surface to add an image to and create a piece with a message, as so much meaning is already imbued within the note itself.
I represent & work with lots of stencil artists here in brooklyn. I’ve watched them work & know how tedious the process can be. Do your hands get all cut up & arthritic 😝?
Yes. It’s not a craft that’s gentle on the body, but most crafts aren’t, most tend to involve repetitive movements and that can lead to all sorts of physical issues. One reason I cut various styles of stencils is to allay the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, which I know has inflicted many stencil artist before me and it can mean putting down the scalpel for good. The variation in my cutting has so far prevented me from getting any repetitive strain issues and has also kept my work fresh. That’s not to say my back, eyes, fingers, elbows, neck etc have come off lightly though – the intensity and sheer hours I put into my work definitely puts a strain on the body.
Now that we have a little background on you and your work let’s talk about your show coming up @krause gallery. How did you & plastic Jesus hook-up? Is there a theme, etc.?
Krause Gallery introduced us and thought our work would sit well together for a duo-show. Plastic Jesus has painted a few huge canvas pieces in his usual bold stencil style and I think they really compliment and contrast well with my smaller, more detailed pieces. We both comment on society, power, celebrity, icons and the human condition, but in very different ways. There was no overarching theme for the show, we both produced what we thought was right for us at the time and left it to fall into place. Luckily it seems to have married pretty well together in the space.
So who are some of your influences & are their any up and coming artists you are enjoying?
I’ve always been inspired by Chuck Close. I was fascinated by his work from when I went to his show at the Hayward Gallery in 1999. I was not only blown away by the level of detail in his work, but also the varied approaches he took to achieve a final piece. He used techniques from finger painting to collage to tapestry and the results he gets are truly amazing. I looked into how he worked and saw that he planned his pieces meticulously, obsessing over the process. He once said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself”. That has stuck with me as a motto to work by ever since.
I’m not sure you’d categories them as up and coming because they are fairly huge already, but I’m pretty obsessed with Felipe Pantone, Peter Gronquist, Aakash Nihalani and the Miaz Brothers.
Well I’m personally very excited to see both you and Plastic Jesus’s work this Saturday. Thanks for your time and is there anything else you would like to plug or talk about?
Thanks for having me! If anyone is interested in a mixture of my stencil process, new projects, finished works and the occasional scalpel related injury then you can follow me on Instagram, where I mainly post these days:
Oh, and my website is thepennyshop.com check it out!
All Photo’s & Text Copyright 2017 Matthew A. Eller. Follow me on Instagram @ellerlawfirm