An interview with David Shrigley

David Shrigley's sculpture Really Good is currently occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Here he talks about his work, why he doesn't have any tattoos and Brexit Britain.

One has to want to be an optimist even if one isn’t all the time. My work is quite comic, and I think comedy and laughter are synonymous with hope. The comedy and the peculiarity in a lot of my work redeem it from being a lot darker than it might otherwise seem.

A lot of the time I’m just saying stuff and then trying to figure out what it means afterwards. Sometimes I look at my work and say: ‘What was I thinking when I wrote that?’ It’s as though it was made by somebody else. You go into a certain zone when you make art. It’s quite a solitary, meditative activity. And when you’ve finished you go back into the real world.

I guess a lot of my work speaks in the language of graphic design, of advertising. Advertising agencies are interesting places, full of intelligent, creative people who often end up getting their brilliant ideas thwarted by more conservative-thinking clients. I’ve learned a bit from the few projects I’ve done, though clients seemed to have a difficulty with using the kind of artwork I made to sell their products – a lot of them never saw the light of day.

But I did an ad campaign for Pringle of Scotland that was a lot of fun. They really liked it, and the characters I draw are better dressed as a result. I used to just draw naked characters. Now they have clothes, which I think is a good thing. And they gave me some cashmere sweaters, which was good too. You can never have enough cashmere sweaters.

People do seem to take an unhealthy interest in the tattoos that I’ve done. Somebody made one of one of my texts, and I put the image on my website and that started it, and then I did a publicity event where I drew on people with a sterile pen after very minimal consultation about what they wanted and then they went and had it rendered indelibly for the rest of their lives. You’re supposed to think really long and hard about what you put on yourself as a tattoo, whereas I was doodling off the top of my head. I liked the ridiculousness of it and the fact that it recorded a moment in time.

I don’t have any tattoos myself. They weird me out. There’s something that makes me feel nervous as well about young people who come and expose themselves to you. Then again, if they’re going to have a horrible graphic design on them, I might as well be the one to draw it. I’m hoping the whole tattoo thing will wane and am pretty sure that in five years tattoos will be out of fashion and will just mark people out as being of a particular generation. They may seem exciting and dangerous now, but soon they’ll just seem daft, and I’ll be partly responsible. Mine will be the daftest of all.

Tattoos are a sort of public art, though not one I’d anticipated when I was studying public art at art school. Being asked to make something for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square [Really Good, a 7m-high hand giving a thumbs-up, cast in bronze] was tremendously exciting. Unlike winning a prize or an award, this is an opportunity to make something on a scale and in a location that you could only dream of doing otherwise.

I made the proposal four years ago with a very ironic statement, like a surreal public-policy announcement, about how it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy that would make the world a better place. I didn’t expect them to actually commission it.

But as an artist you have to believe that your art makes the world a better place on some level. Even if it’s very dark or critical, it still has to be some kind of positive element. The paradox in Really Good is that it’s simultaneously ironic and sincere, which amuses me. More than any other work I’ve made, the debate that surrounds it is almost as important as the work itself, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. Though you have to accept that you’re not in control of how the work is perceived. And there’s a danger in saying it means whatever you want it to mean. With Brexit, it could quite easily come to illustrate a political viewpoint that I don’t agree with. It is not an endorsement of Brexit.

I’m not necessarily politically active, but I am politically engaged. As an individual it’s easy to feel helpless and wonder what you can do to address the shortcomings of the world. But I’ve done a few things for Amnesty International, which I support. It’s nice to have the opportunity to do something more than just sign online petitions, donate money and vote.

Last summer the Mayor’s Office chose my poster for its ‘London is Open’ campaign, which is a very positive one, about bringing people together, inclusivity and celebrating diversity. I suppose it’s advertising, in a way. It’s an odd power I never thought I’d have: being able to help causes I want to help. But then I never thought I’d be a tattoo designer either.

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