trevor brown interview by sloan freer, 2004 - conducted by email - unedited text
Brown is Britain's most controversial artist, fearlessly exploring
taboos from violent misogyny to extreme S&M and beyond.
rights, Trevor Brown should be one of British art's greatest treasures.
His surreal images of twisted childhood innocence and medical
fetishism are exquisitely beautiful as they are confrontational
- candy-coloured nursery rhymes to JG Ballard and Hans Bellmer.
But although his work is every bit as brilliant and imaginative
as, say, Jake and Dinos Chapman's, Brown is largely unknown in
his UK homeland. Quite simply, the sheer honesty and bbravery
of his vision means he's never likely to become part of Saatchis
approved elite and their socially acceptable brand of outrage.
Yet since swapping repressive Britain for the multi-sensory delights
of Japan in 1993, the former graphic designer has flourished as
an underground artist. Flitting between explicit S&M line
drawing and his signiture airbrush and oil dolls, he's turned
into a cult darling, and his darkly humerous artwork is now snapped
up by a growing band of savvy libertines. Brown's latest book
Li'l Miss Sticky Kiss features paintings of a pig-tailed Lolita
in various cute'n'warped scenarios. It's arresting and provocative,
made even more startling by the fact that young Sticky Kiss sports
a mysterious black eye.
- - -
someone who has dolls and doll parts all over the house, I don’t
find your interest in dolls unusual. But for the benefit of those
who don’t share this passion, what is it about dolls that
My interest in dolls i suspect very different to almost all other
doll collectors. I think my main fascination is with their innate
emotive power. The same doll can provoke anything from vapid sentimentality
to sheer horror. They are just pieces of plastic but appear to
be the most powerfully evocative objects in existence. All other
figurative and symbolic representations lack these inherent strengths
...except of course religious icons, which i also have a bit of
a fascination with.
Dolls have a sinister quality (look at the dolls in
Barbarella, she thinks they’re so cute, but soon realises
they’re lethal death machines) - don’t you agree?
Please explain why.
Maybe it's something to do with the fact they can be 'animated'.
The head and limbs can be moved ...or even pulled off. The imagination
comes more into play with dolls. So no surprise they develop almost
autonomous characteristics. They come to life.
Your work is like a candy-coloured mutation of Hans
Bellmer and JG Ballard. When did you become aware of these two
people and how have they influenced you?
I guess i was about 15 or 16 when i found JG Ballard paperbacks.
I loved his early science fiction novels but got blown away completely
by 'Crash'. The impact of that book is still influencing my work
even now! Aestheticised violence or, to use a Japanese SM scene
phrase, abnormal beauty. Hans Bellmer i discovered later. Very
much admired, needless to say, but perhaps not such a conscious
influence. I think the same for all those great artists. Their
work is more intimidating than inspiring. There's no hope of ever
painting like Dali so i chose more realistic aspirations or take
inspiration from unconnected sources (pornography for example).
I’ve read that you don’t consider yourself
a good artist, but on the contrary I think it’s your ability
as an artist that has partly generated the shock value of your
work. These are images of dolls rendered so lovingly and realistically
that we (the viewers) transfer life onto them. Do you think that’s
I think it's still the case that i'm not a good artist. I'm very
aware of the shortcomings of my drawing and technical painting
ability even if few other people are. So i'll immodestly suggest
the strengths of my work must lie elsewhere, to a lesser or greater
extent. The concept, composition or the combination of elements
(unexpected juxtapositions?) effecting a perceived 'shock value'?
And i think what separates me from other artists aiming for the
same effect is that my intent is not actually shock but beauty
(so, yes, my images are painted with love).
Going on from that, most kids go through a phase of
taking their toys to pieces. Did you do that as a child?
Quite possibly. My memory is absolutely atrocious though. I can
recall next to none of my childhood. And i guess i've forgot to
grow up too?!
How did dolls become fetishized for you?
Simply by my interest in dolls having to sit in close proximity
to my other more perverse interests. The edges got blurred. The
dolls got tainted and lost their innocence. My biggest fetish
is for nurse dolls. I've no idea how my medical predilections
came about however.
Did you have any habits or desires that could be considered
weird as a child?
I think i was boringly normal. And, even now, i don't think i
have any habits or desires that can be considered weird ...in
my own opinion at least.
I used to dress up half my Sindy dolls as Star Wars
stormtroopers and act out violent sex fantasies on the other Sindys
using them - were there any sort of weird games you used to play
as a child?
Haha! So this is what you young girls get up to?! Another female
admirer of my work told me when she was a child she carried out
identical-sounding complex drawn-out brutal rape scenarios with
her Barbie dolls (and lucky Ken!) with her friend next door, hiding
in a cupboard to act out their fantasies. The same Barbies also
used for personal sexual gratification. I have no stories to tell
myself though, sorry.
There are similarities between what you’re doing
and what the Chapman Brothers are doing in the UK. When I see
pics like Fellatio and Evil in Forbidden Fruit, it reminds me
of their work (stuff like Tragic Anatomies and Fuck Face), is
this purely coincidental?
I was doing heads with penises sprouting out of them long before
Jake and Dinos made a career out of it!
What do you think about the Chapman Brothers’
I'm a huge fan! I love the humour in their work. I'm not so keen
on their two-dimensional things but all their sculptural output
is amazing. The 'penishead' similarities no doubt entirely coincidental,
although i wonder now if they are finally aware of my own work.
I guess not.
Society these days is obsessed with medical procedures,
plastic surgery to attain fleshy perfection. In London we see
women with big black eyes on the Tube, looking like victims of
crime, but instead they’ve just had surgery and they’re
flaunting their richness. Those black eyes are a symbol of elitism,
of wealth. Society fetishizes perfection and sterile medical procedures.
So doesn’t society just do exactly what you’ve been
criticized for doing anyhow? And why do you think that is so?
Society is always full of double-standards. In my own inept naive
way i take pleasure in highlighting these inconsistencies and/or
forcing re-evaluations of such inbred hypocrisies. My new book
of paintings is of the same small girl with a black eye. No doubt
most people in England, because of media fixations, are immediately
going to jump to the conclusion she's a victim of child abuse.
But who said so? She looks happy. The black eye is just there
as a permanent fixture without any explanation. As i've said many
times before: anyone putting dark violent connotations on my work
is really just exposing the sick states of their own minds rather
than mine. And, of course, these same individuals get extremely
annoyed when i say this!
Seems to me, once you get away from your early, line
drawing obvious S&M pics, your work has actually become more
S&M. Your doll pics and young girls are more an exploration
of the real dark truths of S&M than any of your explicit S&M
stuff. The idea of ugly is beautiful, pain is pleasure. The beauty
of fragility. The idea of a bruise or cut not being a symbol of
violence but being a symbol of love, in the same way as youngsters
show off their love bites. A bruise is a monument of extreme emotion,
be it pleasure or pain, in an S&M sense to touch a bruise
is an exquisite reminder of the act involved and the person involved.
Therefore a bruise becomes beautiful.
You don't need me to say anything do you? I reckon you could have
written this whole Trevor Brown feature yourself. You don't need
my boring contributions here.
Do you think this is true?
Yes. I can follow the reasoning without difficulty. In Japan images
of violence and beauty are interwoven to a greater extent - particularly
in the realm of rope bondage. It's no surprise that after my exposure
to this different cultural set of sensibilities my own treatment
of rendering such ideas changed. In fact, as you rather perceptively
pointed out, i was actually trying to get away from drawing SM
images but ironically only moved into deeper levels of it.
What do bruises etc mean to you in your pictures?
For me a kind of sentimentality. Same as seeing a girl crying.
An emphasis of fragility and therefore beauty.
Regarding the elitism of the UK S&M scene, Torture
Garden etc. Having experienced it myself, it seems that only those
people who the ‘in’ fetish crowd dismissed as disgusting
low lives actually understood what the scene was really about.
The S&M fashion “elite” just liked to pose, they
didn’t understand. What pushed you away from the scene?
I was never really in the scene to start with. I hung around the
edges. I had bad experiences with a few magazines and people within
the scene (not Torture Garden i hasten to add). So that pushed
me away from that scene ...and England too. I've since learned
that bullshit is not something specific to the UK fetish scene
Have you had any actual S&M experiences? Not just
from an artistic point of view but personally.
No, never tried. Never had the opportunity. I'm a baby anyway.
Do you think it’s easier for people to condemn
your work outright, than try to explore it and decide for themselves
how it makes them feel? ie label it and reject it as disgusting
immediately as a protective device, to protect them from themselves
and what they might potentially learn about themselves through
This always seems to be the case with people who attack me. The
fact that people do get so worked up to an extreme extent in attempting
to condemn and dismiss my work only affirms the validity and strength
of it? Of course it'll happen one day but as yet i've yet to actually
receive or read a coherently argued invective against my work
free of knee-jerk reactionism and self-conscious indignation.
I understand you’ve always had an obsession with
collecting stuff, one example being items on serial killers (us
too, we bought all the papers the day Myra Hindley died). Are
you still an obsessive collector, and if so, what do you collect?
And what is - in your opinion - the thing that people would regard
as being the weirdest?
Yes, i was guilty of keeping pedantic scrapbooks on Ian Brady
and Myra Hindley, among other pet topics, while i was living in
England. The info-addict in me now mostly sated and overwhelmed
by the internet. So my archivist activities vainly devoted to
documenting Trevor Brown! This interview will doubtless immediately
be tidily catalogued and filed away after completion! I guess
that could be regarded as weird by some people (but i bet they've
also entered their own names into internet search engines). The
only thing i collect now is nurse dollies. I have maybe around
fifty. I'm fussy about which ones i add to the collection.
Why the interest in serial killers?
Same as anyone else's prurient interest in them. I think there's
some reluctant admiration or envy involved. Like they're living
consummate lives of ultimate gratification. The reality invariably
much sadder, messier and lacking in fulfilment. They've not got
Do you have a particularly ‘prized’ serial
killer item in your collection? If so, what is it and why?
Haha, no! Ian Brady's 'Gates of Janus' book the nearest to a prized
serial killer artefact i possess. I'm interested in the philosophy
of serial killers, not in their glorification.
Have you tried Japanese rope bondage with your wife?
Did you like it?
tried. I'd like it, she'd hate it!
Is it true you and your wife were asked to model for
Araki and that you declined? Why?
Not directly asked by Araki himself. But a magazine was doing
regular spreads of photographs by Araki featuring 'unusual' couples
and we were asked if we wanted to appear in it. The series followed
the same sequence of documenting normal daily life, snaps taken
around the couple's home town and then progressed to a bedroom
scene. Cut!!! Forget it! There's absolutely no way Konomi (my
wife) and i would agree to that, whatever the fee offered! I'm
the most camera-shy person in existence. Perhaps notoriously so
now as i systematically turn down all magazine feature offers
etc when a photograph is insisted upon.
Your wife is a celebrated teddy bear maker. Everyone
asks you the stupid question of what she thinks of your work (as
if she should be disgusted or something), but it strikes me that
there’s something symbiotic about your relationship. Does
her work influence you? Does your relationship with her manifest
itself in your art at all, like say the way Mark Ryden’s
family can be seen in his pics (since you yourself have been compared
to Ryden in the way you both twist traditional interpretations
of children and children‘s things)?
I believe Mark is now divorced and separated from his children
who clearly inspired a lot of his work. I'm curious to see what
effect that will have. Konomi has had an immeasurable influence
on my work too. She's the real Trevor Brown?! All too often i
am pleading "Give me an idea!". And even when i'm working
autonomously she'll oversee what i'm doing and interject with
her own criticisms and thoughts ...which i do actually find useful,
even if i choose to ignore them. So it is very much a symbiotic
relationship, except for the fact i have almost no influence on
her teddy bears (that's why she's more hugely successful than
I read that you had a massive porn collection when
you lived in Brighton. What’s your favourite porn? If it
isn’t too much of a personal question, what are the prerequisites
for you getting off?
Pornography is still a big interest for me. I've failed to grow
out of it. I think, among other things, i said before it was the
'glib smiles' i found appealing. That is still more or less true.
I like the way pornography exists in a fake world of it's own
divorced from reality. And only has moments of potency when reality
seeps back in. Moments of genuine sexual ecstasy amidst the acting.
Or the model caught shooting an "ouch, that hurts" daggered
glance at her assailant. Such moments are priceless. Max Hardcore
stuff can be very good. But i only get off on it if the girl is
desirable for me.
Regarding your art, would you like the pics to come
to life? If the pics did come to life (particularly those such
as Piss Fairy, which I understand you have a particular liking
for) what would you do with the girls?
I don't think i'd like any of my wonkilly drawn girls to come
to life. I did, however, run a 'Trevor Brown art look-alike contest'
on my website a year ago. One of the entries for that, who does
look very much like several of my paintings, immediately became
a very close friend (e-friend?). And strangely enough i don't
have any wildly perverted fantasies about her. I'm getting old
Medical settings, clinical yet at the same time cuddly.
The fragility of the human body is its beauty. Is this the case
in your mind?
Yes. Vulnerability = delicateness = femininity = beauty. Something
like that. Though i'm not completely sure why i've sexualised
clinical settings so much. I'm actually petrified of hospitals
and blood etc.
Is there any specific personal incident that can explain
your medical/accident victim fetish?
Just Like A Cunt: pics like this are viewed as misogynist
by some. Yet, I just think it portrays women’s feelings
about their sexuality and male exploitation. How do you feel about
this? And why do you think it’s mainly men who throw the
misogyny accusation at you?
The title IS misogynistic. It was an illustration for a Whitehouse
CD cover - an extreme electronic band renowned for their misogynistic
intent. My image, a girl's face being mauled and invaded by male
hands, is by my own admission one of the more confrontational
things i've done (simply because it was for Whitehouse) and somewhat
misogynistic, although in a slightly more symbolic way. Perversely,
this can be exciting for certain females. Or at least my image
is open enough for a wider range of women to be able to relate
to it as a representation of how they feel. I know the image has
proved very popular with young female admirers of my work. If
guys can't deal with it, that's for them to sort out or live with.
Maybe, a bit dubiously, they think they''ll win the respect of
the opposite sex by appearing to be in support of feminism or
whatever? Or perhaps it's jealousy and anger that my work does
attract the opposite sex? Ha, i'm so cynical!
You talk of “sinister innocence”. To me
your work is saying that all innocence is eventually corrupted
(a theme seen in a lot of Japanese movies such as Takashi Miike’s
Dead or Alive 2), that beneath the perfect, innocent veneer we
are all potentially bad and rancid. Kind of like the images of
the Jamie Bulger killers or Mary Bell, these kids who look pure
on the outside, but are monsters on the inside... can you summarize
what you are trying to say with your work?
'My work is about the human condition'! Yuck! I'm being sarcastic.
I really really hate artist's statements and want to avoid falling
in the trap of making one myself. Artists are ever so keen on
creating a cloud of cryptic cerebral superiority to hide the fact
their work has little depth or meaning. Personally i find it best
and easiest to evasively state my work is saying nothing. The
viewers are the best arbiters of what my work is about.
I know you’ll have been asked this a million
times before, but... how do the accusations of paedophilia that
have been thrown at your work make you feel?
Tired and bored now. I don't think it ever bothered me that much.
Im not going to permit people tell me what i can and cannot paint.
And it's ineffective as an insult as i really don't actually have
any sexual interest in preteen girls. Just because i paint it
doesn't mean i personally like it. (I'm not into SM, or hospitals,
or little girls...)
Your work is so imaginative, you make even commonplace
ideas magical and surreal. What inspires you?
I think you have to be slightly dissociated to allow the ideas
to come through. Not be concerned about what other people think,
not be concerned about what is expected of you and what art is
supposed to be, not be concerned about success and money (this
is the hardest!), not be concerned with the 'real' world and instead
concentrate on exploring and creating your own little world. I
take inspiration from everywhere, steal ideas and twist them to
conform to my world.
Modern culture has sexualised children - you only have
to listen to the music the kids are into with its sexually explicit
lyrics and see the way almost every kid is done up like a Lolita.
By that rationale, does that mean that your work is a form of
social commentary that makes explicit something that‘s implicit
in society? Do you think that’s why people feel so uncomfortable
with it, because of its honesty and the fact that it draws attention
to things people (especially Brits) would rather sweep under the
I don't know if my own work is a comment on it or a contribution
to it. I suppose the former. If it wasn't there already i probably
wouldn't be drawn to it so much. The hypocrisy and hysteria attracts
my attention. And i'm brave or foolish enough to draw and paint
what other people dare not even think. They can pretend sex doesn't
exist until a person is eighteen. But that's more dangerous than
simply acknowledging it (and i believe my art does acknowledge
it in an unharmful way). Sweep it under the carpet, make it 'forbidden',
kids are going to want to know about it. That solves 'the problem'?!
Reading the booklet that came with your postcard set
The Black Box, you get some pretty extreme responses to your work.
What’s the most extreme/strangest /most moving you’ve
I quoted from a letter from a girl (or guy?) in that booklet who
said s/he survived rape as a child from a man who went on to be
convicted for the murder of a dozen children. S/he said my art
helped him/her face the troubling issues left by this. I don't
know how true the story is, though i don't know why someone would
want to make up something like that either. A number of other
fans have intimated similar events so naturally that does make
me feel deeply flattered and validates my work in the face of
those other people telling me to die etc.
To me, your work is a perfect marriage of cultures.
On the one hand there is the British influence - the gritty, dark
humour that can only come from having lived in miserable old Britain.
On the other there’s the Japanese (the Hello Kitty-style
cuteness of your work, mixed with the out-there sexuality, and
of course the fact that you choose to depict mostly Japanese-type
girls). Do you think that’s the case?
Haha, yes! 'Miserable old Britain': it's funny how that phrase
rolls so easily off the tongue. My personality is equally bleak
and black. And no matter how pop, sexy, cutesy and technicolor
my work is, my melancholic background and morbid humour cannot
be hidden. I have embraced the new culture i now find myself in
but it's very much Japanese culture strained through English eyes.
Outside of everything we’ve already discussed,
are there other things/people you find particularly inspirational?
Please explain why in your answer.
As mentioned, i take inspiration from almost anywhere. It may
be the hairstyle of the girl sitting opposite me on the train.
(Girls are always inspirational). I keep mental notes almost unconsciously.
Then weeks later it may get married with a picture seen on the
internet and emerge as a painting. I take in lots and lots and
hopefully things come out eventually.
How important are (sleeping) dreams to you?
Difficult to answer. Sometimes i don't know where my ideas come
from but i know they are familiar. My dreams, my past, all gets
quickly forgotten. I think my brain doesn't work normally.
Ever used images from a dream or nightmare in your
Are you getting any nearer in your wish to produce
Trevor Brown dolls etc?
I doubt it. I thought my Li'l Miss Sticky Kiss creation was the
most commercial, easily accessible and easily marketable thing
i've ever done. However, when making token efforts to look for
distributors for a limited edition paper doll i made of her i
was a little shocked to get back letters proclaiming it was against
the law to sell such an item (this from supposedly liberal underground
distributors!). Bullshit of course but it displays the general
attitude toward my work. I'm now totally pessimistic regarding
the prospects of Trevor Brown vinyl figures.
I read that Leonardo DiCaprio had an extreme reaction
to your work. What happened there?
I wish i was there to see it! It was at an exhibition i had at
the Merry Karnowsky Galley in Los Angeles. Leonardo DiCaprio is
a well known collector of so-called 'low-brow art' and i guess
the fact he admires Mark Ryden greatly Merry thought it would
be a good idea to give him a private viewing of my work. It wasn't
such a good idea. Apparently, his cool blase front very quickly
dropped and he flipped out completely in disbelief at what he
was seeing - shocked and muttering i suspect he left very promptly.
I was hugely amused hearing about this. Of course it would have
been cool if he bought a painting but it's equally cool that he
Tell me a bit about the new book, Li’l Miss Sticky
Kiss. What’s the idea behind her?
Many artists here, Nara or Sorayama for example, have a very identifiable
style or a famous figure they use repeatedly which lends itself
to character design so everyone would immediately know that was
Nara or Sorayama. My work didn't have that, so i created my own
character and painted her obsessively for a period of one year.
Little Miss Sticky Kiss! She rules! She's the cutest! The book
is accordingly cute - it's like a children's book with a fluffy
pink towel cover. My publisher has dubbed it the 'loli-cosplay
bible' (lolita costume play). My old hardcore male fans are going
to be very embarrassed going into a bookshop and buying this decidedly
girlie book. (But then of course it's unlikely to appear in WHSmiths
so they order copies anyway and it arrives in a plain brown envelope).