When a young Ryan Callanan started work at a London sign making company, it’s unlikely that he pictured himself where he is today. With celebrity collaborations, US exhibitions and a British Visual Artist of the Year award under his belt, the artist commonly known as RYCA is now preparing for a display at Brighton’s Ink_d gallery.
“I’ve just done two shows in California so this is the first time any of this stuff has been exhibited in the UK.” Ryan explains of his upcoming show, entitled ‘Life’s A Gamble’.
Partly inspired by a recent trip to Las Vegas and named after a record by hip-hop artist Jay Rock, the exhibition will feature 25 pieces of Ryan’s unique ‘poptorian’ artwork; pop art made using Victorian techniques that he learnt during his aforementioned career.
“My first job was to sculpt heads of various pubs, things like the Marquis of Granby and The Kings Head. Just being at that company I learnt the old-school techniques of gilding and the old-fashioned way of how things were made.
“Being into Warhol I saw how he took print screening from being an advertising process into an art form, I just thought well, this hasn’t been done. The first piece I ever did was a movie quote as a mini pub sign.”
Apart from using modern technology to get the job done quicker, nothing’s really changed for Ryan as he now produces his artwork using the very same skills. But the signs no longer depict the names of the local boozer; instead, they are inspired by music and immortalise the lyrics of some of Ryan’s most admired hip-hop artists.
“I’ve done a lot of lyrics of people who I deem out of reach or who are deceased. You’re never going to get a seal of approval from Biggie Smalls or Tupac, so you’ve kind of just got to do it, as an artist I think its important to just do it. I’m doing it in a tasteful way, I’m not disrespecting these people, I’m trying to pay them the most respect possible.”
When selecting the next lyric to use in his artwork, lifelong music fan Ryan tries to choose snippets that are not exclusively obvious to hip-hop fans. He cites his Wu-Tang Clan-inspired piece, ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’ as a perfect example.
“Previously, bankers have bought it not knowing about hip-hop, not knowing about the Wu Tang Clan, just because that’s their world, it sums it up and that’s the key; I want my art to be accessible instantly.
“You don’t necessarily have to understand the reference point but hopefully people might like a lyric in the show and then go and find the track.”
But of course, a lot of hip-hop fans do appreciate the references, and because of Ryan’s use of gold and precious metals in the finishing of his work, this also hints at the ‘bling’ side of the genre.
One of Ryan’s famous fans is Sergio Pizzorno, guitarist and vocalist with Kasabian, who agreed to a collaboration a few years back. Ryan took a lyric from their single Shoot The Runner, and produced ‘I’m The King and She’s My Queen’.
“The first three sales were to gay couples and it was funny because they were like, ‘He’s the queen and I’m the king’. They definitely sold to people who weren’t aware of where it came from.”
Other artists that have inspired Ryan’s work include Brighton’s own Fatboy Slim, Cypress Hill and more recently Kendrick Lamar, who Ryan praises as one of modern hip-hop’s biggest talents.
“Kendrick’s got the right essence about him, he’s got a really good flow, he’s not necessarily talking about everything else that 90 percent of hip-hop is talking about, which is cars, women, jewellery; he’s got a slightly different, smarter track list.”
The acid house era also inspires Ryan and led him to produce his personal favourite piece; his take on the famous smiley face.
“Without any words it is musically relevant, it’s just potent for me. That smiley face epitomises my childhood, growing up in the 80s not really understanding what was going on, and then later on getting into dance music and finding out how important that acid house era was.”
And the smiley is a continuing source of inspiration for Ryan, as he believes it influenced the emoticon culture of today.
“I look at the smiley as the granddad of the emojis. I redraw them in my style and my criteria for it is I don’t ever do any negative ones, any angry ones. The sort of underlying joke in my series is they’re all grandsons of smiley and rave, and they’re still having a good time so I’ve done the winker, the heart eyes, I’ve done tongue out and the current one I’m about to launch is the blowing a kiss emoji. I just saw them as that reference point and for me I believe that’s where they come from.”
It’s clear that Ryan uses his art as a way of materialising a lifetime’s love of music. By encapsulating symbols and lyrics in precious metal and glass, Ryan is making them timeless for himself, for the artists, and for the people who see or buy his art.
“Things have a shorter life now. Whether it be design, music… the internet has sped up how quickly something exists and you get bored of it and then people move on to the next thing. Most of my stuff kind of pre-dates the Internet which is interesting, some of it’s more recent but the ones that I choose, they’re kind of timeless. For me, someone like Biggie Smalls I think you’re going to be listening to in a hundred years. He’s as important as the old poets to me.”
Ryan Callanan: Life’s A Gamble
Ink_d Gallery, 96 North Rd, Brighton BN1 1YE
Sat 8 Aug – Sun 6 Sept