Warhol-esque prints of Jackie, Marilyn and Audrey adorn the walls. Their blackened tears flood out of the frames and onto the floor. Lilliputian prostitutes hide in corners as their overlord steps down to survey the room.
This dark master is Pure Evil, also known as Charley Uzzell Edwards, a street-artist-cum-gallerist who recently added “father” to his list of credits. Within seconds of meeting him, it becomes apparent that his alter ego’s moniker was created with a healthy dose of irony.
The name grew out of his children’s fashion line called the So Fuzzy Crew. “There was a bear, there was a monkey, and there was this little pure evil rabbit. Slowly, the rabbit killed off the other members of the So Fuzzy Crew. There were no more apart from him – he became the alpha bunny.”
This amalgamation of humour, art and malevolence is sprinkled throughout his rough-and-ready gallery on Leonard Street. A space he was meant only to inhabit for two weeks, but has now laid claim to since 2007.
He opened the gallery after a conversation with New York curator Aaron Rose, who told him five years back: “Look, all you really need to do is paint the walls white and make sure you pay the electricity bill. It’s as simple as that.”
Although his is not a “fancy shmancy” gallery, Charley maintains loyalties because he recognises the importance of fiscal compensation to his artists – giving them 75 per cent of the funds from sales. “The bottom line is actually paying the artist, which I think a lot of galleries forget about. It’s very nice to say to them, ‘Look, you’ve just sold these three pieces – here you go. You don’t have to work in KFC anymore,’” he explains of his business relationships.
Becoming an artist was his “destiny”, he says. He was exposed to the art world by his father, the Welsh painter, John Uzzell Edwards. Holidays would forgo seaside lounging in favour of visits to galleries and museums. Stepping out of his father’s footsteps, Charley decided to study fashion design at Kingston University. “I wanted to circumvent the whole artsy thing – wearing the berets, the smocks, the big hog brush and all that,” he says.
So with a degree in hand, Charley flew over to San Francisco and spent most of the nineties working as a street-wear designer for west-coast label Anarchic Adjusment. Fashioning items for skate and snowboarders allowed him to become “immersed in street culture” by “sucking up” and “absorbing” the work happening around him.
His foray into urban art was halted in 2000 when Charley was denied re-entry to the US following a short trip home to the UK. He could have applied for citizenship but decided against on the grounds that he didn’t want to pledge allegiance to “that major asshole” – George Bush.
Stripped of nearly all his earthly possessions and with only 200 dollars left in his pocket, Charley moved back in with his parents and started anew. “I just sat in the shed and painted and created. The phrase that stuck in my mind was, ‘art will set you free.’ And that’s what it did.”
He spent the next few years continuing to work as a graphic and fashion designer, moving out of the Welsh countryside to London. But his interest in street art was growing as he began to roam the alleys at night – spraying his evil bunny on shadowed walls. However, following a jaunt to Paris in 2004, the “father of stencil art” – a.k.a. Blek Le Rat – told him: “Within two years time you’ll be making a living from this.” The seed was sewn. He realised he could bring his furry friend into the light.
As “Blek” predicted, Charley hosted his debut solo show at the Old Truman Brewery in 2006. It was a success and he sold more than half of his works – garnering sufficient funds to step back and contemplate his next steps.
“When I started selling little bunny rabbits on cardboard for 50 quid, I thought ‘Whoa, that’s amazing.’ I always thought about how Picasso could basically just draw on a napkin and pay for a meal,” he says.
His artistic background and upbringing now give him a curatorial edge. “I find that working with other artists, because I’m an artist myself, I understand their mentality.”
He recognises that there is a divide between urban art genres, and says: “I think it’s really funny how it’s sort of – graffiti equals bad, street art equals good. There has been a seismic shift in people’s perception of what having something painted on the side of a building means.”
Charley’s role in this shift has been seismic in itself and his advice for the street artists of today and tomorrow is to share their message. He says: “Even if you are spray painting a puppy on the side of someone’s house, it’s still a political act. You’re saying, ‘I’m taking this wall.’ It’s about that kind of freedom.”
He believes, however, the message should be benevolent: “Paint something that’s positive or paint something that’s anti-war. Rather than just going, ‘I’m going to put my name up everywhere.’ Because that gets a little boring.” And Pure Evil is certainly not that.