Street Artist Phlegm

By The Arty Teacher - March 3, 2024

Phlegm is a street artist from the UK known for intricate black-and-white murals which can be found worldwide. He also creates detailed drawings, engravings and installations.  Remaining anonymous, Phlegm’s work features surreal illustrations showcasing imaginative creatures and worlds. His art, blending street, illustration, and fine art, captivates viewers with meticulous linework and a dreamlike quality.

I started following Phelgm on instagram in lockdown. He created a series of lockdown drawings that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. He stated on instagram that he was going to put his current work on hold and concentrate on drawing:

“All work based on the highs and lows of these scary times. A kind of virus companion for my own sanity and yours.”

Drawing by Artist Phlegm

His recent exhibition in Sheffield ‘Phlegm: Pandemic Diary‘ exhibited these drawings and more, and was well worth the trip. So inspired, I reach out to Phelgm, and he agreed to an interivew by email and also to collaborate on a presentation for art teachers to use in the classroom. Read on to see what he revealed.

Street Artist Phlegm

Did you have an art teacher at school who inspired you?

“In school absolutely not. My teacher hated how meticulous i was and forever tried to get me to be loose and expressive. I adored drawing and he certainly didn’t help cultivate it in secondary school. It was college where I first began to find some guidance. My art teacher in college was quite likely seen as a bit rogue. He used most of the school resources to work on his own commissions and just rushed through the teaching part. What I think was special was just his pure enthusiasm. His love and commitment to his own work was contagious. His guidance and advice was small but I hung on to every word. I think getting a front seat view of a practicing artist was just fantastic. It made me feel it was all possible.” 

Did you go to art college? If so, where?

“I went to art collage in Wales and then moved to west yorkshire to do my degree at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Phelgm and Drawing

Phlegms drawings and engravings showcase highly detailed and elaborate scenes, filled with imaginative characters and creatures. They have a narrative quality that draws you into another world. His use of mark making, in the form of dots, dashes and cross hatching, make you want to look again and look closer.

Street Artist Phlegm

Your drawings are frequently very small. Is there a reason? Why does small appeal?

“Two reasons really. The main one is that my work started out as small hand made books and comics. I’ve always seen my books as the final stage of the artwork. I think because i’ve always avoided the gallery system, i rarely see a body of work hung on a wall. Books became my way of showing a collection. Also i feel my work is quite nuanced and poetic so often the feelings i’m trying to convey come out when you see the whole book rather than just a page….as a novel works i guess. Its the collective impression of the whole journey.”

“More recently (over the past seven years) i’ve been working on a miniatures project. We started a family and i knew i would have more time at home and less sleep for a few years! So i decided to focus on pushing the detail of my drawing and engraving. The project is now finished but my interest in fine engraving blossomed into the main area of my work.” 

Phlegm and Copper Engravings

Tell me about your prints.

“I have done a few etchings in my time but i’m mainly an engraver. So that means i create the work with tiny little chisels called burins instead of using acids to make the lines in the copper. This means i can control the depth of the line with the tool which in turn give the images far more depth of tone and delicate line work.”

I noticed you referenced Albrecht Dürer in one of your Instagram posts.  Do you have any other influences?

“I have many influences from the same era as i feel hand engraving reached its peak around then before it was slowly replaced by chemical etching. These are all influences on technique but influences on ideas and content i would say are built more from narrative and storytelling. I love very old folk tales and half forgotten customs. I tend to approach a drawing as if its a story. I write short comic strips in my sketchbooks and think of complex scenarios that revolve around whatever idea i have. Then, when the whole idea feels real to me i pluck out one image from the story and use that as the mural or the stand alone drawing. When its taken away from all the writing and storyboarding i’ve done behind the scenes it feels like it has mystery. The story is lost but something authentic remains. It clearly has meaning and purpose but all the blanks are left for the viewer to fill in.” 

Peasant Couple Dancing by Albrecht Durer
Peasant Couple Dancing (1514) by Albrecht Dürer

Below is a picture from Phlegms Instagram showing an Albrecht Dürer engraving and his drawing next to it. Phlegm then used the drawing to create a copper engraving.

Phelgm & Street Art

Phlegm has been commissioned by people all over the world to create street murals. He always responds to both to the people and physical environment of the areas where he works. Below is a 5-story tall robot in Australia where the flickering car park light became the robots heart.

The Phlegm Robot (2017) Melbourne Australia

How do you keep things in proportion working on such a large scale? 

“A very long stick. I tape together lots of painting poles so i can stand back as far as possible to sketch the rough outline. When its all in place i work closer and try to tidy up the mess i’ve made.” 

Street Artist Phlegm
Phlegm mural in his long-time home of Sheffield.

Is your street art always commissioned, or have you painted some street art without permission?

“I often paint abandoned spaces without permission. Never public space. I like the solitude of painting in forgotten ruined buildings. Its also nice to get a break from feeling like it has to be a success. Sometimes its nice to make mistakes, try something new or just to paint some content you wouldn’t really feel comfortable putting in a city centre.” 

Does the person/organisation who has commissioned the mural influence what you create or are you given free reign?

“I don’t really like any influence on design. I have a natural feeling for what will work in a particular space and i balance that by looking at who lives near the wall and how much impact it would cause. A wall in a rural area with no murals next to a primary school would be different to a city centre next to a university for instance.” 

What process goes on prior to creating a mural?

“I like to look at the history of the area, the building and just get a feel for who passes a wall. I’ll often spend a day sat near the wall to see what the flow of people are like and get to know the people who will live with it. It often informs what i decide to paint.” 

Mausoleum of the Giants

If I could go back in time to see one exhibition, it would definitely be Phelgms ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’. This imimmersive installation took place in Sheffield, UK, and it was a significant project showcasing Phlegm’s unique artistic style and storytelling ability. The exhibition featured a series of large-scale sculptures that responded to the space they were created in, and transformed the space into a fantastical world.

Your ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’ seems like a huge undertaking. What inspired you to make them? 

“I grew up painting in abandoned factories. I think after doing my degree in sculpture i always felt the desire to try something ambitious but to also go back to my roots in a location like that.”  

Was the scale important?

“I think scale is important in all my work and in every level. I see human sized work as the most physically relatable, thats why the human element is usually not far off our size. Large artwork has the same awe inspiring feeling evoked by walking into a huge cathedral or space. It provokes a feeling of being small amongst a backdrop of something immense. The same happens with miniature detail. It provokes a feeling of introspection and intimacy. Making you feel theres a world so small happening below the threshold of what we see. I guess i’m trying to explain that all scale manipulates us in relation to our own scale.” 

Photo by Chris Saunders.

How long did the giants take to build?

“Four long months in the cold.” 

Did you have a team who helped your or was it a solo endeavour?

“I had a small team of about ten that helped me graft through the building and cleaning but then towards the end, when it was about painting, i was back on my own again.” 

Can you give away any secrets about their construction that might help art teachers in the classroom?

“Its as cheap as i could manage. I just wanted something ephemeral and easy. Its just wooden skeleton with chicken wire over the top then paper mache. I did a few layers of waterproof pva then some masonry paint to make it deal with the damp.”

Strange bird-like heads were present in both the ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’ and ‘Plegm: Pandemic Diary’ exhibtion.

I loved the bird heads in your ‘Pandemic Diary’ exhibition.  Are they owls or some other sort of bird?

“I love animals of all sorts but reptiles, birds and dinosaurs (which are all arguably the same anyway) inform my work the most.” 

Phlegm in Epping Forest

I love the art you created photographed in Epping Forest. (The idea would make a great school art project!) Was there something that inspired you to do this?

“I was very run down with traveling all the time to paint murals. Different time zones and always being away from the uk seasons. I wanted a summer of just feeling things grow. Epping forest is on my doorstep so i decided to spend the summer just working using the natural materials and rubbish i found. I made my push bike into a traveling studio.”

Why do you choose to remain anonymous?

“I like my work to just exist in a kind of authorless state. Its ethereal and strange. I don’t really see what i would add by being a part of it. Thats also why i don’t sign my murals.”

What advice would you give a student who wanted to make work inspired by yours?  

“I think honesty is the best thing to start with. You have to knowingly fill your mind with the things you want to express. My wierd outlook on the world is just a lifetime immersed in reading dusty old manuscripts in museums and antique shops, listening to old people from different countries explain folk stories and fairytales. The work you create will always be a reflection of what you are surrounded by. Thats why i worry about younger generations of artists sometimes. A life spent on instagram or whatever social media is popular at the time. Its a cultural echo chamber. So many of my favorite artists exist on the periphery of society. Outsider artists with unique perspectives. I think the best advice is to actively be aware your mind is a vessel or sponge you fill up, and the artwork you produce is always going to be a reflection of that.”

What’s the next for Phlegm?

“Hopefully finish up the engraving project. The work is all done, i just need to organise the show and work on getting the book ready for print to accompany it.” 

“I have a wordless graphic novel i’ve been chipping away at for over 12 years so my plan is to finish all my other distractions and then get back to that full time.”

Links for the Curious

The Bestiary – an installation at Howard Griffin Gallery

Photographer Chris Saunder documents the making of Mausoleum of the Giants

Where can you find Phelgms murals?

Free Presentation on Street Artist Phlegm

Click the image below to see and download the free presentation about street artist Phelgm.

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The Arty Teacher

Sarah Crowther is The Arty Teacher. She is a high school art teacher in the North West of England. She strives to share her enthusiasm for art by providing art teachers around the globe with high-quality resources and by sharing her expertise through this blog.

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