Activist Art: A chat with street artist, Chris Fleming

Ex-Newcastle University student Chris Fleming, street name Ida4, has attracted a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks for painting a mural in protest against Russia’s laws banning the publication and distribution of gay rights propaganda.The law has led to a dramatic increase in homophobic violence, putting Russian people’s lives and wellbeing in danger whilst also challenging the primary principle of the Olympic campaign that guarantees nondiscrimination. When questioned about the new laws Putin claimed that they were not at all discriminatory and were purely in place to protect children.

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As a member of the gay community in Newcastle I was curious to see how Chris responded to this backward attitude.

‘They’ve linked [being gay] with any alternative sexual kind of lifestyle. They’re saying it’s the same as paedophilia or bestiality or any thing that isn’t heterosexual is put in that group. No one is going to argue against protecting children from paedophiles but its implying that if they’re surrounded by gay people or they’re told that being gay is a viable lifestyle, it’s the norm, then its going to turn loads of kids gay. You can’t turn somebody gay just like you can’t turn somebody straight.’

The mural Chris painted on the day of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics aims to show support for those suffering from homophobic attacks in Russia and ‘just to say there’s people over here who know what’s going on.’ The image is based on a photograph taken at the St. Petersburg pride rally of a young boy being pushed to the floor and arrested by a policeman.

‘I did it originally last August… there’s some like graffiti arches round the back of the Sage and they do events every now and then so I decided I would just put it on one of those arches. I put it on Twitter and I sent it to Stephen Fry saying I’ve done this will you help spread it around and he retweeted it and it went absolutely mental. It got retweeted like 900 times and I got this email saying I was trending in the UK.’

The original image was painted over, but Chris decided to re-spray it opposite the Jurys Inn, adding the powerful background text from the Olympic charter. The new version of the mural has received wide spread media attention and personal responses. I ask Chris why he thinks street art in particular is such an effective way of addressing political concerns and issues.

‘I think it’s because it’s just judged and viewed. You’re walking along and bam it’s there in a doorway or you’re driving along and you see it. It’s not meant to be studied and looked at for hours. If you think about the history of street art… all the places that have big street art scenes generally had two groups of people who wanted to say something to each other. You’re just trying to say something in pictures or a couple of words.’

‘I’m very happy in my life but I’m aware that’s not the case with everybody. I’ll stand up for what I believe, just like personally, excluding all the street art, if I’m just sitting here and I hear somebody say something I will always challenge them because I’m in a position where I can. I hated that craze when everybody was saying ‘that’s gay, that’s totally gay’. That really used to bother me. It’s not going to change my life but I always think that if there’s like an 18, 19 year old boy in that group who’s in the closet and there’s people he really respects and they’re using the phrase, what he is, to mean shit… I always ask people to explain what they meant, and make them aware of the impact of what they’re saying. I think everybody has a responsibility ,whether you’re gay or straight to stand up for what you believe in.’

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Though Chris does not believe that the Olympics should have been boycotted, he feels disappointed that nobody has used it as a platform to speak out explicitly against the Russian government.

‘It would just be nice if somebody said we completely disagree with the laws. In recent years, it doesn’t matter what the government says, it just matters what the people say. That’s the only reason the Tories are so behind [gay rights] now. David Cameron voted no to every kind of gay law years back, but now he’s suddenly the ultimate supporter because he knows if he was anti-gay the British public wouldn’t like it.’

The laws in place have made it difficult for voices to be heard though. Athletes who wish to speak out against anti-gay legislation can only do so in a special ‘protest zone’ which is located 11 miles away from the Sochi Olympic village. The sponsors of the games however, Chris reminds me, still have the power to demonstrate their support for the gay community. ‘Budweiser always has a big party at the opening ceremony and they took that away. Coca Cola made a feeble attempt, sticking some gays in their adverts, which they didn’t even show worldwide.’

Having recently returned from a trip around Europe, ‘an art exchange’, painting murals in return for a room at various hostels, I wonder if Chris has considered visiting Russia.

‘I’ve thought about it but I’ve always thought I would never go to a country that didn’t support me as a member of the gay community. I’m not going to deny myself. I don’t deny what I am if anyone asks anywhere but I don’t want to be somewhere where you had to because otherwise you were putting yourself at massive risk. You’re always going to meet an arsehole, but it’s a different situation when the state is on your side.’

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Chris and his partner Jamie plan to continue their exchange in March, taking part in festivals and working with LGB charities all across Europe.

‘I’m kind of toying with the idea of cutting the image [the Olympic mural] out but smaller and then doing a run of like 25 or something and selling them for whatever and giving half of it to a Russian LGBT charity and then the other half will pay for the petrol to go round Europe. When we’re working for charities and stuff we don’t have the accommodation or food provided. Obviously we need living costs so we’re thinking that’s what we’re going to do.’

You can read more about Chris’s work and projects around Europe via his blog http://www.ida4ineurope.blogspot.co.uk or check out his website http://www.ida4.co.uk

This article was originally written for and published by ‘The Courier’: http://thecourieronline.co.uk/feature-activist-art/

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