An interview with Benjamin Irritant, a London-based artist whose wheatpastes resemble crafty propaganda posters. Using clever imagery and wordplay, Irritant tackles themes of anti-consumerism, individuality, and working class struggles.
Wander through the streets of London and you may find yourself coming across what seems to be dystopian propaganda; the words ‘Prisoner of More’ echoing over a black and white background or a well-suited man with a rabbit head, carrying a picket that reads ‘They Lie We Buy.’ These are the provocative posters of Benjamin Irritant.
An artist of many stripes, Irritant began doing posters in the Margaret Thatcher era. Critical of her economic policies, (Britain’s answer to Reaganomics,) Irritant took to the streets to voice his protest. Learning from a friend, he practiced a technique of patching together newspaper clippings and magazine cut-ups.
Posters have a long tradition among Britain’s working class. Since the industrial revolution, London’s labor unions took to communicating via posters, to organize and combat exploitation at the hands of factory owners. His art takes to task the class struggle.
Despite his moniker, Irritant is a good natured guy. Tongue-and-Cheek sayings and visual puns are a staple of his style. His posters play with absurdist contradictions and ironic juxtapositions. For Irritant, the most important thing is just getting a message out there to communicate.
“I love something that’s a little bit clever. A play on words. That strange humor you get knocking about the place.”
Irritant earned the nickname while living in a squat with a few people. Six people stuck in a small flat – he was the second Ben.
“I was quite annoying my first day there.” He joked.
Irritant is a self-described, “inadvertent bridge burner.” People skills aside, he has moved between mediums a couple times. But all his life he’s been making art. As a kid, he received the idea for his most iconic image. “People used to give me rabbits… hence, the rabbits.”
In his teens, he took to graf, but he didn’t fit in with the culture.
“I wasn’t a gangster; I couldn’t steal stuff from people.” Ever an English gentleman, Irritant didn’t want to rack paint or needlessly piss off homeowners. His graffiti career didn’t go far.
For years, Irritant dipped in-and-out art, taking up painting and other crafts.
He chuckled. “I went down this weird thing, making films and doing performance art.”
Still, Irritant always loved making posters — but he felt they were lackluster.
“I had this strange value system, where I felt you had to suffer for your art.” Irritant explained.
“This strange idea… that because I really enjoyed it, it wasn’t worth much.”
“There’s always been, especially with paste-ups, a bit of a political side.”
Irritant’s anti-consumerist mantras are more relevant than ever in today’s era of political chaos. But what makes the message stick with the viewer are the slogans.
A personal favorite of his is “Prisoner of More.”
“It’s a simple play on words, but it really sums up what a lot of my work is about.”
In the beginning, every poster had its own original slogan. However, some friends took Irritant aside and told him he was making too much work or himself.
“They told me: you can’t just abandon each thing… stick with it and it’ll grow.”
True to his nature, Irritant was always moving on to the next thing. With his current crop of tag lines, Irritant reworks the same phrases into different images, building the themes of his oeuvre. He found by repeating the mantras, “it strikes a chord with a lot of people.”
As to his own politics, the issue Irritant feels most strongly about is myopic decision-making.
“To be honest, I’m anti-short term. All our politicians… they just do what’s gonna get them elected one more time.”
In 2016, America and the U.K. held hands and jumped off the bridge together, voting forward Trump & Brexit. Irritant believes that to impact ‘proper change,’ countries need to think more globally.
Despite the shifting political currents, Irritant doesn’t like to see the world as all doom and gloom.
“The good thing is, people are getting more interested [in politics]. They’re realizing things aren’t as they should be.”
Irritant reflected on the street art scene in London. Years ago, the city used to have much more, but due to a government crackdown in favor of property rights, most of the murals and graffiti are limited to Brick Lane, Shoreditch, and the Leake Street Tunnel.
Brick Lane gets a lot of foot traffic, as art enthusiasts make pilgrimages to see what’s up.
“If you want people to see your work, that’s the place.”
But Irritant wants his message wide spread. He makes it a point to post up outside the designated safe zones.
“It’s a bit risky… A lot more risky sometimes. But it’s a way to reach people who wouldn’t see it otherwise. That way you’re not just preaching to the converted.”
At times, Irritant found it difficult to reach his audience. In his latest artistic phase, his work wasn’t getting a lot of feedback. And then he thought back to his childhood and remembered…
He started introducing the rabbit figures alongside his slogans and immediately he started getting photographed more.
“It was an experiment, but I knew it would work. It got a lot more attention.”
He was selected by the photographer collective, jj_urbanart as a featured artist. The photo in question was a Rabbit-headed man, with a sign that reads “Forget You Ever Saw Me.”
The streets are a platform for global conversation. To Irritant, street art is about more than just the posters or the ego, it’s about what it all represents.
“I like that its free, it’s not precious. It’s a transient thing. There’s a beauty to that.” He mused, “It’s a form of raw communication, open to everybody. You don’t need a degree in fine art to create it or have an opinion.”
For the most part, Irritant prefers to stay in the background. He doesn’t let people take photographs of him, so the focus remains the message. He told me the need to project his message so boldly stems from a past regret.
“Something happened to me, year and a half ago. This one thought kept popping up in my mind… But I never really said what I wanted to say.” Irritant explained. “That’s what prompted what I’m doing now.”
With purpose, he hit the streets, spreading his own brand of cheeky rebellion. Irritant is optimistic about the future, despite our global turmoil. In a sense, this political storm may help people come together.
Irritant told me cheerfully, “We can commiserate on the hate. And maybe, people will start to reevaluate on what really matters.”
Story Written by T.K. Mills
Photos provided by Benjamin Irritant
For more by the author, check out tkmills.com