Pictured above: Jim Bachor’s Chicago’s Cupid graffiti pothole (Chicago)
Angela Youngman talks to Jim Bachor, Ememem, Helen Miles and Will Rosie about their graffiti mosaics, which are – literally – changing the world.
BY ANGELA YOUNGMAN
Mosaics are popping up in the most unlikely places – filling in a hole in the road or pavement, on a bare wall, or overlooking a cemetery. None have official permission to be there. This is graffiti art 21st-century style. Designed to raise a smile or make you think, or to bring colour and life into forgotten corners, it is proving immensely popular. Trails and maps showing the location of mosaic graffiti art are being followed avidly, and this unofficial artwork has even appeared in tourist guidebooks.
It is certainly having an impact. Artist Will Rosie recalls a “little five-year-old lad” who copies him by fixing books to walls, chairs and tables with Blu Tack, then brushes them down as if adding grout, while another lady recovering from spinal surgery made it her aim to get well enough to walk down to the end of the street to see a mosaic. Ambulance drivers have been known to play mosaic bingo trying to find his quirky mosaics, while runners use them as trail markers.
It all started in May 2013 when Jim Bachor got fed up with a pothole that refused to stay fixed outside his Chicago home. He decided to do something about it and filled it in with a black and white mosaic. It went viral, and Jim was swamped by requests to deal with other potholes. Now there’s a pothole specification on his website, enabling people to provide him with details and potential locations. Bachor’s pothole mosaics have appeared in cities around the world from New York to Helsinki. He uses simple images ranging from hot dogs, ice-cream to Aretha Franklin’s face. “I’ve now done over 90 pothole mosaics. In a good year, I might do 20 plus; other times six to eight. I try to make the concept match the locality and reflect my dry humour. I use simple designs, which can be easily cut to shape if necessary. Originally I tailor made them for a specific pothole, but my technique has evolved, and they are now more modular,” says Jim.
Pictured: Jim Bachor and some of his pothole mosaics
“There have been times when I’ve had work ready for a pothole and then found it had been filled in. On one of my running routes, I saw a pair of potholes and had a good idea. I created the mosaics and then found they had been fixed. I kept them for about a year, then saw two more potholes close together just five miles from my original ones. So I went ahead and filled them.”
In Lyon, Ememem began repairing damaged pavements with mosaics in 2016 using varying materials such as tar, ceramics and wood. His colourful designs include stripes, abstracts, chequerboard geometrics and comments on society. There are now over 500 worldwide. Describing his technique as “flacking” from the French word flaque (pothole), he uses the local context to provide inspiration. Ememem sees himself as “a macadam poet, dedicating my work to the people looking down, hoping to bring a smile”.
Pictured: Some of Ememem’s flacking mosaics
Southampton-based Will Rosie shares a similar aim – to make people smile, which is why he started with Mr Men and superheroes. “It started because I took part in Wild at Art trails, mosaicking a rhino and a zebra,” says Will. “I liked the way people went round to see them and thought it would be nice to do a permanent trail that would raise a smile so I chose Mr Men. I go out find a location and stick it on a wall. After three months, social media traffic was high, and I was getting mates tagging me about it. The BBC asked to film me. I’ve done about 100 since I started in 2019, and have mosaics all over the city.”
Edinburgh-based Helen Miles used graffiti art as a way of helping her to settle in Edinburgh after many years living overseas, creating connections and making contacts. “It has given me a sense of belonging,” she says. “I’m inspired by places. I created a key on a wall as a comment about the barred entry from gardens adjoining Carlton Hill. I put a mosaic on a wall destined for demolition. Someone sent me a picture of the Council carefully removing it and replacing it on the wall of the new building that was being put up.”
Pictured: Some of Helen Miles’s graffiti mosaics and, bottom right, Helen (right) with Kat Powers in Chicago
Will Rosie has become almost semi-official with councillors quietly seeking out his work or asking him to consider locations. “I put Mr Plod on a local police station and there has been no comeback! I was putting up Mr Lazy when I found a councillor standing behind me. He wanted to know when I was going to put some in the east of the city – his ward. I thought about it and found a link by putting Mr Hope on a bridge over the river used by people intent on committing suicide. The reaction was mental – I had 130,000 views sharing it within a short time. A council leader commented in public: ‘We recognise that Will is not doing it conventionally but he is doing a good job.'”
None of the artists contacted began their graffiti art as a way of gaining commissions, although it has certainly helped their careers if only by providing visibility for their work. Ememem creates replicas of some of his work, exhibiting them in galleries, and the Paris Art Fair. Helen Miles used it as a way to make her work more known and says it helped bring students to her classes, while Will Rosie gained commissions as a result.
“A woman asked me for a Mr Electrician for her husband, and I did a Mr Marathon for the organiser of the Southampton Marathon,” says Will. “At an event, I pushed a picture of my graffiti mosaics in front of the mayor and asked him what he thought of them. He told me to go away and make a mosaic of Mr Mayor. I eventually ended up with £5,000 worth of commissions for mr mosaics celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower. I’m working on a book about my graffiti art, which shows Mr Men Unavailable on the front cover, and I use the term ‘Mr Mosaic’ on my LinkedIn page.”
Pictured: Some of Will Rosie’s graffiti mosaics and, bottom right, Will (left) with the mayor of Southampton
Graffiti mosaics are proving a tourist draw. People travel for miles to search out mosaics by artists like Jim Bachor and Ememen, following various Internet maps. “I’ve found my mosaics listed in an Edinburgh guidebook. I’m not named, but the mosaics are,” says Helen. “I was walking along the road, when a group of Japanese tourists stopped me, opened this guide and said, ‘Where can we find these?’ I was delighted but didn’t say who I was; I just pointed and said, ‘Yes, they are in that direction’.” And Will knows that people visit Southampton to see the mosaics. “A councillor’s daughter came down to see her Mum and said she had a list of mosaics to find,” he says. “They spent all weekend hunting for my mosaics. I would like to think that Southampton could get a name for itself as the mosaic city.”
Graffiti mosaics are here to stay and are already developing into new formats. Artists wanting to do collaborations have approached Will, especially about his latest activity hiding free “squoji” mosaics for anyone to find if they follow clues.
Jim Bachor adds, “I want to push the concept and idea of what is a mosaic, encouraging mosaic art to be thought of as fine art rather than being crafty. I want to encourage people to think about the concepts and the ideas behind it. I’ve experimented and done things like taking a hot dog, carbonising it on my charcoal grill then rubbing it into a powder and adding to the concrete of a hot dog mosaic. I like the idea of the actual product being used to create the image.”