If you live in Sheffield you can’t fail to notice the work of the local enigmatic street artist Phlegm. Every so often you will turn a corner and find a spindly monochrome figure slinking along the wall beside you, drawing you into Phlegm’s surreal world. From his artistic start as both writer and artist for his self published comics, Phlegm has branched out into murals and graffiti. His work is drawn directly from his comics and retains their sinister and surreal sensibilities but writ large. While his art has been described as having a childlike and story book quality, it’s nightmarish qualities would make you wonder about its suitability were it ever to find its way into a story book. That being said, many people remember a picture book that gave them nightmares as a child, but that they had to keep re-reading and Phlegm’s work taps straight into that collective memory. Here are monsters, castles, machines, death and all those things you worried lurked under the bed or in the back of the closet.
Most images are black and white and reminiscent of beautifully detailed pen and ink illustrations. They frequently feature lanky masked figures moving through surreal cityscapes, interacting with bizarre sea serpents or using machines Heath Robinson would have discarded as too arcane. While the murals originally insinuated themselves onto decaying walls and abandoned buildings they have started a march out into galleries with Phlegm’s solo show in 2013. The trouble is that they don’t really suit a gallery. They are essentially spectral art for the forgotten parts of town and that’s where they sit best. Whether it’s an Icarus standing atop a pile of rubble or a skeletal serpent, with its equally skeletal lunch, on a concrete drainage culvert this is art that demands to be part of the environment. This is further reinforced by the frequent use of elements of the buildings on which the murals have been done within the art. It’s not uncommon to see doors and windows incorporated into the art, or creatures climbing the walls using window ledges as hand holds.
While phlegm came to prominence in Sheffield, and still paints there, he has produced murals around the world both individually and in co-operation with other artists. You can stumble across his work in Europe, the States, Australia and New Zealand. If you’re not lucky enough to have a local piece to view, Phlegm also maintains a blog showcasing his work. While this blog and his increasing popularity make his art more accessible, the one thing that is very scarce is information about the artist. It appears that Phlegm likes his art to speak for itself which I find that it does with a deeply surreal eloquence.