Warren Lewis is the multi-discipline mashup artist making art that speaks to millennials

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon

In 2002, together with his friends Blaise Janichon and Pierre Coetzee, Warren Lewis started a brand called CircusNinja. He’d just finished advertising school and along with the streetwear label there was also a lowbrow art gallery, some zines, a book, and a scene filled with new artists pushing an exciting new movement. Even though the business ended in failure, these were heady times and what Lewis considers a highlight of his life.

“CircusNinja was running out of Blaise’s house and when we were looking for a new office we found an old building on Harrington St. There was literally nothing going on down there except for Mavericks and Fruit and Veg city, so rent was dirt-cheap. On a whim we decided to open a gallery next door, which I curated and put on a show once a month for almost two years.”

During this time Lewis was part of an art collective, Paint Drips Risks, a film called Tagging Toilets, he made ads for MTV, and he threw up over 5000 ‘chucks’ - a type of street art mobile inspired by the sneakers that inner city kids and drug dealers throw over telephone wires to mark their territory.

It was after one of these chucks came loose and smashed Porky Hefer’s windscreen that Lewis formed a company with him. Animal Farm designed product and sold advertising ideas to commercial brands without them asking for it – the most successful example of which is the Coca-Cola Crates Man for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Ever-illusive, Lewis became more and more removed from the scene he’d helped birth – although you could always tell where he’d been as he had a way of leaving a paint trail here, a sticker there, the words ‘beer’ stenciled on to the water tanks of the building he lived in – until eventually he left for the big smoke.

So when TWoU photographer Nick Gordon visited London we got him to track down the artist who is now tagging the streets of Blighty with shaving cream, painting dollar signs on black bin bags, and using toast as a canvas. Wearing a ring with the words 'likes’, ‘shares’, ‘retweets’, ‘followers’ and ‘champagne' around the sides and ‘FOOLS GOLD’ on top, nowadays Lewis can be found creating heavily laboured canvasses comprising mashed up Twitter accounts, luxury watches, gang graffiti, pop culture references and vacuous social media noise. These have spread to 45 cities in 12 countries via his #GiveAwayGang Twitter project. 

What's evident in all of Lewis' work is how it challenges the viewer to find a connection between seemingly incongruous elements and manages to put a smile on the viewers face. You can read our Q&A with the artist below to discover more.

TWoU: Do you remember anything from your earliest forays into art?

@LikeLewis: When I was a kid my dad was a carpenter and spent most of his time in the factory. I would go to work with him whenever I could and spent a lot of time learning how to make stuff- kindly assisted by his hardcore gangster workforce. I didn’t know it then but that was the beginning of my career as a maker of stuff.

TWoU: How much of your early development would you credit to your high school art teacher, Andrew Putter?

@LikeLewis: Words cannot describe the influence Andrew Putter has had on me as a maker. For anyone who doesn’t know him, Andrew single handedly changed the creative game in Cape Town and continues to do so to this day. His genius was not only his experience and knowledge but his ability to teach the ‘things that cannot be taught’. As clichéd as it sounds, Andrew was the one who taught me how to think.

TWoU: Your aesthetic has always been without polish. From the gallery you set up, The Bin, a lowbrow art space, to the materials you work in, cardboard and koki-pen, and now in London I see you’re writing on toast? Not exactly Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, is it?

@LikeLewis: No. Over the years I've purposefully curved my mediums to whatever is available around me. I find working within the limits of what is available to you yields far more interesting results than working from a blank canvas. Also, I don’t ever want to be in a position where I can justify not making something because of the lack of money or materials. Plus I like the idea of turning discarded nonsense into pieces of value. There’s an irony in that process that fits well with everything else that I do.

TWoU: Your work is still essentially pop art, and not much has changed since The Bin days when you were collaborating and painting with Senyol. Although one major difference I’ve noticed is the level of copywriting in your work. You’ve got a way with words, man! Is that to do with all the hip-hop you listen to or are you just really perceptive to all the marketing we’re subjected to on the daily?

@LikeLewis: Words in my artwork allow me to create a way in for the viewer. When you make paintings, representational objects like faces or buildings give a sense of understanding for the viewer – you feel like you get it (at least on some level) where as an abstract artwork can be really isolating and cold. So for me using words is a simple way to get people to look at my work and not feel like they are staring at something that they ‘don’t understand'. But yes, my passion for wordplay comes from working in commercial advertising, listening to a lot of rap music, reading a lot and being hyper aware of the messages being broadcast across a saturated, urban environment. The true complexity of our culture can really be felt when you begin to pay attention to the mixed messages being broadcast simultaneously through speakers, TVs, advertising units and radio waves around the world.

TWoU: Please unpack the Giveaway Gang concept for us.
@LikeLewis: #GiveAwayGang was a concept that I started last year after my last solo show in Amsterdam. I sold a bunch of work to people who had no idea what the works were about and it made me feel weird. So I started re-thinking my distribution strategy and decided that giving things away for free would be an interesting approach, considering that the art world is built on strong foundations of commerce and exclusivity.

TWoU: And then your visual rap Albums.
@LikeLewis: Last year I released three visual rap albums on RapGenius. This was a project focused on shifting the hyper-exclusive nature of how ‘art’ is seen by the public. I wanted people to realise that they can judge and interpret artworks in the same way they do music – and hopefully opening up the art world to a larger commercial audience.

TWoU: So what exactly are you doing to earn a living now? You must be making decent money because your place looks really good in the photos I saw, and Nikes and Fox gear doesn’t buy itself.

@LikeLewis: During the day I spend my time working on digital campaigns for big brands planning content, defining strategic approaches etc. I really enjoy it and find it a vital part of being a full time artist. For me, just doing ‘Art’ full-time sucks. You don’t get to see people, you don’t get a sense of time passing, you don’t really experience the same world that most people live in. I have learnt that for me to retain my position as a ‘full time artist’ a full time job is a vital piece to the puzzle.

TWoU: Are you going to be living in London for good, what do you love about living there and then what do you miss about home?
@LikeLewis: I don’t think I will live in London forever, but I do enjoy life over here. Overall its juts more layered. There is a lot more going on. But I do miss the authenticity of Cape Town. Nothing over here comes close to the pure creative expression that pops out of SA.

TWoU: Tell us about meeting Lil B and who are some of your other heroes?

@LikeLewis: Meeting LilB was incredible. We chatted a lot about approaches to putting stuff out there and really connected on a conceptual and friendly level, no problem. I have a huge amount of respect for the BasedGod. My other big influences would be Larry David, Frank Ocean and David Attenborough.

TWoU: Tell us about the exhibitions you’ve had in the past and if there’s anything new coming up?
@LikeLewis: I have had a lot of exhibitions in the past. They made me rethink why I have shows, what I am trying to get out of them and if there are more interesting ways to achieve the same goals. There definitely are, so for now I’m focusing on giving work away for free online and working on a bunch of other things in the background.

TWoU: Are you still seriously looking for a sponsorship deal from a sports brand?@LikeLewis: I am. I have a lot to offer a big commercial brand and am seriously looking to discuss the possibilities and potential with anyone brave enough to even consider it.

TWoU: Can we give away one of your pieces? 
@LikeLewis: No problem. Head over to @LikeLewis on Instagram right now to find out how to enter – the winner will be announced at the end of the week.