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Mr Bingo: »Most things I do begin as a joke«

The one and only Mr Bingo is an artist, illustrator and the king of hand-drawn ­comedy. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t accustomed to the darker side of life. Of course not, he just finds the comical aspects there, too

Photo by Matt Crockett

Mr Bingo has elevated sparkling, biting and delightfully cheeky humor to his very own art form – on paper and on stage. He renders Queen Elizabeth II in fine red lines wearing suspenders, draws colorful penis and vulva plants, he invented a legendary Advent calendar where you scratch people’s clothes off and leave them naked, and is holding conference speeches that you don’t want to ever end. His fan ­base is huge, with many of his drawings selling out in minutes. His new works, however, are much more personal, darker, and deeper – but have by no means lost their humor. And as Mr Bingo keeps jumping up from his seat to pick out drawings to show, we talk to him about good punchlines and existential thoughts, about the joys of meeting complete strangers – and his trying to work less. 

Mr Bingo calls himself “an artist, speaker and twat”. Even though he is very present as a person, he would never tell you his real name. Instead, he expresses how he sees himself in this self-portrait from March 2021

You worked as a very successful illustrator for The New Yorker, The Guardian or The New York Times. But in 2015 you deleted your website and made a vow to never work for clients or companies again. What happened?
Mr Bingo: I was a commercial illustrator for about 13 years, and I loved it. But at the same time, I found a fan base on social media, which I never expected. It was something that kind of happened by mistake but made me understand that there were people outside the commercial business who are really interested in my work. So in 2015 I ran a Kickstarter campaign for a book and it was overfunded by 100.000 pounds. And when I realized that the public would spend 135.000 pounds in 28 days on me com­ing up with silly ideas for art projects, I decided to stop working for clients. Even though it was a great job, I also began to get bored doing the same thing over and over again. So I tried to make a living out of the lovely audience I got and opened an online shop. That’s how I have been earning my living for the last six years.

Was the Kickstarter campaign for your famous Hate Mail book?
Yes, it was. I started Hate Mail in 2012 and like most things I do, it began as a joke. I was a little bit drunk and asked people on Twitter if they wanted to pay me five pounds to send an offensive postcard to them. And it turned out that people really wanted to do that. Hundreds responded in the first minutes, and I had to close the offer after a few days. I opened it again for a couple of times in the next years – each ­time for 100 hate mails and they were sold out in min­utes. Altogether, I’ve done over 1300 postcards and the best ones are in the book.

That’s quite a lot of hate.
Yes, and when the hate starts to feel like work, it’s not right anymore. So I stopped. But there was a lot of disappointment. (laughs)

Also legendary about the Hate Mail Kick­starter campaign is that you provided donors with a wide variety of personal meetings.
Yes, I offered a lot of weird rewards: to go out on a date with me, that I could come into your house and wash your dishes or you could get drunk on a train with me.

So you don’t seem to be afraid of contact?
I must say that I’m quite the opposite.

I’m getting an­x­ious when I’m on my own doing nothing.

I live alone and when I’m sitting in my flat on my sofa and there is nothing going on, that’s when I feel my most anx­ious and afraid. But when I am meeting ­total strangers, I’m just busy and living in the moment and I’m not afraid at all. I love people and I love meeting people.

And the thing I learned with these Kickstarter ­rewards is that people are really nice. No one was weird, no one did strange things, I never felt threat­ened. We hear a lot of bad stuff about people in the news, but most people have a good soul. So I’m even less afraid of meeting with strangers. Quite the oppo­site, I’m very happy to meet anyone. Of course, any­thing can happen, and a lot of people would say I’m safer because I’m a white man. And that’s true.

During the first lockdown, Mr. Bingo saw throngs of playing dogs from his apartment next to a park and thought: “All the humans are terrified, but the dogs don’t give a shit.” Having no idea of the pandemic, the only thing they care about is the ball. So he drew “I am jealous of the dog”

What is your fan base like?
First of all, I must say that I never expected to have a fan. I just wanted to be a freelance illustrator and I wan­ted maybe a hundred people to know who I was, peo­ple at The New Yorker and The Guardian, at an adver­tising agency and maybe other illustrators. I never thought about the general public. But social media made it possible. At first, I thought my fans are all like creative people, artists, art school graduates, but it was r­eally nice to see that it’s a complete mixture. A lot of stuff I do is very adult, a lot of kids like that, old people too, and there is no specific gender, it’s equally split.

Extraordinary portraits: Mr Bingo turns intimate photos into delicate vulvas and cock plants and shows in one of his most famous picture series Elizabeth II as a stunning »Dirty Queen«

What difference does it make to suddenly know your audience?
It makes a huge difference. Even when I work here alone in my studio I have a feeling that the audience is there with me all the time. Not literally sitting next to me, but I talk about what I’m doing, show stuff and getting instant feedback from them on social media. Sometimes they also push things in certain directions. We talk directly to each other, nobody is in between, and often they even become part of the project. For the Hate Mail project I send per­sonal postcards to their homes, for the Advent calendar I photograph 25 of them naked and they end up as drawings. And for the hand finished penis and vulva plants project they are sending me pictures of their genitalia.

That’s a really close connection to the ­audience. (laughs)
Yeah, it’s really personal stuff. And their involvement is crucial. If no one wants to be part of the ­genitalia plants or of my Advent calendar, the projects won’t happen. That’s true for a lot of my other works, too.

Answers to questions you often ask yourself: How do people look underneath their clothes? Mr Bingo’s famous Advent calendars let you scratch people naked day by day while “Facemask Surprise” finally shows the person behind the mask

And has your creativity changed since you started working as an artist? Do ideas fly differently?
I’ve always done funny stuff, but now I can do what­ever I want. That is brilliant and totally different. Before, when I was working for clients, I was realizing their ideas or a very watered-down version of my ideas and often I wasn’t too happy with that. On the other side, I had a deadline and that makes your life easier. Now I have to really believe in what I’m doing because no one cares if I do it or not. As a commercial illustrator I worked about a week to come up ­with an idea for an editorial piece. I sat in a café with a sketchbook and a brief and set a time to come up with ten ideas, do the roughs and send them to the clients. Now I never set myself a deadline and I just have ideas all the time. I think in a similar way to a stand-up-comedian who is looking for jokes all the time. Wherever I am, I’m being influenced by what I see and thinking funny things about it. It could be a tree in front of the window, it could be something you say or something I see on TV. It’s just luck.

Do you have a notepad next to the bed? Do you stop on the street and jot down ideas?
I wish it would be so old school and romantic like hav­ing a notebook. But most of the time I just type it into my phone. I email me the ideas, so I definitely read them in the morning.

Some pieces are also really conceptual like the “A fucking waste of time” jigsaw puzzle or “Catching Up With Kim Kardashian”, which you are selling for 1 billion pounds.
She’s still here, stuck on the wall.

Not sold yet?
No, and I really don’t know why. But I like the idea of conceptual art. Even if I don’t think of myself as a proper artist, not doing paintings or exhibits in museums or putting a pile of bricks in a gallery room, I call myself an artist. And I love it because you can do anything then. Nobody will buy the Kardashian for a billion pounds, I think, but it’s just funny that it exists. That’s the art.

You said the beautiful sentence “My art gallery are people’s homes”.
You can be an artist that sells ten pictures a year for 20.000 pounds each and they’re hung at collectors’ homes and nobody sees them. My stuff is cheap, everything I sell is between 20 and 155 pounds. Most people can afford it. So I’m now in over 20.000 homes and in some pubs and restaurants and I really like that.

How do you think up your drawings? Is there an absurdity or a well-fitting punchline, and then you try to find the right illustration for it?
It’s definitely the punchline first and then the best way to carry this idea. I like to think that I don’t have a really particular visual style. Sometimes it’s like a Biro-drawing with a cheap pen like “Dirty Queen”, the Advent calendar is very neat black and white lines other are quite sketchy and rough like “Com­ing out of lockdown”. For me it has to have a nearly naive childish style to be funny.

You’re not only an awesome illustrator but also very good with words. How did you learn that?
I don’t know.

I’ve always tried to be funny from a really young age.

As a child I drew cartoons, often with words from football that I switched around so that they had a different meaning. I remember my parents’ friends laughing about them and that it felt really good. So I kept doing it and it became my job.

I saw one of your so-called speeches in Berlin and it was more like a show. You were in mint green shorts and had punchlines that hit the spot. Were you such an entertainer from the beginning?
Oh, no. I never expected to do something like this and I’m always nervous. It’s just that the creative industry has a lot of events with talks, and I started many years ago in much smaller venues. Like in a pub in Manchester with 50 people where you’re just given a microphone and show your slides. And from the very beginning I was quite good at it. When I do a talk, I really want people to like it. I’ve seen a lot of boring talks and thought how could I be better? I ­always put a lot of effort into stuff and spend weeks creating the slides, thinking about the timing, about the punchlines and just working out the best way of telling a story with the perfect amount of information so that it doesn’t bore people. I tried to get better and now I really enjoy it.

Do you try out the lectures beforehand with friends or family?
Doing a talk in front of friends or family would be real­ly scary and embarrassing for me. But doing it in front of strangers is fine. The bigger the audience, the less scary it is. If there are 1.000 people, you nearly don’t care anymore. It’s abstract but the room is also warmer and you kind of work with the audience and you feel that you’re in something together. But I still think that it’s bizarre that I’m even allowed to talk about my work and people are even interested in the first place.

What has to happen for you to leave the stage happy?
I need people to laugh. I think one thing why my stuff is successful is that I want to be liked. Like all people. That’s why I put so much effort into it.

What is good humor for you? Can you define it?
Actually, I can’t. I think there are loads of different types of a good joke. Something could be funny because it’s really clever, it could be funny because it’s absolutely absurd and stupid. I think English people are especially good at satire and irony. When you can take something that is really serious and make a joke about it, that’s really clever I think. Like to make a good joke about Black Lives Matter that raises aware­ness and makes people think differently maybe. I think good humor is when you laugh.

It really seems like you’ve found your very own role in the business. Or did you have any role models?
There’s no one of whom I thought I liked to be that person. But quite often people compare me to the artist and illustrator David Shrigley. He’s the most famous for doing irreverent, most witty and silly stuff and it’s quite hard not being him. I really tried and I don’t follow him anymore on social media. But I think all kinds of comedy influenced me, old stuff like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and I really like Chris Morris who does very satirical stuff, kind of ­joke news. In terms of what I do now, I never expec­ted it. It just happened very organically over 20 years. It was a slow thing, no big heaps, no moment of fame or making it, just step by step.

Is that the reason why your name sounds more like entertainment than illustration?
I got the name Mr Bingo when I was 20. In my art course I decided to do a book about Bingo and old ladies. For research I went to a Bingo Hall with a friend, won 141 pounds and now I’m stuck with this name forever. (laughs)

Is Mr Bingo completely yourself or is it kind of a role?
That’s a really good question. That’s nearly a therapy question, isn’t it?

I think Mr Bingo is a slightly exaggerated version of me. Mr Bingo talks to people on the internet how I wouldn’t talk to people in real life, he’s pretty arrogant, he’s rude, he’s egotistical, he’s very silly. But you know he’s funny, I’m funny. It is me, it’s my brain. It’s me being at my kind of naughtiest and without any roles of society. And ­sober as well, not even drunk.

It’s not long until December. Did you already start working on your legendary Advent calendar?
Yes, I did today. I just photographed two naked women who are teachers and later I will photograph a jazz singer.

One of your latest works says: “Keep busy and avoid existential thoughts”. Is this something you worry about yourself?
Oh yes, it’s a huge problem for me not being busy now. But I decided that there must be more in life than work and so I’ve been taking time off. I’ve got my business in such a streamlined way, that I don’t have much to do. I have someone who sends my work out and some­one that answers the emails with everything that goes wrong. My shop could keep me living for at least a year, so I actually don’t have to go to work if I don’t want to. And I don’t have a partner, I don’t have a family, a pet, children or anything other to look after. So I have more free time than probably any­one in the world. Maybe apart from people in prison. They have a lot of free time too. But I’m perhaps slight­ly busier than a person in prison. (laughs) That’s a thing that everyone wants in life, not to be busy and have free time. But when you have it, it’s quite scary and overwhelming. You start to worry about the big problems in life. Why am I here? What happens after I die? Existential thoughts like these.

More serious tones, but with just as much humor: Mr Bingo encounters existential questions more and more often and answers them in his own way – deep, personal, but mischievous

Is that why your new works seem less cheeky and more personal? Another one says “I’m terrified because I don’t have a god looking after me”.
I’ve become a little bit grown up over time, I think. I’m known for drawing penises and childish vulgar stuff. But now the things I do are about mental health, anxiety, and depression. They are more about the darker side of life but with humor still there and I hope they are still entertaining. But they are deeply personal, these are my problems I’m putting out there. And they are popular because other people feel the same.

Especially with the pandemic.
Yes, that’s true. But I suffered from anxiety way before the pandemic. It didn’t cause me extra worry because I already had my own before.

But you still try to work less?
Yes, trying.

What are you doing instead of working then?
I do quite a lot of online dating. That’s fun and interesting. It’s also funny because some people recog­nize me and ask if I do this as an art project. They write me and ask if it will be kind of an experiment when they go on a date with me. They are so used to me doing things like that that they cannot believe that I’m just looking for a partner. (laughs)

The interview with Mr. Bingo was published in PAGE 10.2021. The complete issue is available for download here.

PAGE 10.2021

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