Nobody knows how many artists make up the youth-led collective Pattern Up. “We don’t disclose that,” one anonymous member told THE FACE, who asked to be referred to simply as a spokesperson for the Brighton-based urban activist group. “We keep it open so people can come and go.” Since 2021, they’ve been taking artistic aim at recognisable British brands as a means of bringing up social issues that they reckon we should be talking about more.
Some of their early “brandalism” works include a Sainsbury’s (“Insainsbury’s”) shop front made to look like a weed farm, a Southern railway (“Southern Working Class”) head cushion planted on a train, and a box of Kellogg’s (“Special K‑etamine”). In May, they produced a fake Chanel perfume (“English Channel”) to make a point about Southern Water “dumping untreated sewage water on 10,000 occasions”. At this year’s Glastonbury Festival, they set up a bogus betting shop – “BrokeLads” (geddit?), to bring light to exploitation and addiction in gambling.
The group’s latest evocative work involves plastering fake posters around Camden, North London, which promote so-called “crack and heroin” zones. These were created to advertise Pattern Up’s latest exhibition, Ad-iction at Camden Open Air Gallery, which’ll show reimagined versions of The Sun and ads for William Hill and Burger King, all with the aim to open up frank conversations around media disinformation, corporate exploitation and the impact of drug laws in the UK.
The posters – which are admittedly pretty convincing – featured local council branding and a clear message: “The sale and use of crack and heroin is permitted in this area.” Before hitting London, the posters popped up around Cambridge’s city centre in January, at Glasto in June and, last week, alongside fellow activist-artist called SpiceBag, in Dublin.
They say real art is all in people’s reactions. If that’s true, the posters could be considered a masterpiece: Camden Council rushed to say they were “definitely fake”, while Cambridge City Council said that the signs were “clearly fake” and they were “disappointed” the collective had put them up. In Dublin, a Sinn Féin councillor kicked off big time on The Tortoise Shack podcast over the whole debacle.
As a result, the stunt got people talking about the war on drugs and how it does more harm than good, which was exactly the aim of the project. So, touché to Pattern Up. While the government keeps cutting public services that help people suffering from addiction, continually criminalising and socially excluding them instead, they’ve brought these glaring issues to the fore. We asked them some questions about the project.
Why did you decide to go down the guerrilla art route?
Because it’s very effective. People see these brands all the time – we’re constantly being fed information using these outlets, social media, advertising and so on, so I think it has the greatest effect because it’s a digestible art form.
And, of all topics, why drugs?
It’s just a never ending problem because of the way the law deals with it. It’s like a snake eating itself. The approach is completely wrong. Places like Portugal who have decriminalised drugs, see people with addiction problems getting help. But in the UK, we haven’t got that.
How do you get the posters up without getting clocked?
We do draw attention to ourselves by doing it, but we just try and get it done quickly. We don’t run away if anyone tries to talk to us, we explain what we’re doing to people instead. We’re not too afraid of the consequences of the posters going up, to be honest.
The dude from Sinn Féin wasn’t impressed, though.
What’s the general reaction been?
Some people are shocked. To be fair, the most common reaction is to agree with the message but not the way it’s done. People can argue about how what we did is wrong but that’s what we want. The [drugs] issue is not really talked about in the media. I mean, this is the whole reason why you’re sitting down with us right now, because of our posters.
If the UK had a referendum on legalising drugs, which side do you reckon would win?
I think they would be legalised. Drugs are similar to the dopamine hit that comes from social media. When scrolling, you’re mindlessly clicking away. It’s like someone with addiction issues chasing drugs and disregarding the consequences.
I think people are more addicted to social media notifications than drugs.
Yeah, exactly. And that can have a massive impact on your life.
How do you choose which social issues to raise awareness of?
We focus a lot on child exploitation, but we also look at current topics. Everything impacts everything else, you know? The cost of living crisis is obviously impacting poverty which means more people have less money and that can be a driving force for people to do illegitimate things to get money.
What do you think are the main misconceptions about child exploitation at the moment?
People think that county lines is simple, but it actually goes deep. People just choose to not really acknowledge this because it’s county lines and people are scared of those involved, the exploiters. But the exploiters are often also the exploited. It’s a rotating circle. The thing is, the people who are out on the street who are exploiting or being exploited aren’t actually the problem. It’s the whole system and it’s also the fucking criminals in suits that run it all. The untouchables that will never get nicked for nothing because they are in such high places, in positions of power.
Pattern Up is entirely self-funded. Why do you think it’s important for art collectives like Pattern Up to remain independent and not funded by corporations?
There would be a lot of red tape around that money. Things like the poster campaign might have not been able to go ahead. You can’t really protest anymore without running into trouble. Look at Just Stop Oil. I know there’s a lot of things they do that are questionable, but there are many videos showing them slowly walking down a street and being arrested straight away. The entire system is now rigged in favour of the Tory government and the people with money like tech oligarchs. It’s all rigged for the rich.
If you’re in the area, head to Pattern Up’s exhibition, Ad-diction, at Camden Open Air Gallery which is on until 11th September. Free admission.