THE BLOG

John Costi: Armed Robber to Critically Acclaimed Artist

18/11/2014 17:08 GMT | Updated 17/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Artist John Costi was born London 1987, of dual Irish and Cypriot heritage. Working mostly in film, spoken word and performance installation his main concerns are identity and the self plus social and criminal justice. In 2010 after a 6 year prison sentence, Costi found himself at Central Saint Martin's where he later passed with a 1st Class Hons. Currently running Light Eye Mind Gallery and exhibiting art work internationally, Costi intends to illustrate some of the harsh truths he faced growing up in 'My Darling Johnny'.

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What role does art play in prison?

Art plays a crucial role in prisons. It's the only (marginal) freedom allowed and puts passive help receivers in the position of creator. Of course people go to prison for a multitude of reasons, some social, some bad choices and some just plain bad, but the most important thing about prison is not punishment or segregation, its what happens while you're there. Having art as a form of freedom no matter how small is invaluable. Having the liberty to send out a drawing to a loved one you have probably let down 100 times before heals so much, this is the power of art in action 'behind the door'.

What was it like attending art school while on day release from prison?

It was a very surreal experience. I was leaving a prison in South London to go to art school in Chelsea. One environment was all about oppression and one all about freedom. It could mess with your head a bit, there were times when I would rather have been in closed conditions - constant goodbyes and knowing you were going back to bang up. But waking up in the morning was great, so full of excitement knowing I was just going to be out. I remind myself of that feeling during lower mornings these days.

Where do you find your inspiration?

London is a great source of vitality for me. I write most of my spoken word pieces on the tube and see the city as an organism meaning that while I'm writing I'm really in the thick of it, going through the veins to deposit my energy elsewhere just like a blood cell. People and story are my biggest inspiration; you can't have one with out the other. Everybody's got something to say, everybody's got a story, by learning about others we learn a lot about ourselves. Most of my work is participatory in one way or another, welcoming others into artwork reveals a lot about all parties involved.

What effect did the time you spent in prison have on your current practice?

Since my release I've dedicated myself to working with young people, whether it be conducting workshops with Art Against Knives or just talking to local kids out and about. I think that by explaining plights faced by lower social orders to the typical art viewer is also very beneficial as it helps us understand each other. I met some of the most incredible people in prison and I know if they had the luck and support I did they would be shining, so I take it as my duty to act as that support. Otherwise the whole thing would have been a waste of time. I know plenty of people who think that going to prison is the norm. It's when you make the conscious decision to desist from offending that going to prison is a failure. Otherwise it's part and parcel of that life style.

How did going to prison affect your relationships with your family?

At that point in my life the only thing that affected me about going to prison was the pain I saw it caused my family. I'm half Irish half Greek Cypriot so we're very much about sticking together. They were hurt, though I think a bit relieved as well because it got to the point where I was safer inside than on road. Personally I felt a sense of relief too, though I had a support network and that's the only thing that has kept me out of prison, 99% of people inside don't have that and so I am very lucky.

And how are they now?

I think when I visit that part of my life through my work it's sometimes hard for them. I don't come from an artistic family and so I think that the material to them can be a kind of airing of dirty laundry, but it's never stopped my Mum getting involved in films/performances when I've asked.

Did you ever feel like giving up?

I still feel like giving up sometimes! I'm human, so I am bound to have bad days. It's in our nature to feel defeated once in a while. In prison you have good and bad days just like outside, its just worse because when you call home and you hear bad news and your credits running down on the wing phone you feel utterly helpless.

I don't distinguish between my life and my art, and the most important thing about being an artist (especially at the beginning of your career) is perseverance. The biggest obstacle I face is working with young people, and it's crazy because I want to steer people the right way. These kids don't listen to new teachers or social workers that got all they know out of a book, I know because I was one of them. Even after years of proving myself by volunteering and working my arse off I still live everyday with the repercussions of past actions, whether it be my record or just having to look over my shoulder. It's just the reality of consequence.

Tell us a bit about any exhibitions you are currently showing

I currently have a show running at the G-Shock EAST store as part of the G-Shock Sessions. The show is essentially about time. The title 'My Darling Johnny' is how my mother would start her weekly letters to me when I was in prison. It's a kind of autobiographical knick-knack map. I'm interested in how people elevate the meaning of things, how objects can become checkpoints on your journey through life. It's also my way of making sense of where I was, where I am and where I'm going. There's letters, socks, ex's and articles. All of which have a personal heightened sense of meaning.

What means one thing to me is not necessarily accessible to the viewer so I have tried to make it look pleasing and tell a coherent story. I don't believe in resolution with regards to art, I will continue arranging and rearranging this material probably forever, it's my way of drawing. At it's most basic level all art is problem solving, emotional or technical. Mixing oils is in my opinion, conceptually, the same act as me reading through material until I find the right tone, then apply.

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What's next for you?

A family of us run a gallery in Blackstock Road, North London called Light Eye Mind. We launched 3 months ago and are representing some really great young artists. Our program of events and shows runs up until late 2015 so that will be taking up a lot of focus. I'd like to see more of the world one day, especially New York. Being a Londoner I think it's the only city that can rival here so it would be interesting to see how they compare.

The Spoken Word scene in London is so strong right now too, and I'm working on a few pieces with some funky friends. I've just left employment too so am in a pretty tense but exciting position right now. Other than that I will continue making art and learning.