Flay is an artist of many talents. Across canvas, clothing and sound he has put a distinctive and original mark on the Belfast scene through internet-age inspo and conspicuous design.
Dipping into the worlds of fine art, fashion and music; Flay is re-imagining what it means to be an artist in Belfast. His new store – at fourteen Upper Newtownards Road – unites all three of his passions. By day: you can catch him painting his abstract designs onto clothes which he sells in-store. By night: creating shapeshifting, experimental hip hop informed through a social media lens.
We caught up with the young artist as the dust settles on his youth shop launch for an honest discussion about fame, community, notoriety and art.
Where you always a creative kid?
Totally. I made YouTube videos in P6 and P7 called Matt Johnson TV, and I was almost famous I swear to god. If I had of continued doing it I think I would have been successful. My friend Josh and I would make sketch comedy shows inspired by people like Smosh and we were getting thousands of views. This was way back in, like, 2010. We made a video called ‘The Cool Kids’ and it was a rap music video; I produced the song using GarageBand. It was a terrible song, but we made a rap and that was the most popular video we ever did.
People started to misinterpret our characters. They thought we were these little boys who thought we were super cool. We’d get bullied all the time by strangers on the street, people would walk up and call me a faggot constantly. We decided in first year we were going to stop doing it and took down all the videos. Then I disappeared into my insecure mess of puberty for five or six years.
What came first: music, art, clothing?
I would say I wasn’t that interested in music at all until I was about eighteen. We got a MAC for the first time when I was about eleven and I loved editing and fiddling with content in iMovie. Filmmaking was the first thing I ever got into.
When did you first start taking up fine art?
That was when I went to high school. Everyone did art at the start, but I really liked it and was quite good at it, so ended up picking it for GCSE and A Level. I really fell in love with it. I always thought it was bizarre that the other kids would only spend around two hours on their drawings, but I’d spend about twenty on mine. They’d be like, “why are you paintings so much better than mine?”, and I’d be like because I’ve spent fucking ages doing this.
Who or what inspires you as an artist and informs your work?
So many different things inform it, but mostly its art itself and other artists. I really admire and idolise fame and notoriety and these characters that are true and real and have existed in the world and they’re presented to me through the internet and Instagram. My entire being as been influenced by the internet and what was originally YouTube and has now transitioned into Instagram.
I could call out a million different artists that have inspired by, but the people who pushed me to become this person that craves being an artist and being a character would be Donald Glover and Tyler the Creator. Glover, for some reason, I resonated with him so much. It wasn’t instantaneous, I found him when I was like fourteen and slowly started to like him. I recognised that he too was a smart, educated and privileged person, and that I could relate to everything he was saying.
You have incorporated your art into your clothing designs, when did you start doing that?
Initially I thought it would be cool to turn a drawing into a hoody. I had no idea what to do about it, but then I watched a documentary by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It wasn’t The Radiant Child, it was another one that I bought on DVD. It was about how in the 80’s Basquiat did a scheme called ‘Man Made’, where he painted on clothes. There was this whole section where he got this golden jacket and painted on it. I was so blown away by seeing that because I was like, holy fuck, it’s 2017. It’s thirty-seven years on from that, but I don’t see people doing this.
Three years on and it’s changed. Maybe it’s just because I’ve started painting on clothes, so I’ve lifted the lid of something, but I see everyone painting on clothes now. Of course people were printing and painting on clothes before me, but it was that little clip of Basquiat that made me want to start.
Belfast has played a role of inspiration, with your latest tee showing David Healy’s famous goal against England. How do you feel Belfast is in terms of creative individuals or a creative scene right now, in good health?
Compared to many other cities it is in terrible health, in the way that I view cities like Los Angeles and the people that I’ve viewed through my phone screen. They have somehow managed to build up a community where anyone can become a worldwide success in the world of art by entering into their small group. Exactly the same thing is happening here in Northern Ireland, except we get one hundred likes as opposed to hundreds of thousands.
There’s nothing wrong with the people here within the art community, it could just be that the general population outside of the art community don’t function and support art in the way that we all wish they did. I don’t know what it is about LA, it might just be that it’s full of money and full of celebrities. It’s almost like celebrity is a fiction, it’s not a real thing. It can be manifested and created from anything. If we in Northern Ireland all decided to support each other we could create a world economy for our own art.
People like Jordan Adetunji. He is successful and he is getting support from people who are pushing him, but he could be fucking huge! If everybody here pushed even harder, he could go from ten thousand streams to millions of streams and into the charts, but we all don’t want that deep down. In this place, we don’t want that for someone if that someone isn’t ourselves.
There’s room for it to be great, but right now a lot of the arts are monopolised. When I was a kid I thought it was talent brings success, but really scheming for success brings you success.
Your working on an album, what kind of sounds and experiences can we expect to hear on that?
It’s called Beyond Placebo. I’m slowly starting to post some promos and stuff for it. I’m not very good at promotion. I think I’m really fucking good at art and making stuff, but this promo stuff… If I was good at it, I’d be famous, y’know?
Albums coming out, it’s nine tracks and there’s some features on there too. It’s gonna be really cool. There are artists on there from Manchester, a guy from Paris. Moonpaw Print from here as produced one of the tracks.
The last album was very gentle and instrumental. The new record is very digital, it’s very fast. The title represents that feeling of chasing euphoria you once had. Stuck in a self-loathing rut of isolation, I manifested by hallucinations of grandeur and symphonies of emotion expressed through sound. That exciting rhythm of confidence and admiration that one experiences when adventuring through friendship and romance. That’s the feeling I’m trying to represent.
If you can think back to that moment in your life, you can’t confirm this, but that moment where you were the happiest you ever felt. That feeling of that memory and the time that surrounds that. This is a super abstract, super artsy bullshit answer. The real answer is probably a bit more like, you know The Weeknd’s new album? That was very inspiring for me. That 80’s disco vibe, fast drums. There’s rap on it, but it’s not really a rap album.
Tyler the Creator’s IGOR is another hugely influential album. A lot of stuff on the new album is my version of dance music. I’m moderately uninformed about musical terms to be honest, I don’t really know what to call it. It isn’t evolutionary now to do experimental hip hop, it’s kind of trendy, but I still really like it. I love that there’s this genre that is rap that can just be pushed into every genre that’s ever existed. There’s hip hop metal, classical rap, synthwave rap… It’s endless.
What else is on the horizon for you?
I’m always working on art things, but the big thing I’ve been working on the store. The Flay Apparel shop. I want everybody who exists who is interested in anything about this place to come through. It’s been hard to set up the shop, and I don’t imagine that I’ll make that much money with it, but I really want people to come and at least look at it and see what it’s about.