‘That’s from a religion I created 10 years ago,” says Tat Vision, pointing to the corner of his studio where a giant papier-mache spider lies draped over a cross. “It will catch on one day,” he adds casually, as I negotiate my way through all the other oddities cluttering every surface of this workspace in central Birmingham, from Freddie Mercury masks to wobbly towers of VHS tapes and retro board games.
Yet nothing else here is so strange as what is standing proudly in the centre of the studio. If you cast your mind back to 2020, you may remember a photograph that went viral, known as the Four Lads in Jeans meme. It featured a quartet of muscular, sock-free lads wearing some of the tightest trousers known to humankind.
The shot, taken near Birmingham’s New Street station, spawned multiple parodies, including an animation appearing to show them singing a sea shanty. Most people’s reaction was to laugh, or perhaps ponder the nature of modern masculinity. But Vision’s response was to re-create the image as a lifesize golden papier-mache sculpture. When it was recently unveiled, outside the same All Bar One where the photo was taken, the statue made national headlines.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says the 34-year-old Brummie, whose real name, disappointingly, isn’t Tat Vision but Well Douglas. “I never realised it would take off so much.” His distinctive sculpting style, which he describes as “quite messy and semi-disturbing for some people”, generated strong opinions, with some slamming the statue for being a “waste of money” and “an absolute mess”. Not that he’s bothered.
“I quite enjoyed those negative comments,” he says. “I heard people talk about it with a lot of hate when I was out – not knowing that I made it. I quite enjoyed that too, the sneakiness of it, being able to listen to people’s opinions. Negative comments are just good kindling for the fire. It helps spread it to the people who do understand.”
Douglas’s sculpture, which now lives in his studio having only been commissioned as a temporary display, references not just the Four Lads in Jeans but also a brightly gilded statue in the city centre known as The Golden Boys. It depicts three 18th-century engineering pioneers examining a partially rolled-up plan of a steam engine (although the work is nicknamed The Carpet Salesman as the plan does look a bit carpet-like). “I saw the Four Lads as my own version of a modern Greek statue,” says Douglas.
His studio is littered with striking papier-mache heads, including a Dominic Cummings mask that featured on fellow Brummie artist Cold War Steve’s Sky Arts documentary last year. But papier-mache oddities are just part of the Brummie’s artistic range. His Tat Vision moniker developed out of a YouTube show he created about his trawls through charity shops on the hunt for tat. “I love the mystery of it,” he says, “and the nostalgia of seeing something you haven’t seen in years.” The idea was to find items he could use to create short surreal movies or put in a review show.
His tat gems include a collection of various copies of the 2001 movie Swordfish. “It’s a film with Hugh Jackman and John Travolta about hacking and it’s pretty awful,” he explains, adding that one of his recent acquisitions is a 1980s “smart plate” which was designed to not just hold a meal, but a drink and cutlery as well. “You can see someone has invented it thinking it will take off – and it’s just been left behind. Tackiness is important, particularly with the packaging: old print and old design, how it looks. We just did things so differently in the 80s and 90s.”
Douglas soon began creating artworks out of the tat, inspired by the 1990s kids TV show Art Attack. So far he’s made a Tat Mona Lisa and a Tat Robocop. But his current focus is the Tat Vision stage show, which he has taken to a number of festivals and venues around Birmingham. He’s planning a Christmas panto version for December.
“The show is a more me version of me, where I’m obsessed with tat and that’s my entire life. It has mutated into a weird cabaret show, kind of like a big pantomime with over-the-top villains, music numbers and comedy.”
For Douglas, who studied fine art at Birmingham School of Art, interacting with the public is just as important as the work itself. “I think people are a bit baffled because my shows are like a sensory overload,” he says. “I’m doing about three or four different things, trying to cram it into a small amount of time. But I like a cluttered show. It takes people out of their comfort zones and I think that’s important.”
Most artists wish the world would start taking their work seriously. But Douglas would prefer the world to stop taking his so seriously. “It’s all about the fun and the playfulness of it,” he says. “It’s good when people can have a joke about it. But others will always get annoyed. And that’s funny.”
• Tat Vision is hosting a Halloween mask making workshop at Dig Brew Co in Birmingham on 27 October.