Illustration: Neil Keating / https://neilkeating.myportfolio.com/

NEIL KEATING’s success is visible, painted on the streets of Bold Street and the Baltic Triangle; his style has been the vehicle for a new crop of independent businesses to make their mark. You might not know Keating by his appearance and perhaps not by name, but for the past two years he has been painting himself into the tapestry of the Liverpool independent bar and restaurant scene. The man himself claims that despite his ubiquitous presence as a local artist, he keeps a low profile. “You might know the back of my head from my Instagram feed, but that’s about it.” Since 2017, he has been working with venues around Liverpool, promoting their efforts with an inventive style of guerrilla marketing and an aesthetic infused with an eclectic array of influences ranging from Robert Crumb to The Beano. If you ever saw the Avocado Is Bae mural on the late Love Thy Neighbour on Bold Street, you are familiar with his work.

As we weave through a bright and windy day down the back streets of the city centre towards the Baltic Triangle, he tells me about his professional history and how it has shaped his style and mentality. Growing up in Liverpool, he had a natural fixation on art and drawing. “I spent a lot of my youth just copying comics all the time, just trying to get as close as I could to them. I went away from it when I went to university, where you kind of deconstruct yourself, a little bit too much sometimes. After university, I went to work in a studio at the Bluecoat. I was messing around with loads of different styles, messing with live art and stuff. They used to commission me to automatically draw as part of an exhibition. They’d have a poet on deconstructing their poetry: I’d sit there and illustrate what they were saying.”

He went from there to work in an animation studio in Southport called Wyzowl, taking from that an education in how to work to the clock, but also a distaste for office life. “I was just sat behind a desk and I felt like I could do so many other things aside from animation. I missed the physical aspect of painting and that’s what convinced me to take the plunge and go freelance.”

NEIL KEATING Image 2

He went from there to work in an animation studio in Southport called Wyzowl, taking from that an education in how to work to the clock, but also a distaste for office life. “I was just sat behind a desk and I felt like I could do so many other things aside from animation. I missed the physical aspect of painting and that’s what convinced me to take the plunge and go freelance.”

If the idea of risking safety and trusting your instincts to venture into a financially insecure world is daunting to you, Keating’s story has been one of success. Since then he’s gone from creating a series of prints and labouring with his dad to support his family to finding himself battling through the chaos of fully fledged freelance work. “The past 12 months have been the busiest, but also the hardest in my life for personal reasons. The work has really helped me through that. I threw myself into my work and sometimes that emotion can drive you to success. I thrive off other people’s energy, that’s what drives me.”

The demands of the job seem to have had an impact on his process. “I don’t really like going back to things. I think that’s just the pace and the way I have to do things now, and that pace stops you from over-thinking things as well. I can get quite manic when I’m working. If I’m doing a mural, I won’t eat all day because I’ve gotta keep my mind on it. As a younger artist you worry a bit too much about your art, whereas now I don’t really care what people think about it. If I feel what I’m doing is a good thing, I trust that instinct.” This kind of internal confidence must be essential when working with people who are placing their trust in you.

“As a younger artist, you worry a bit too much about your art. Now I don’t really care… I trust my instinct”

If the idea of risking safety and trusting your instincts to venture into a financially insecure world is daunting to you, Keating’s story has been one of success. Since then he’s gone from creating a series of prints and labouring with his dad to support his family to finding himself battling through the chaos of fully fledged freelance work. “The past 12 months have been the busiest, but also the hardest in my life for personal reasons. The work has really helped me through that. I threw myself into my work and sometimes that emotion can drive you to success. I thrive off other people’s energy, that’s what drives me.”

The demands of the job seem to have had an impact on his process. “I don’t really like going back to things. I think that’s just the pace and the way I have to do things now, and that pace stops you from over-thinking things as well. I can get quite manic when I’m working. If I’m doing a mural, I won’t eat all day because I’ve gotta keep my mind on it. As a younger artist you worry a bit too much about your art, whereas now I don’t really care what people think about it. If I feel what I’m doing is a good thing, I trust that instinct.” This kind of internal confidence must be essential when working with people who are placing their trust in you.

He tells me about a particularly successful job where he was granted this trust at The Dog House on Penny Lane. “It was absolutely dead and the venue had lost its coherence. They got me in and, slowly but surely, we started developing a branding project for it. It’s a different approach to the way a design agency would go at it. It’s giving the artist the freedom to go with it, and they were happy to give me the license to do my own thing. It’s been six or seven months now and the place is chocker. We’re collaborating with local breweries now to create some beer labels and keep it inventive.” Is it always this rosy? “Not always, I did a project with the Dockside Dining Club, we put our heart and soul into that one and it didn’t really work out. After about three or four weeks I stopped going in there for my breakfast. It was a bit too much. You’ve got to laugh, really.”

NEIL KEATING Image 2

We wander in sight of two of his pieces on Jamaica Street. One is a reproduction of a simplistic, line-based illustration he created for Craft Minded. There’s no name or obvious brand screaming at you; it sidesteps the crudeness of traditional, money hungry advertisement and in its subtlety, betraying the optimism of a venue which is first and foremost passionate about what they do. The other is a personal piece that depicts ‘life’ symbolised as an arcade game, and the distraught character playing it has run out of lives. Game Over. “I just came out and did this on a Wednesday night, I wanted there to be something on the wall that wasn’t branded by anything.” It’s a mischievous and colourful reflection on failure and is in tune with Keating’s die-smiling attitude. “You’re always going to get setbacks, but it’s about taking your chances. You can’t let things get to you, you just have to keep going.”

The stylistic contrast between to two pieces shows the versatility Keating has developed as an artist, a quality that has won him a job with local stalwart Cains Brewery developing a graphics project for their latest effort, the revamped The Brewery Tap. “It’s a mix of contemporary and traditional styles. We’ve got some poppy screen prints. We want to slowly build the brand with it, develop merchandise, badges and T-shirts, and slowly draw people into them from it. And that’s where street art comes into it. I started thinking of different ways of using it, maybe doing some guerrilla marketing round the Baltic, finding locations for street art, maybe using QR codes.”

These inventive strategies have been key to Keating’s success in monetising his talents, and as the arts take their usual hammering and financial starvation from our blessed political leaders, the feeling that art has little value is laser beamed into our collective conscience. I thought I’d ask Keating where he hopes to take it from here and what the future holds for Liverpool and its budding artists. “Prices are starting to go up round the Baltic, and studio space is expensive. The government should provide funding to help artists get a space to work. There are a lot of young artists with talent out there – I hope my work shows people that you can work with artists, you can trust them. On the other hand, your talent is in your ideas – it’s up to you to work hard and make something grow. I love working in Liverpool but I want to start working more nationally. The summer is going to be mad, I’ve got projects winking at me, they’re all exciting projects but I know it’s gonna be busy.”

 

@Neil_Keating

RELATED
CURRENT ISSUE Bido Lito! Issue PLAYLIST