Behind the scenes: Secret Wars

Hip-hop crowds have been treated to the thrills of live MC battles for years, so why shouldn't illustration offer a similar spectacle? Tom Dennis checks out Secret Wars, where paint is sure to spill...

It's no exaggeration to say that Secret Wars has the makings of a bona-fide phenomenon. What started out as a friendly graffiti battle between two design collectives has now grown to encompass club nights the length and breadth of the UK, and plans are underway for a pan-European tour.

For the uninitiated, a Secret Wars night pitches creative against creative in a battle of marker pens, artistic cunning, swift thinking and crowd-pleasing dexterity. Each contestant is given a limited amount of white space, 90 minutes and an arsenal of marker pens and paints to get doodling with. The winner is decided by guest judges and an all-important clap-o-meter, which registers the 400- strong crowd's decisive vote.

"I was watching Style Wars and The Warriors and saw gangs tagging each others' territory. I liked the idea of crews and the challenge and competition," says Terry Guy, founder of design agency Monorex, which now organises the shows.

Friendly competition
Once the concept was nailed, Guy floated the idea. Initially the concept didn't go down well - graffiti artists being a pretty laid-back bunch. But once the friendly nature was explained, artists saw the crowd-pulling potential for a live design event. As Guy says, "No-one takes it too seriously and that's really important because it's meant to be a fun night. It doesn't matter if you go out in the first round."

Future battles
The artists for Series 1, launched back in September, included Sickboy, Alfamale, Teck1 and Inkie, among others. After a few weeks of tough early rounds, quarter finals and semi finals, Alfamale and Teck1 ended up at London's Juno bar in front of a 400- strong crowd for the Grand Final in March.

After a 90-minute final and decisive crowd vote, Alfamale took the winner's crown, the £500 champion's cheque and the respect of his peers by a scant two decibels. "Everyone ends up as a winner," says Guy democratically. "Of all the 16 people that have played, everyone's had a good time and gained some exposure, which was the point. It's more of a show than a competition - it's just got that battle edge to keep it lively."

Along the way to the final, Monorex pulled in favours from Edding - the marker pen manufacturer - which has developed a special Secret Wars graff pen, and from the nonpermanent collective, which organised the Secret Wars All Star Edition, which took place at Birmingham's Custard Factory.

"The one artist I didn't want to 'battle' with was Pete Fowler," says Jon Burgerman on the All Star battle. "It was nerve-wracking enough having a crowd of people watching me make up a drawing on the spot, but I ended up turning to my left and seeing Pete furiously scribbling something wonderful in such a flawless and quick fashion. But let's not call it a battle. That infers winners and losers and I'd like to think of it as a doodle-do-si-do."

Burgerman's attitude sums up the friendly approach that's made Secret Wars so successful. Monorex is keen to capitalise on this for Series 2, scheduled to begin in June this year.

"It's all about crowd involvement, and for Series 2 we're going to up that," says Guy. "We've got plenty of new ideas, such as Weapon of Choice, where the artists get to choose a weapon and the crowd gets to choose a concept. We're trying to mix it up and find fresh people, because the whole point of Secret Wars is to give up-and-coming artists a bit of exposure."

INFO
www.monorex.com
www.secretwars.co.uk
www.myspace.com/secretwars