“When I get back to my studio I’m going to draw a hamburger with arms,” says Mr Bingo, the London-based illustrator. “Then soon I’m going to go to Cornwall on my own for a week, and stay in a beautiful old apartment overlooking the sea and send 100 offensive postcards to strangers.”
This is far from unusual behaviour from the man who once described himself as having the same hairdo as his mum. Nearly all of Mr Bingo’s precise, clean, hand-drawn illustrations include some element of odd humour, whether the client is Microsoft, New York magazine or The Mighty Boosh. “I think it’s just natural and the way I work,” he says. “I don’t like serious things and I don’t like to take anything too seriously. I think it’s fine for designers to take themselves seriously – it’s just not what I do. My job is to entertain and amuse.
“Everyone making anything wants people to react to it in some way; I want to make people laugh, whether it’s a drawing or some writing or a talk,” he continues. “There are lots of different ways to get messages across and I’m interested in exploring all of them.”
The aforementioned strangers, it has to be said, have asked for it – quite literally. It’s all part of the ‘Hate Mail’ project: pay Mr Bingo £5, supply your address and in return you will – eventually – receive a hand-illustrated postcard complete with an earthy but random insult. For example: “Fuck you, Jonathan! Fuck you and fuck your shit legs.”
This personalised dissing service has proved so popular that Mr Bingo has to keep closing it temporarily. “I can only re-open it for a few days, otherwise they’ll be too many orders to physically do,” he explains. “The project will also turn into something bigger but I can’t talk about that yet.” Why not run a Love Letters service instead, and spread the joy? “I don’t think I could do love letters. It wouldn’t be funny, it’s too nice. I did actually get some love mail from Brooklyn-based illustrator Oliver Jeffers as a reaction to the project. It had a drawing of three puppies in a basket on it. I loved it.”
By Mr Bingo’s own admission, illustration and keeping people amused are the two things he knows how to do best. Having studied graphic design at university, he was then cajoled into illustration by his peers, working at a trainer shop by day and bolstering his freelance illustration by night. He gradually attracted more and more clients until, as he puts it, he started making a living out of it “overnight”.
He does this on his own terms, however, turning down work as often as he accepts it. “Often this happens if I think I’m not going to enjoy the work or I think the client might not be nice to work with,” he explains. “You normally just know straight away – you get a feeling. I’m pretty honest, so if I don’t like the way a job’s going or I’m not enjoying working for a new client, I’ll just pull out and tell them I’m not into it. Some people might be surprised that I actually get offered a lot of work from really ‘straight’ clients.”
But he must have to vary his approach somewhat depending on the client, surely? “I think they all get the same really,” he reflects. “I guess there are a few rules sometimes, like how ‘edgy’ you can be or far you can push adult humour, depending on the client. Hopefully most clients will know what to expect when they commission me.”
All his illustrations are created with pens and “cheap A4 office paper”, before being scanned, and coloured and edited in Photoshop – the only software he uses. “Oh actually, I use Keynote for doing talks. I love Keynote,” he adds. Having been ensconced for a long time at a studio in his own house, he now prefers working in the company of others, sharing a space with graphic designer Stefi Orazi. “We gossip all day like a couple of old ladies. I think it’s nice to have other people around.”
The illustrator doesn’t offer many clues as to his Bingo moniker, insisting that the name is real and that “I don’t know much about bingo I’m afraid, I’ve only been once. It was in Maidstone in 1998.” It was at that point – after having won his maiden game – that the name seemed to stick, as these things tend to.
As personable and friendly as this chap with “a slightly smaller than average head and girls’ arms” might seem to be, it appears there’s a glint of steel beneath the velvet – as one Martin Olley has discovered. In 2001, Olley sent a letter to .net magazine, which had previously showcased the young Bingo as one of its illustrators. Olley wasn’t impressed: “There is no talent, composition or thought involved in [Mr Bingo’s] work at all,” he opined in his published letter. “It is badly drawn and executed. [He’s] clearly had no formal art training at all.”
With commendable if somewhat befuddling zeal, Bingo has pursued a one-sided vendetta against Olley ever since. One example cropped up in a series of promotional postcards he produced, which discreetly bore the message: “Martin Olley is a c**t.” Another appeared in the detail of a permanent marker pen in an illustration, proclaiming “Martin Olley: permanently thick.” Bingo shows no sign of letting up, either: “The campaign is growing strength and will continue until someone else fucks up and bad-mouths me somewhere in the public eye,” he says, and you can bet he (probably) means it. “The latest is one of my favourites: I put ‘Martin Olley is a tool’ in a 30ft mural that I’ve designed for the wall in Byron Hamburgers on Kensington High Street in London.”
It’s possible that we can expect to see Olley comments for the next 50 years, then. Mr Bingo himself isn’t sure; after all he has no concrete plans, except that he’s unlikely to remain a full-time illustrator forever.
“I want to expand into other areas,” he says. “My life plan is to ignore double-dip recessions and real jobs and real life, and to invent things that will be fun and will also make money. It’s the best way to live.”