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My job is being me. Being Mik.
I have to live off my wits, off my “Mikness”.
I’ve had that

philosophy since about 1982
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In Conversation

Mik Artistik
March  2021


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Mik Artistik, 65, is a true Leeds legend. You might have seen him in the pubs, cafes and bars of Leeds, offering to draw your portrait on a paper bag. He is a regular fixture on Leeds’ live music circuit with his band Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip. His music appears on BBC Radio 6 – and he counts Iggy Pop amongst his fans. Mik’s band are a huge hit at festivals across the UK, particularly at Glastonbury, where he is loved by thousands.

Mik has an enthusiasm for people that is infectious. He’s a born storyteller. Snippets of his day-to-day life in Armley creep into his act; his songs are heartfelt, hilarious, strange, beautiful, every-day and often improvised. Mik was born in Ireland and came to Leeds as a small boy, but he still retains that familiar Irish charm and humour.

Covid restrictions mean Mik’s creative output has adapted over the last year. He’s created an illustrated book with his friend Robert Galeta called “ Irrelevant”. The book focuses on obscure (and not so obscure) musicians, poets and artists that the friends would discuss on telephone calls over the years. And Mik has been making a new podcast that will be available very soon. Since March 2020, he has performed live gigs on the internet, some of which are available (alongside his books and CDs) on his website at

It's business as usual.
You’re still unsure, clueless.
You still think you’re 19.
You don’t have any answers
and you’re still blagging it
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How do you describe what you do for a living?

My job is being me. Being Mik. I have to live off my wits, off my “Mikness”. I’ve had that philosophy since about 1982. I came off the dole. I was quite depressed - I’d just been lying about for months. It got to the point when I thought I was going to die of despair. I’d been to art college, got all these qualifications – yet I feel like a lump of ****. I just said a little prayer, “please don’t let me die.” I had nobody to turn to and I didn’t know what to do. I thought, “I’m going to come off the dole and work out how to pay my rent.” I had a load of ties in a bin liner because I used to go to jumble sales and pick up odd bits. I thought, “I’m going to sell some ties”. So, I went into the Merrion Centre with an ironing board and these ties, spread them out all tidy on the board and started shouting. “Come on ladies, get down here, here they are, 100% Zircon, get them for your husband!” And I made my rent in a day.

That wasn’t a performance, that was just you selling ties?

I was a loose cannon. I didn’t have any moorings. I had no other options. I was standing there feeling quite embarrassed. A bit of me was thinking, “But you’ve been to college, you’ve seen Andy Warhol, you’ve read Beckett, and now you’re standing shouting at housewives.” But it shook me out of my stupor of despair. After that I found myself drawing someone. I picked a biro up and drew someone in a laundrette. I was shocked with the result because it was a good likeness. Suddenly I thought, “I’m going to be alright, I can be a portrait artist.” I had been to art college, but I didn’t have any confidence in my drawing ability.
Did you draw as a kid?

When I was a little boy I was always drawing. Drawing was my go-to thing, it was part of my language. I was in seventh heaven when my cousin lent me some DC comics. I could see these figures in motion. I was picking up things like perspective. I used to draw fists. Working out the sense of the fist. I was getting all this action and drama from these drawings.

What was life like back then for you?

When we came over from Ireland, my Mum and Dad had a little house in Beeston and they took in some Irish lads as lodgers. So, we had about half a dozen Irish lads living in our cellar. They’d bring in Buddy Holly records, and Slim Whitman and Elvis. Philomena Begley. There’d be music drifting up from the cellar and my brothers and me used to go down. We’d go on errands, they’d give us threepence to get them some cigs. There were all on the building sites. It was a house brimming with noise and life. You could smell the Irish fellas from downstairs. Sweat and perspiration and other dubious smells. Burnt liver. Peeing behind the couch. But they were sweet men and they looked after us. A fairly dysfunctional house, but there was a sort of order and a lot of love. I felt very safe and loved.

Tell me more about your mum and dad.

My Dad was nearly twice as old as my Mum. He was a fit guy, didn’t drink. Very strong. My mum had four kids at 29. Very calm and steady. But Dad was quite volatile. Mum and Dad didn’t have any sketchbooks, it wasn’t their world. They didn’t do literature. But my Dad was a musician, he played six instruments. My mum was a musician. They were very much of the oral tradition. My Dad was a big man, could be quite fearsome. He had a temper. He was noisy. When you’re small you almost felt like you’re in a room with a monster. He was very direct, there were no social graces. He was honest. Meanwhile, my Mum would be playing Edmundo Ros and Matt Monroe on the radio. Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams, the Goons. I loved the sound of those voices.

Did you always want to be an artist?

I drew pictures but I wasn’t an artist. When I left school, I knew I was going to be at the bottom of the barrel. I felt very isolated and very lost. I was Irish and I was very different. I loved writing essays; I’d write six-page compositions. I was quite small too.

I didn’t understand the English. The Irish are sentimental, loud, big-hearted, a lot of charm. The English were careful, they didn’t express their emotions. I didn’t get the speed of England. Even at art college, when I sold pictures, I thought people were taking the mickey. I couldn’t see that anything I produced could be of any value. I was still a child at 27. Unformed.

And then you started selling ties and drawing portraits.

I realised I had a solution to my problems. I could draw something and make some money. I realised I could go into town and pay the rent. I just need to meet someone who said, “yes”. One of the first people I drew said, “you’ll never starve with that talent.” And I just exhaled. “Thank God!” From there I became an artist with a small a.

When did you start drawing on paper bags?

I saw these paper bags in a bread shop in Ireland. I really liked these bags. I took some bags from the woman and I thought, “These bags are lovely. I’d like to draw on these bags. I’d like to sell a bag. Will someone buy a bag off me?” I went into this pub across the road. There was a big guy at the counter. I said, “My name’s Mik Artistik, I draw portraits on paper bags, would you like one?” And he said yes! And I drew him and gave me money. I couldn’t contain myself. I felt like Picasso! I’d followed this ridiculous little whim and it succeeded. I then decided to see if I could bag the world. It’s a great leveller. Whether you’re a newsreader, a single mum, or a little boy who’s just stolen some apples ... you’re going to end up on a bag. I did coppers and priests, funeral directors– no door was closed. There was a bit of it that introduced me to the world. I’d been so shy and retiring for so long. I had to come out and talk to people and not be frightened.

And you must have bagged thousands of people.

I had the keys to the kingdom. I was given access to all areas, because I was an artist. There was something about having a pen and a piece of paper. People aren’t threatened, I could go anywhere. Just draw pictures and you make people happy and you make yourself happy. I wanted to be amongst people, not just in a studio. Meet people and listen to them. They tell me great stories. An ordinary guy with a fleece – he’ll tell you the most disturbing, frightening story. There’s a surreal world out there.

What about performing, can you tell us how that started?
I was asked on stage because I was heckling a band, who were just really dull. It wound me up. I’d just come out of my marriage and I was feeling angry. And this band just pushed me over the limit. They looked so pleased with themselves. I started to sing Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann at the back. Slowly, the audience started to join in, until everybody was singing Pretty Flamingo, apart from the band. They said, “If you’re so clever, you get up and do a song.” I had no idea what to do. I got up on stage and started to talk about the joys of smoking and pinball, the feel of a cig in my hand. I felt like I was melting into a ball of embarrassment. I was really frightened,
I could see all these people looking at me. But they were rapt. I kept talking and I thought, “where is this going?!” I felt so appalled. I’d never be able to go in this pub again after this. But it was exciting. Then I stopped. And people cheered! It was the last thing I expected! Afterwards this guy came up to me and said, “where are you playing next?”


The following week, I came back, and I sang How Much Is That Doggie in the Window for 20 minutes. Made verses up. I just went with it and it seemed to make sense. And people liked it. It felt really strange to get this love, this wall of love coming towards me from the audience. I was pushed into a corner – but I leapt.

How did meeting so many people help with your performances?

Drawing people, meeting people, I’d had 30 years bobbing in this whirlpool, this maelstrom. So, when I got on stage for the first time I’d learned not to panic in a crowd. I didn’t need to be “big”. I just needed to come on and just stand there. They’d say, “what’s going on?” and I’d say, “I don’t know!” It’s delicious to watch people’s confusion. I’m not a great musician but I do have a power to charm. Even as a little boy, I’d tell my brothers a story every night. Make it up. I had an ability to hold people’s attention. When I’m offstage I lose my moorings, but when I’m onstage I’m anchored.

What’s one thing that’s good for you about getting older?

It’s business as usual. You’re still unsure, clueless. You still think you’re 19, acnefied. You don’t have any answers and you’re still blagging it. You do get a bit kinder to yourself and others. A little bit of contentment creeps in. You bathe in a bowl of creamy milk on a morning. There’s a wisftulness, like watching a film of your life, seeing all the embarrassing mistakes you’ve made. But you’re still a work-in-progress, always unfinished.

Thanks Mik! Hopefully, when life returns to some sort of normality, you might be able to see Mik drawing in cafes and pubs in Leeds; and performing too. In the meantime, check out Mik’s work online. You can see some virtual performances and look at some of his artwork. You can also buy his new book, “It’s Irrelevant”.
The Mik Artistik podcast is coming soon – in it Mik talks to interesting people in the world or arts and entertainment.

For all the latest information go to the website at


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