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Rob Ryan in Spitalfields

June 20, 2011
by the gentle author

Three years ago, the papercut supremo Rob Ryan opened up a shop, Ryantown in Columbia Rd that sold his designs exclusively. With its white interior and brightly coloured wares covered in his signature graphics, it has a comparable feel to Keith Haring’s Pop Shop on Lafayette St in Greenwich Village. And just as Haring’s style incarnated the vibrant life of New York’s East Village in the nineteen eighties, Rob Ryan has created a visual language that is the most widely recognised expression of the explosion of creativity and new life which has taken place in the East End in the past ten years.

Yet Rob Ryan came to the East End many years earlier. He was one of the artists who benefited from the cheap studio spaces that were available in the Spitalfields Market after the fruit & vegetable market left. For years he worked there, making paintings like those shown here, before he reinvented the venerable art of the papercut in such superlative fashion – and in doing so found for himself the perfect marriage of artist and medium.

I was always curious to see what kind of paintings Rob Ryan did before the papercuts came along and made him famous. So I twisted his arm to bring out some of these old pictures which I publish for you here today. And I took this opportunity to ask Rob a little about the early years in Spitalfields, when he fuelled up with a full cooked lunch at the Market Cafe in Fournier St before each day’s work at his studio in the market.

“I got laid off from my job in 1991 – I was working for a typesetter and I was working from home – and at the same time I was made homeless with a two year old child. While we were on the list for a council flat, we were sent off to Wood Green for nine months. It was a state of limbo and I thought, ‘I’m not going to do any of my own art work until we get a flat.’ Once I moved into my first council flat, in Westminster in 1992, somebody said they had a desk available in a studio with four other illustrators above Barbarella Shoes in Shoreditch High St. And I was there a couple of years before I heard about Spitalfields Arts Projects – they were opening up artists’ studios on the old market. I moved into one of the smallest studios there, on the first floor, and there was a shop on Brushfield St where I could display my work.

My work was very much as it is now, except in ink and paint. I realised that a lot of people after leaving art school – as I had done – took jobs to pay for their studios and then it was too much for them to get there. So I got a job in a cinema in the evenings and at the weekends. I worked twenty hours a week, enough to keep myself going, and I went in to my studio from Monday to Friday. Lorna, my wife, has always supported me in my work, she worked as a teacher. I used to take the kids to school, and then I’d get on my bike and cycle over to the East End and work until three, and then I’d pick up the kids from school, and take them home and give them tea before I’d go to work at five thirty at the cinema, and then I’d come back at the end of the evening.

It sounds like a struggle, but I had such a good time and it all seemed normal at the time. I was always planning shows and working towards shows. I was always busy. I wasn’t working in a commercial way at all. We used to have exhibitions and we only thought to invite the people we knew. Few people found out and nobody ever turned up. But because I had no-one telling me what to do for ten years, maybe it allowed me to build up some level of confidence. I’ve always believed in myself, even before college, I knew that this what I wanted to devote my life to.

I wasn’t working in papercuts at all at that time – that work fell into place a bit later. What set me free was screen-printing. My mind spins around in lots of different directions. Everything changed when I moved to Bethnal Green and set up a screen-printing studio, and then I started doing printing for others and I would just make enough money that I could give up my weekend job. I got asked to do posters and magazine covers. I was really inspired by being busy doing stuff for other people. The level of energy was heightened, and then the papercutting thing came in about eight years ago, in 2003…”

The deceptive simplicity of Rob Ryan’s style is the outcome of  years developing his distinctive visual poetic language. And, like William Morris who also took inspiration from traditional techniques to create designs for a wide audience, Rob Ryan has found a way to reinvent papercutting that has true popular appeal, reaching its apotheosis now in books, prints, cards, mugs, teapots, bottles, plates, vases, t-shirts, watering cans, raincoats, umbrellas, moneyboxes,  scarves, badges, tiles, tapestries and tapes – all emblazoned with his instantly recognisable designs.

Ten years ago, when Rob was making the pictures you see here, no-one could have predicted the direction his work would take or the outcome that would result. His unlikely success is an inspiration to all the thousands of young artists in East London, the heroic result of following a personal intuition. As he told me plainly, “I didn’t feel any different then, I didn’t feel any better than anyone else. I always look as it as, this is the only work I can do.”

Rob Ryan at work today in Bethnal Green.

In 1992, Rob Ryan’s first East End studio was a desk above Barbarella Shoes on Shoreditch High St – on the extreme left of the left hand crescent-shaped window.

From 1995, Rob Ryan’s studio was the third and fourth windows from the right, at the West end of the Spitalfields Market – this picture shows James Mason walking past in 1967.

Paintings copyright © Rob Ryan

You can see Rob Ryan’s current work at, follow his blog here and learn about Ryantown here.

You may also like to read

Rob Ryan, Papercut Artist

Rob Ryan at Somerset House

On the Papercut Express with Rob Ryan

Rob Ryan’s Tintinnabulation of Bells

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