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John Dolan, Artist, & George the Dog

October 13, 2013
by the gentle author

John Dolan and his thoughtful dog, George, have become an East End landmark in recent years, sitting patiently day after day in the same spot opposite the petrol station on Shoreditch High St while the world and the traffic passed by. Yet, all this time, John was watching and, after a year of looking at the same view each day, he picked up a pen and began to draw what he saw before him. Soon after, John’s drawings were published in a local magazine and it proved to be a life-changing moment.

“That’s when I knew in life what I should do,” he assured me, standing in the Howard Griffin gallery where he has his first exhibition. It is just across the road from the spot where John used to sit and has been a sell-out success, leaving him inundated with commissions and a book deal. Yet George takes it all in his stride even if John is rather startled by the attention, gratefully embracing this opportunity to forge a new identity for himself as a artist. ‘None of this could have happened without the support of Roa, the street artist,” John admitted to me, in relief at the current twist of fate, “It’s got me away from breaking into shops to steal money.”

When you meet John, you are aware of a restless man with a strong internal life and he looks at you warily, his eyes constantly darting and moving, as if he might leave or take flight at any moment. But although John may have only one foot on the ground, George plants himself down and surveys the world peacefully – as the natural counterpoint to his master’s nature.

“I’m from King’s Sq, Goswell Rd, and I could walk from my door to St Paul’s in five minutes when I was a kid,” John revealed, speaking with affection for this neighbourhood in which he has spent his life, “From my window I could see the three towers of the Barbican and the dome of St Paul’s. At fourteen, I climbed up the to the top of St James Clerkenwell when it was covered in scaffolding.” John’s minutely detailed urban drawings are equally the result of an observant sensibility and an intimate knowledge of the streets and street life of Shoreditch.

A few years ago, a series of misadventures and spells in Pentonville Prison led to a low point when John found himself bereft. “I was spending my days in day centres and only mixing with homeless people and I couldn’t relate to my family at that time,” he confessed, “but having this exhibition has been a way of getting back to them – when they came on the opening night, they were very impressed. It’s been called ‘a successful debut show’ and you can’t get much better than that.”

The exhibition has been the unexpected outcome of a series of events that coalesced to permit John to regain control of his life. “I got rehoused in a flat in Arnold Circus after I had been living in temporary accommodation on Royal Mint St and before that I was homeless,” he explained, “In the recent benefits shake-up, I had my benefit cut to £36 a week and, each time I appealed, they cut it down more until I had nothing. I’ve got arthritis in my legs and I can’t walk very far, so I came down here to Shoreditch High St and started begging to get some money. But I’m no good at it, so I put a cup in front of George like he was begging and people gave him money. Then I got bored and I started drawing the two buildings on the opposite site of the road.”

John outlined to me how he acquired George, the dog that gave him a new focus. When I was living in Tower Hill, I used to let homeless people come and live with me and there was this couple – and one of them, Sue, she was offered the chance to buy George for the price of a can of lager by a Scottish fellow, so she gave him £2o.” John recalled, speaking in almost a whisper, underscored by an emotional intensity, “He was a pretty violent guy who would go round robbing homeless people.”

“George is my first dog in a very long time, I had a dog from the age of ten until I was twenty-three – Butch. He was named after a dog that my grandfather had that was legendary. It was so painful when Butch died, I said I would never have another – but George was such a lovely dog and needed a home. When the Scottish fellow came back and told people he was going to take the dog off me and expecting money every time he saw me, I had to have serious words with him.”

John gave me a significant look that indicated he and George are never to be separated now. “I went to Old St Central Foundation School and the only thing I was good at was Art,” he informed me proudly, puffing on his cigarette in excitement, “The teacher said I was so bad at Geography it was a wonder I could find my way home.”

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Howard Griffin Gallery, 189-190 Shoreditch High St, E1 6HU

You may also like to read about

An Afternoon With Roa

Ben Eine, Street Artist

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    October 13, 2013

    Hurrah for John and George!

    A story that has ‘made my day’.

  2. Jeannette permalink
    October 13, 2013

    the graffitti artists have drawn in color on dolan’s black and white drawings? fascinating.
    and, the power of art to transform everyone is never to be underestimated. or maybe it’s the dog — you know, sometimes dogs are angels.

    so beautiful, thank you.

  3. October 13, 2013

    This story has brought tears to my eyes – starting with right there with “and his thoughtful dog George” .
    Paddy

  4. Emma permalink
    October 13, 2013

    What a great story. Well done, John. Your art work is excellent. Wishing you continued success for the future.

  5. Gary permalink
    October 13, 2013

    He has turned his life around
    Here’s success to him, – good drawings.
    Gary

  6. October 13, 2013

    I am so proud and pleased for John and George, I will pop down to the show this week. Well done boys. i didn’t know that it was happening or I would have been there on the night.

    Katie (and Bambi ) from Redchurch Street.

  7. October 13, 2013

    @Jeanette John, is not a grafitti artist. He is an artist who draws on the street, for money. This is why his success is of such significance.

  8. October 13, 2013

    I sometimes wonder if fiction can match reality. What a heart warmer of a tale. Wishing John and George much success and yes, that is a thoughtful dog!

  9. October 13, 2013

    Good luck to John & George! What fantastic work!

  10. Mary permalink
    October 13, 2013

    I am so glad that you have done a piece on John and George. I cycle past them most days on my cycle ride home work and have wondered what their story is. I had also wondered and hoped that you might find it out for me and put on your blog…which you’ve now done. Thanks!

  11. Bob permalink
    October 13, 2013

    A lovely story and some great art. Good luck John and George.

  12. Cydney permalink
    October 14, 2013

    Thank you for the excellent work that you are doing in promoting and acknowledging the talent and humanity of the people you meet.

  13. October 14, 2013

    We love George and John, we have grown up with them, and have given them money and food to keep warm. And our picture of George is over my bed. We love it, and we love that George and John have a home and no longer go hungry. We love his street art and are very proud that we have been part of watching him become a well known street artist. We love Shoreditch and what it creates…Ella 8 and Jude 5.

  14. jim dolan permalink
    February 21, 2014

    hello john good to c u getting on well take care dad

  15. July 7, 2014

    The power of dogs,well done and congratulations to you both.
    From Tracy and Rusty(the springer spaniel)

  16. daisy permalink
    July 12, 2014

    Congratulations on your success, well done to you both,
    as someone else has said, “dogs can be angels”. The power of mutual caring and support to enhance lives is immeasurable. Keep on keeping on, and may the sun always shine on you and those you love.

  17. Sarah Phelps permalink
    July 12, 2014

    wonderful story and great drawings. Congratulations John, you and George, the thoughtful dog. Art and Animals, both are Life. Looking forward to the exhibition. From Sarah and Raffie-Dog, who isn’t very thoughtful but is still an angel.

  18. July 18, 2014

    Saw you both on TV this morning. Great artwork, what a guy and WHAT a dog!!! Am now utterly in love with Georgie boy. I have had three Staffies on the run now and I love them. My last late boy, Taz, was the double of George in both looks and personality (except black and white) and it was like seeing him alive again, so bittersweet to watch. Great feature, well done to you, wishing you and your family every continued success.

  19. July 26, 2014

    Great read so far, my brother same sort of experience, great artist like ya self his now reformed addict now a drugs counsellor in tower hamlets , life takes many turnes, what is normality ? Sometimes hard times make you a better person. Also your dog although he change your life for the best. If he could speak his story would be just as good

  20. Pamela permalink
    August 2, 2014

    You and George have made my day.

  21. steph green permalink
    August 5, 2014

    I heard the story of John and George on the radio this
    weekend… inspiring and heartwarming

  22. Lisa permalink
    May 15, 2015

    What an inspiring story. Carry on the good work John and give George a hug from me. He’s a beaut.

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