Sina Sparrow, Graphic Illustrator
The first time I saw Sina Sparrow’s graphic illustrations was on the staircase of the Hackney Picture House last year. It was a dark, winter’s evening and I had been to see a film on my own. I was walking down the stairs when a series of black and white images leapt out at me.
The illustrations were striking and they were attached to the wall using bulldog clips. All were of men in various states of nudity. Some of them were embracing intimately and others kissed. A few of the drawings had captions with wry comments and observations. They looked like graffiti from toilet walls, but they seemed more thoughtful, considerate, melancholic even. One was of a topless man captioned “He sleeps with everyone but me,” with a heart coloured-in beside the figure.
I tell Sina this when I meet him in Limehouse where he lives and works from his bedroom. He runs Debbie, a monthly club in Bethnal Green, and is tired and sleep deprived. He laughs, which he does easily, often and with volume, telling me he remembers that exhibition vividly – he had split up with a boyfriend and was feeling heartbroken while hanging those pictures on the staircase. “I stood back and looked at my work and thought ‘all of this is so sad. I really hope people connect to it and think it’s fun,’” he recollects, again laughing.
Much of Sina’s work is autobiographical, excavating his own store of experiences, desires and fantasies. It concerns a range of observations on relationships, break-ups, sexuality, pop-culture and loneliness, and also upon the ordinariness of life, the enigma of coincidences, the nature of attraction, the inherent difficulties of living in London and our relationship with technology.
Growing up in Surbiton, Sina was writing and reading comics from an early age. “I love words and pictures and found comics exciting. I was into superheroes such as the X-men, Wonder Woman, Thor, Superman and Batman, Cloak and Dagger and the Justice League. I found the characters all really attractive because they were really powerful and beautiful, and they were fighting for social justice at the same time.”
Sina initially drew his own comics based upon what he was reading and he gave them away to people he knew. Then, around the age of sixteen, he discovered that there were others who were making and photocopying their own zines, and this led him to take his own material more seriously. In his work, he began to address what was happening in his own life, exploring matters to do with identity and bullying – the latter, he says, was especially pivotal.
“I went to an all-boys school and there was a lot of homophobia in the air. I didn’t have very many friends and was bullied quite a lot. Much of it centred upon my sexuality. At the time I didn’t even know what I was, but this did not matter to the bullies. What this period allowed me was a lot of time to work on my art and creative writing. Reading comics such as X-Men helped – this story about mutants is essentially a metaphor for race, sexuality and other forms of difference, and the ways in which people react to that.”
“Boy Crazy Boy” was the first of these zines, taking a sardonic look at everyday incidents which Sina experienced. One of his stories was about a boy Sina had crush on. One day, the boy invites Sina to his house, which he is over the moon about until he discovers that the crush’s boyfriend is there as well, when he didn’t even know he had one.
Sina’s parents are both academics who initially encouraged their son’s enthusiasm for comics but, when it seemed like he wasn’t growing out of them, they became anxious about it. “Comics were thought to be slightly regressive, in relation to ‘real’ art and literature.” They also grew uncomfortable by some of the content when, at thirteen, Sina’s biggest influence was a series called “Love & Rockets” by Mexican-American brothers Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez about two punk girls in a lesbian relationship.
Sina went to art school and did a degree in illustration, but he says it made him feel lost and disillusioned with his work. It took a long time to get back to making comics again. He did a series called “Art Fag – Tales of Love and Loneliness that could be yours,” and a zine called “Pretty Boys Ignore You” which is a series of illustrations that he did in the bars and cafes of Shoreditch and Soho, imagining the stories of strangers he sat next to.
Sina’s work is honest and frank. “It’s about feelings, ambiguous and sometimes negative feelings – I think it is important to talk about the darker side of life,” he admits – but he also hopes his illustrations make people laugh and connect emotionally through humour. “The more specifically I speak about my own life and experiences – ironically – the more universal my work becomes,” he suggests, “Straight people can look at it and say, ‘Oh that’s really romantic’ or ‘I feel like that too.’”
“I don’t want to be hot or cool or – or fabulous,” he said, “I just wanna be me.”
But there was something inside him that burned gently and bright and strong
Drawing for The Melting Ice Caps album cover
Portrait of musician Owen Duff
Illustrations copyright © Sina Sparrow
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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