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23 April 2019

Hackney People: Ruben Dangoor

I still wouldn't call myself an artist," says Reuben Dangoor. "The art world has always been a difficult concept for me. It's quite elitist, there are barriers to lots of people even enjoying art, let alone making it. Barriers to them going into a gallery and feeling welcome."

He may have to get comfortable with the term. After all, what else do you call someone who has had an exhibition at the Tate Britain in their 20s? Reuben was born in Hackney: "Mum was a bit of a hippie so she had me at home, just off the Chatsworth Road," he says. His artistic parents encouraged him to draw and, he continues: "I was always at it. So it was a bit of a surprise for them when I said I wanted to study medicine.

" Even more so because, at this point, Reuben was 25, had finished school and was working as an editor in a fashion studio. "I really wasn't enjoying it," he says, "So I looked about for a job that was the polar opposite. I wanted to do something that would involve helping people, day in day out." Medicine seemed the obvious choice. Except for one small problem. "I hadn't taken chemistry or biology at A-level," says Reuben, "So I had to go back to school to get them. I also spent six months volunteering in a hospital. It was... hard!" When he finally got accepted into medical school, you might imagine he was elated. "Everyone congratulated me.

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Ruben Dangoor's portrait of grime artist Stormzy

Older members of my family would say: 'oh, your mother must be so proud'. But at the back of my mind, I already knew I was making a mistake. Being a doctor wasn't the right path for me. As much as I wanted to help people, I couldn't really be happy myself if I wasn't doing something creative." Luckily, fate intervened.

"Me and a friend had made a video, just for fun," he explains. "I was studying in Brighton, living in this basement flat with no internet and no phone reception when suddenly, the video went viral. Within a day of it surfacing, it was on the home page of YouTube. It was intense." The video, 'Being a D*ckhead's Cool', parodied the hipster culture that was taking root in his childhood home and contained the immortal lines: 'Taking pictures on London Fields, up on the blog so everyone knows, we're having new age fun with a vintage feel'.

Reuben says: "Ad agencies started calling me up, asking me crazy things like: can you do the same thing, but for a gambling company? It was silly, but it made me realise there could be a way of making a living from doing what I loved." He abandoned his studies and sent some of his illustrations to the comedy team behind the mockumentary series 'People Just Do Nothing'.

They liked it and, when the show moved from online to the BBC, Reuben started making promotional artwork for the series. Then the show's creators were asked to host 'Late at the Tate', and mentioned Reuben's artwork to the organisers.

Which is how, in December 2015 and aged just 28, Reuben's exhibition 'Legends of the Scene' opened at the world-famous Tate Britain. As befits someone who takes issue with the elitism in the art scene, it was an exhibition that turned stereotypes on their heads. Modern grime artists were featured in the sorts of settings and poses usually reserved for the landed gentry. Skepta sat astride a horse. Wiley wore a suit of armour, Stormzy stood in a stately home.

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Ruben Dangoor Re-imagines historical figures

The show was a success and led to yet more opportunities; Stormzy asked him to design his upcoming tour; Reuben moved into music videos; his Instagram following mushroomed; and Jeremy Corbyn's special adviser called, having seen Reuben's illustration of the Labour leader dabbing.

Last year, hundreds of football fans bought prints of his illustrations charting England's World Cup journey. Reuben says: "My favourite thing is when people tell me it's the first time they've connected with art, because it should be everyone, you know? "People have even got my work tattooed onto their bodies," he laughs. "And obviously it's very flattering but I also think: 'hold on! Are you sure you're going to want that in 20 years' time?!'" Despite his success, Reuben still works full time as a graphic designer.

He says: "I work stupidly unhealthy hours sometimes, but my enthusiasm for an idea gives me the energy to carry on." He makes much of his work digitally, on a Wacom tablet or an iPad Pro. Reuben says: "This new technology is amazing, it's so responsive. "Kids can pick up an old tablet and make amazing things. They can get it out there via Instagram. The internet has democratised all creative industries. "Everyone has access to some form of tools now. Everyone has a voice. Sure, that makes the field more crowded, but it also leaves it wide open to anyone."

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