Words Kirk Truman
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I’d found a balance between commercial work and making a living from my passion for my art…”
It’s early on a bright and chilly January morning and in his Limehouse studio, artist Mark Wardel and I are discussing art, fashion, music and Soho’s yesteryear to a soundtrack of ‘70s and ‘80s club tracks. In the background, multiple startlingly realistic life masks of glam-era David Bowie watch over us from the walls – just part of the internationally renowned artist’s work – as I meet the man behind the mask and learn about his early years in Soho.
This year will be Wardel’s 40th as a Londoner, having hightailed it down to the capital after finishing art school in Liverpool in 1978. “You had to be in London if you had ambition to be at the centre of things and be involved creatively in those areas. As a huge Bowie obsessive, music and fashion were key influences on me, so I knew I had to relocate.”
Mark hawked his art school portfolio around the advertising agencies of Soho, securing a job as a junior illustrator at the third one he tried: Robert Davies Design for Advertising, based in Canaletto’s old studio at 41-45 Beak Street. ”There’s no way that could happen today – you wouldn’t even get through the door!” laughs Wardel.
His earliest impressions of Soho came from 70s cult TV show Budgie and seminal documentary Johnny Go Home; they evoked a seedy, down-at-heel glamour that the teenage Wardel found both frightening and alluring. In fact, a series of coincidences and chance meetings meant that he moved rapidly from being the new kid in town to socialising with the heroes he’d previously only fantasised about meeting: David Bowie, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, among others. ”It’s almost like my life chose me rather than the reverse. I was suddenly hanging out with Antony Price (clothes designer for Roxy Music), who introduced me to all these amazing people. I started frequenting the Blitz club where I became a kind of ‘court painter’ to the club’s luminaries, including Steve Strange and a pre-fame Boy George, and life became just what I had imagined it would be in London.”
This included connecting with his ultimate hero, David Bowie. In 1978, Mark was hanging out with a crowd of Bowie fans outside Capital Radio, where Bowie was being interviewed. “I’d passed this picture I’d done, complete with a fan letter, to his American PA, Barbara DeWitt, who very kindly offered to put it in the boot of Bowie’s limo for me; after which I promptly forgot about it until about six months later when a hand-written airmail letter from Berlin arrived at my work address. I was totally stunned when I opened it and discovered it was from David Bowie!”
Shortly after this, in September 1979, Mark was introduced to Bowie at Mayfair nightclub Legends. He reminded Bowie of the letter and the two briefly chatted. It was a meeting that heralded an ongoing series of coincidences and connections between Wardel and his hero.
By late ’79, having left his job in the ad agency and with help from London club entrepreneur Campbell Palmer, Mark began his independent career as an artist, painting, exhibiting, Polaroiding, producing record covers and art directing video storyboards for Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Boy George, David Sylvian, Bryan Ferry, Marc Almond and others from his Brewer Street studio. “I’d found a balance between commercial work and making a living from my passion for my art.”
As the 90s dawned and the musical landscape shifted towards American-influenced house music, Mark was recruited by club promoter Laurence Malice to design and produce the artwork and visuals for the notorious gay/mixed/anything goes Clerkenwell all-nighter Trade at Turnmills. This gained Wardel the moniker of ‘TradeMark’, a tag by which he became known to clubbers worldwide. It was a whole new audience for his artwork, although after six years he suddenly quit. “The hyper-intense, drug-ravaged environment of Trade epitomised the apex of the ecstasy and cocaine culture of 90s clubland. It nearly killed me, and I eventually had to step back from it to survive… although it took me a long time to recover.”
With the psychic damage of the 90s receding Wardel threw himself back into painting and exhibiting, eventually coming across a life cast of David Bowie made in the mid-70s. “A friend of mine who was a bigwig at EMI had got hold of this beautiful cast of Bowie’s face and, knowing of my obsession, lent it to me so that I could take a mould from it and cast my own version.” Mark created a flawless version of the original and began casting and painting Bowie masks for fun and to give to friends as presents. He had not considered selling them publicly until 2013, when his masks came to the notice of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who were keen to sell them in conjunction with their blockbusting ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition. “They told me they would initially like to order 50 to see how it went. I was delighted, but also slightly freaked out as I had never mass-produced the masks.” Mark had to learn quickly: the official order that came through that night was not for 50 masks but for 300! He spent the next six months working around the clock to produce them. “I was going nuts,” he remembers. ”Bowie’s face was in my face day in, day out for that entire period… I was even seeing him in my sleep!”
After the V&A edition sold out there was still a demand for the masks and Wardel continued producing different variations. Then, one day in 2015, he heard that David Bowie’s office had asked for his contact details. His first thought was that he was about to be told to stop producing the masks; instead, he was delighted to discover that Bowie, through his company Isolar, wished to purchase two of them for inclusion in the official Bowie archive. This, along with the star’s death in 2016, neatly closed a circle of contact that had started back in 1978 and put the official seal of approval on a lifelong obsession.
Following Bowie’s shock passing, Wardel decided to step back from the ‘feeding frenzy’ of commercial exploitation and concentrated on quietly producing a small number of masks for discerning collectors only. However, now that, “a decent amount of time has passed”, he plans to mount an exhibition of his Bowie masks and artworks and is currently scouting a suitable space in which to mount what promises to be an amazing show. This could well be followed by a ‘Blitz era’ exhibition, as Wardel not only has a large collection of Polaroids from the period but has also taken life casts from Boy George and (shortly before his untimely passing) Steve Strange. “It’s strange, but with the weight of history behind it and a young generation’s fervent interest in the period, those long-ago Soho days, which really formed the ‘Big Bang’ of much of British pop culture, have never really gone away…”
To read more about Mark go to his website