The man who went from vandal to artist

2 Mins read

Meet the Sheffield-based artist who popularized graffiti art in Yorkshire in the 80s and is the reason for Graffiti being taught in higher education.

Sitting at his tenth-grade desk in art class, David (Dee) Warburton doodled graffiti letters in his book, completely ignoring his teacher’s instructions to draw a still-life image of plants.

It was the 1980s and graffiti art had just begun to make its way to British TV – 15-year-old Dee was falling in love with it. Almost instantly he was pulled back to reality when he heard a voice screaming, “Warburton!”

“Mrs. Rich walked over to me and said, ‘Get out of my class’. And that was it. I was never allowed into an art class again, which made me angry,” says Dee, whose art is now rooted in Black culture.

After having lost his mother at the age of three and being put in foster care by his father when he was nine with no siblings to depend on, being banned from doing art left Dee feeling vulnerable and empty.

“After eventually escaping abusive foster care on my fourth attempt at 15, I left school with no qualifications. I got involved with the police because I was doing illegal stuff. But I ran to my younger sister Patricia who gave me my first opportunity to be creative,” says Dee.

Nonstop by Dee and Eazle in 1999
This graffiti art mural is titled Nonstop by Dee and Eazle in 1999 [Dee Warburton]

“When I held that spray can for the first time in the 90s, it just felt like freedom. I can’t even put words to the feeling. Doing graffiti made me feel like I was part of a family that I never had.”

Dee found brotherhood among other graffiti artists in Sheffield, and formed a street art group with them called Too Damn Creative (TDK) in 1987. While his first spray painting was just his name, he eventually gravitated towards murals while in TDK, and abandoned his vandalism days of tagging.

The group eventually had a breakthrough a year later when they made a mural dedicated to Goldie (the man who started the graffiti revolution in Wolverhampton) for the then Prince Charles to gain funding from the Prince’s Trust.

They even met him in 1988 at Cutlers Hall in Sheffield. This encounter, including the moment that Prince Charles signed the mural, was recently broadcast by the BBC as part of King Charles’s legacy on September 9, 2022 just after Queen Elizabeth passed away.

Prince Charles and Dee in 1988
Prince Charles and Dee in 1988 [Dee Warburton]

“At the time there was substantial negative press around TDK as we were seen as vandals. There was a lot of backlash against the Royals for supporting us and they came under fire.

“The negative press gave us the exposure we needed. We did workshops in Devon and Scotland, and were even invited to represent England at the first-ever graffiti world championships in Brighton,” says Dee.

Dee still educates people about hip-hop culture and graffiti art. He is the reason Graffiti is recognized as a legitimate contemporary art form in higher education. He wrote a unit on ‘Advanced Art Practice Studies’ in the Pearson BTEC Level 5 Higher National which is studied at universities in more than 70 countries.

As Dee enthusiastically turns the pages of what is considered a Bible to graffiti artists, the first-ever edition of Spray Can Art from 1985 — one of the earliest graffiti magazines to exist, he credits Goldie, who is featured in the magazine, as who inspired Dee to set up his own business. Dee founded the Nonstop Foundation in 1999 and offered workshops in graffiti, break dancing and DJing for young people in youth clubs.

“We also had accredited courses in graffiti and hip-hop culture which were on Open College Network. We were definitely a catalyst for Black culture and art especially in Sheffield back when it was seen as dangerous.”

Featured image courtesy of Dee Warburton.

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