10 Days Remaining

Wednesday 7th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Subversive artist DARREN CULLEN talks about the Tories, and making bad people angry, with Ben Cowles

ON THE Tories’ general election campaign paraphernalia you won’t find any mention of the deaths of almost 10,000 sick and disabled people between 2011 and 2014 as a result of their politically driven austerity measures.

Luckily, one satirical artist has done that for them using subvertising — an art form which subverts and satirises corporate and political messages with their own logos, slogans and adverts.

What might appear at first glance as the Tories’ tree logo on a bus stop poster is in fact a mushroom cloud over London.

This is but one example of work of Darren Cullen, a 30-something, Yorkshire born, London-based artist whose works usually appear under the moniker Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives.

Not only is he attempting to reverse Tory propaganda but the subvertising virtuoso has been undermining the entire military-industrial-media complex for years.

I caught up with the renegade creator this week to find out more about the motivations behind his work.

What was it that drew you into subvertising?

I originally thought I wanted to go into advertising and was studying it for a few years, but the more I learnt, the more I started to see advertising as little more than a gigantic machine for creating human misery.

It’s a sustained psychological assault on the population and I think it’s hard to overstate the brutal and permanent damage it does to us as individuals, to society, and to the planet itself.

I’m attracted to subvertising because it’s a way of taking the language and context of advertising and turning it back on itself to get across better, more progressive messages.

But it also has the added bonus of destroying or hiding an existing corporate advert in the process, which can only be a good thing.

Your latest work has been directed at the Tory Party. Can you tell us a bit about your motivations for this project?

There are a million reasons to hate this government; their cruel and irrational austerity policies are killing thousands and damning hundreds of thousands more to misery and poverty.

Then there’s the charade of the piecemeal destruction of the NHS, not least because these market fundamentalists are ideologically opposed to its existence.

I was also prompted by Theresa May’s willingness to unquestioningly follow the petulant US President Donald Trump, whose tantrums may well lead us all into large-scale conventional or nuclear war before the next four years are up.

How do you see Britain’s future if the Tories win? Do you have any artistic plans for that depressing reality if/when that happens?

I don’t see a future if they win.

I’ve been working on an anti-Thatcher museum for the last two years, which will only be more necessary if the Tories win another term.

But no matter who gets in, the problems of militarism, global warming, rampant consumerism and the arms trade, among many many others, will still be there.

The struggle continues, no matter who is in Number 10.

It’s not about winning; it’s about taking the bastards apart.

You work often draws attention to consumerist society’s indoctrination of children. How do you feel about children being marketed to?

I think child-focused advertising is one of the most disturbing and unethical practices of our age.

Kids are being groomed by corporations because they know that if they capture the imagination of a child, they can rely on that child to become an adult customer for their entire life.

I cannot understand how anyone can justify the psychological manipulation of children for profit.

The people who do this for a living should be in jail.

You say on your website that your work is pro-soldier but anti-military. Can you explain what you mean by this?

I see soldiers as being among the many (often working-class) victims of the military-industrial complex.

Often they are economically conscripted, signed up from poor areas while they are 16, after being bombarded by slick million-pound recruitment advertising that more resembles a music video than a serious explanation about the life and death situations they are going to be placed in.

Servicemen and women can also be powerful allies in the fight against militarism, as we’ve seen with Veterans for Peace UK.

If we’re going to win the argument about dismantling modern British imperialism and the war machine, we need former soldiers on our side, Their condemnation of militarism carries a lot of weight.

Your work must generate plenty of abuse for you. Is it your aim to make conservative types angry or is there something else you want to elicit within people?

I enjoy making bad people angry and good people laugh. It’s debatable whether that’s an effective strategy for changing anything.

But I also often attempt to reframe old, tired issues in a way that allows people see them as if it were the first time.

The Birth of Palestine is a comic I’ve been working on set in the future when the UN decides to give the Palestinian people their own homeland in what was formerly known as Spain. So the Palestinians become the Israelis and the Europeans are the Arab nations. And the rest of the book is basically seeing how far I can stretch that metaphor before it breaks.

You get quite a lot of flak from the right-wing press over your works on the military. What do you think of their reporting?

Tabloid fury is very satisfying when it’s directed at you for something you did in order to make them furious. There’s a symbiotic relationship there.

I know for a fact a lot of these journalists for right-wing rags don’t believe a word they type. I had one Sun journalist tell me she actually loved my anti-Trident posters while the story she wrote was full of fury and outrage.

I don’t care as long as they’re printing my images and getting them into their readers’ brains.

Is subversive art an effective form of highlighting the hypocrisies and injustices of our consumerist, neoliberal, militaristic times?

I think it can be effective at highlighting things, whether it changes anyone’s mind is another question. I think there also comes a stage, and I see it more and more, whereby capitalism and militarism are doing a pretty good job of satirising themselves.

I’ve made a few satirical dystopian toys, like Action Man: Battlefield Casualties and Baby’s First Baby, but if you go to a real toy shop you’ll find boxes of Playmobil Riot Police and the British military’s own toy range, HM Armed Forces, with its a Reaper drone playset (ages 5+). I don’t know how you can top that with actual satire.

  • You can find more of Darren Cullen’s work at or find him on Twitter: @darren_cullen. Ben Cowles is the deputy features editor of the Morning Star.