Street artist, whose fans range from Robbie Williams to Rihanna, reveals importance of social issues and feminism to her work – but offers few hints as to her identity
Her work decorates the streets and underpasses of north London, as well as the homes of everyone from Kanye West and Rihanna to Robbie Williams and Adele, but – like her male counterpart Banksy – Britain’s best-known female street artist has gone to great lengths to preserve her anonymity.
The identity of Bambi has remained a mystery since her pink tag appeared in 2010, first beneath include a stencil portrait of Amy Winehouse in a Camden doorway and since then in graffiti depicting everyone from Kim Kardashian to Boris Johnson portrayed as Winston Churchill.
But in a rare and exclusive interview with the Guardian, the graffiti artist, who grew up in London – home to all her street art – revealed herself as an ardent feminist who she got a taste for graffiti at a very young age and who sees her artwork as a social crusade.
Recalling in vivid detail the first time she picked up a spray can, Bambi said: “I suppose I started my artistic career as a childhood vandal,” she said. “I’d been given an electric guitar with amp and an airbrush spray kit with some air canisters for my ninth birthday. Having sprayed on all my mum’s precious objects that were displayed around the flat, like her Poole pottery, and seeing dad’s disapproving snarls because the smell of spray-paint was making him cough, I moved outside the building to continue.”
She continued: “I remember spraying a trail of stars using a stencil that I had cut out of my dad’s Reader’s Digest magazine on the bonnet of a shiny Rolls-Royce car that was parked just outside my parents’ block of flats. It looked lovely once I’d finished – then I realised what I’d done and legged it home.”
She went on to study an MA at Central Saint Martins art school and from then “continued my shenanigans using stencils in my paintings and spraying on walls all around the West End”.
Despite being what she described as a “natural show-off”, Bambi said she needed to keep her identity secret in order to wander the streets of London uninterrupted, or be pursued by the police for vandalism. As a result, she has turned down requests such as that from One Direction’s Harry Styles for her to mural the walls of his home.
Graffito – Queen Elizabeth II with queen of diamonds playing card insignia Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, painted by Bambi during the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Photograph: Jeff Blackler/Rex
She added: “I’ve been in a prison cell and I can tell you it’s not very nice. Too many locks and a stainless steel loo with hard toilet paper.”
Yet, Bambi’s refusal to give her name has become something of a media obsession, particularly after comments she made alluding to a parallel career as a chart-topping singer. As a result, it has been claimed she is everyone from Paloma Faith and MIA to Adele and Geri Halliwell – claims she neither confirmed nor denied to the Guardian.
But although a Daily Mail article has portrayed her as an affluent James Bond-esque figure (a wearer of Vivienne Westwood and a driver of Aston Martins with a karate black belt), Bambi’s conversation with the Guardian gave little allusion to a taste for wealth.
“Being an artist is about creative freedom,” she said. “I want to save the world and that’s why social commentary is always present in my work. It’s easy to live with your eyes shut but that’s not fulfilling or helpful to the world.”
Bambi’s pieces, which have depicted figures including David Beckham, Ai Weiwei, the Queen and an Afghan war hero, are often inspired by everyday materials she sees reflective of contemporary society.
“Celebrity culture, fashion, politics, glossy adverts in magazine like Vogue and gossip magazines like Heat,” she said. “And of course self-reflection on women’s issues like female genital mutilation.”
He next piece, she said, would be addressing the refugee crisis on the shores of Calais, adding: “It’s impossible to ignore injustice and the corrupt world we live in.”
She also revealed her frustration at being referred to as “the female Banksy” rather than an artist in her own right. “It’s a perfect example that we live in a male-dominated society at the moment,” she said. “Men set the benchmark and women are judged by that.” The artist said that although she was a fan of Banksy (whom she refers to as ‘the male Bambi’), her hero is the suffragette Emily Davison, a woman who “fought and gave her life to the cause”.
Bambi was keen to stress that her gender was central to her work and the social messages she wanted to get across through graffiti. She takes inspiration for her work from the incessant coverage of celebrity culture and glossy adverts in fashion and gossip magazines.
The artist also revealed she intended to address what she called “celebrity censorship” in future pieces. “The way Rihanna tweeted #free Palestine then was made to quickly delete it … I find that fascinating,” she said.
She also addressed the suggestion that graffiti, once a powerful and often bitingly witty comment on the establishment, had become commodified and impotent – bought and collected for thousands of pounds by the figures it once existed to criticise. Brad Pitt, for example, is alleged to have bought Bambi’s wedding portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for £60,000 as a gift for Angelina Jolie, before commissioning portraits of his own family. Other works by the street artist have fetched upwards of £100,000.
But Bambi said: “I think it’s fantastic that graffiti and street artists are getting the recognition they deserve – it’s art with a social message made by anyone who’s got the bottle to spray on a wall and risk arrest.”
Art, Bambi added, should be made by the people, for the people and be free on the streets, and she directed her criticism at those whose work was elitist and unobtainable.
“Who wants and who could fit a pickled shark in their flat?” she asked. “And the fact that Damian Hirst paid shark hunters to source and kill a beautiful wild animal for that piece … well I think that’s shit.”