I know his first name but not his surname. I know where he works but not where he lives. I’ve got his phone number but I’ve never rang it.
Heard of street artist Foka Wolf? Bet you a pound to a penny you’ve seen his work, either plastered across the city or going viral online. Most probably both. What you’re far less likely to have seen, at least not knowingly, is his face. Press and public appearances come complete with trademark balaclava, a nod to the fact his paste up artwork can tread a legal fine line — the reason he splits opinion like a student house washing up rota. Last week he joined me, fittingly for a Zoom call, pacing his flat throughout and laughing like a drain, showing the kind warmth that juxtaposes awkwardly with a man who looks like a burglar. “How are you keeping?” he asks. “How’s business?”, “How’s your health?” his friendly, lazy-sounding Brum drawl belying— as with so many of our citizens — a razor sharp wit. He wants to know how I am, but I want to know about him. The man behind the mask.
Foka’s pseudonym — most street artist go by a fake a name and not necessarily for anonymity — comes from the Focke-Wulf a Nazi fighter plane. “I guess in that way it’s kind of offensive,” he says. “I liked the idea of people having to say the F-word every time they mentioned me but, yeah, maybe the Nazi element is a bit much. Too late now.”
Suffice it to say Foka doesn’t have Nazi affiliations. His political leaning, judging by his work, certainly skews left, but he insists he’s pretty much sick of all politics now. His art is often described as subvertising, but he calls it a kind of ‘IRL meme’. If neither mean anything to you, I call it fake advertising. He places paste ups on walls, or posters in bus bus shelters, advertising things that clearly (and sometimes not so clearly) aren’t real. That could be anything from pork milkshakes to an over 75s death match. Latterly he’s found a niche with tearaways, a visual effect that makes it look like one advert sits on top of another, the bottom half torn away to reveal a combined message…
Primark, Transport for London, Barratt Homes, Twitter, countless “big enough and ugly enough” companies have taken a lick from the Foka brush, with many ads emblazoned by his fake ‘MegaCorp’ logo and, sometimes, a real phone number. "People who like what they see call to play along," he says. "People who don't, leave messages to tell me as such." Foka's received at least one death threat thanks to his Voodoo Classes for Kids, ad (below), something he laughs off as "par for the course". Born and bred Birmingham, it’s in his voice, in his demeanour and in his approach. That “ah, screw everyone” sensibility is borne of a city still finding itself the subject of stick from all corners. He clearly adores Brum and champions a host of his contemporaries when asked, reeling off Lucy McLauchlan, Imbue, Ziner, Gent 48 and Jim Zoot as homegrown talents worth tracking. Only one of those is a real name, if you can spot it.
He went to university in Birmingham, he won't say which, and studied visual communication, before falling into manual labour on a construction site. "I was there for four years," he says. "It was shitty work, but I was doing street art in my spare time. Back then, my work was on the artier side of things, split heads and whatnot. Eventually I was made redundant so I started going door-to-door, to restaurants and bars and the like, asking if I could do chalkboards or murals for them, pounding the pavement, living hand-to-mouth. I liked it, but the money wasn't great and chasing invoices was killing me. Then, maybe three years ago, I did my first fake advert and it went crazy. It was shared everywhere. It made national news."
Foka made his bow sending up 4 x 4 drivers, placing this (above) in Digbeth where, in his words "pretty much anything goes. It's when I go into the suburbs I get a lot of enquiries as to what in the hell I'm doing when I'm posting something up. I tell them I'm applying anti-graffiti paint, or that I'm from the circus putting up ads and for some reason that seems to be enough for them — they wander off." I ask how Wolf reconciles the illegalities of what he does. "I never post on residential property. I wouldn't post on someone's home and I only ever put one poster up. It's not as if I'm fly-posting the same genuine advert across the city. And usually I think the message in the art is a pretty decent one. At the very least I think it makes some people smile. And they don't tend to last long."
Pulled down by a fan to keep, by an aggrieved passerby or, let's face it, at the tax payer's expense, Foka's work is finally making him some money. "To be honest, it's not much," he laughs. Lockdown has been something of a business blessing to him, having had to switch his focus from physical tomfoolery to online sales, this limited run badge set to sell out soon. But he's making a living from home, which for a man who made his name on the street, isn't bad going.
I make a ham-fisted parallel between him and Banksy, knowing full well the similarities start and stop with anonymity, but Foka is generous about it. "Banksy is obviously an inspiration and one of the reasons I got into this. But times are different now — it's the nature of the internet that everything is short-lived. Bite-sized. Throwaway. It took me a while to realise my stuff didn't have to be pored over for months, I could knock something out in a matter of hours, post it then move on. It was great for my mindset. I love being able to get a message across so quickly and crack on with something else. Nothing stagnates. Within a day my work has usually vanished and I have absolutely no pining for it whatsoever. It comes and it goes, and so it should."
Temporary maybe, but his work lives on forever online. The "ad" he's produced that's garnered by far the most internet air miles is above. "Oh that one follows me around the web," he says sounding exhausted by it. "Everywhere I go, there it is. Ads on buses and tube trains do very well because they are sat perfectly in places that consumers expect them to be. In context they live where adverts always live, staring at you for an entire journey, making them all them more believable when you finally look up and pay attention." This was one of a number of posts he did in London (Foka's work has been spotted in the US, Finland, New Zealand), during a street art spree of the capital. So engrossed were Londoners that Wolf agreed to do an email interview with the London Evening Standard in which, for his own amusement, he told the interviewer he was a woman. The Standard ran this headline...
We talk about the balaclava. I wonder if it's really necessary or more of a branding exercise. "I could probably do with out it. Half of Birmingham knows who I am," he says wrongly, "but I really do feel free-er to speak from the heart this way." It reminds me of that Marie Lu quote: "The irony of life is that those who wear masks often tell us more truths than those with open faces." And perhaps there-in lies the real beauty of Foka's work. Funny though it is, it's also laying down home truths. If he's not offended you yet, chances are it's in the post.
A migraine for many, an irritation for more, and a major contributor to a vibrant Birmingham for most, I reckon it would be a far duller city without him. But I don't have to remove his work.
Venue: Makan Tabao by Harborne Kitchen, delivery to your door; Deliveroo Choice: Indonesian spatchcock poussin (£14) Chooser: Chef Director
I have absolutely no evidence to support this, but I reckon if guns were held to the heads of all ICB readers and it was demanded they tell me their favourite restaurant in the city, Harborne Kitchen would feature in most people's top... one. There would also be 19,000 unsubscribes in quick succession, so maybe I'll just do a survey. Either way, HK is that wonderful Venn diagram of a restaurant where local, meets good value, meets exceptional food — no wonder it's being championed as our next Michelin star in the making. But can they do delivery? Head Chef Tom Wells spent three years living and working in Singapore and, busying away under lockdowns and restrictions, they've launched Makan Tabao — they're East Asian, delivery only menu. My advice is to swerve the ribs starter, the only disappointment I had, saving the £8 and putting every penny towards the Indonesian free-range spatchcock poussin with lime sambal. Cooked on a Big Green Egg (those capital letters are doing some important lifting, there) it was smoky and luscious and tear-every-bit-from-the-bone good. The ramen (pictured, £12) was a success (that pork belly was softer than a Persian kitten) while an associate in Edgbaston was all over my Whatsapp talking up the beef rendang (£10) and the vegan salt-baked turnip, almond and szechuan (£4). HK launched this project only yesterday and judging by their social feeds were hit by a volley of orders, so giving them another day to settle in might be kind. But don't wait long as during January the team will throw in a free bottle of wine when you order with Deliveroo and then call 0121 439 9150 quoting ‘feed me wine’ complete with your delivery confirmation number. Oh and if, like me, you've never ordered a delivery dessert before, now is most definitely the time. Both options — yes I live alone and ordered two desserts — made me pause The West Wing to concentrate on what the bloody hell was going on in my mouth. The coconut sago (tapioca-style pud) just about had the edge on the lime cheesecake (both £6) thanks to some outrageously ballsy flakes of salt hidden away in there, lighting up my mouth with little moments of saliferous joy. Divine. Menu
Great Western Arcade tag team Land and The Pineapple Club have launched their second 'vegan and cocktails' DIY kit. I had the first and the cauliflower satay main with pesto and sweet chilli was a masterclass in using sauces to raise vegetables to a taste god-tier. The Golden Cassis cocktail was mind-bendingly good to boot. More —
In Stirchley, roaming burger bar Patty Dabblers are popping up in Verbena Kitchen this weekend (Fri and Sat, 5.30pm to 9pm) and Jan 29 and 30. Email them your orders and your ideal time for collection. Details —
Join DanceXchange tutors for an exclusive series of free 30-min beginner dance classes aimed at primary school kids aged 4 to 11. More —
Supersonic launches its 2021 programme tomorrow (Jan 15, 7.30pm) with a new edition of their live and online talk series that amplifies the voices and experiences of womxn, trans and non-binary artists creating extraordinary music. Details —
BMAG's in-house experts are introducing the museum's collection direct to your home via Zoom. This lecture on toys (£12.50) looks like a beaut. —
Soho-based, Japanese charcoal restaurant Robata are having the vacant Chilango spot on Colmore Row. It will be only their second site and every review I've read of their Old Compton Street home is a stonker. —
Nobody asked, so here's my tip for a Valentine's takeaway — Custard Factory-based 670 Grams are doing a £195 meal for two (or one, if you're me). The menu is insane and includes drinks. Collection only.
"Remember all those on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart." — Erma Bombeck
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