To call British artist David Gwyther—better known as Death Spray Custom—a gear-head is a gross understatement, as most of Gwyther’s pieces move quite fast themselves. Whether he’s hand-mixing iridescent paint for a gas tank or painstakingly painting with a micro-brush, his pieces are cunning and ironic. They can often be ridden or worn and, at the same time, be shown in a gallery. “It is a kick to see my work in an art gallery, but it is just as great seeing it hammered round a racetrack,” he tells CH.
It’s no surprise that his studio in South East London is full of motorcycles, riding gear, trophies and ephemera. There are helmets from the 1970s scattered between vintage speedway pennants in the space, which smells strongly of paint, gasoline and oil. “I have a saying,” Gwyther shares. “If you do something that requires wearing a helmet, then it’s something that’s worth doing. Helmets are constant reminder of mortality.”
But Gwyther’s passion for motorsports preceded his art: “Wheels. Always wheels. Or I suppose wheels and danger came first,” he says. He reveals that he began painting as a way to do something unique. “Equipment is mass-produced, and is made for hundreds of thousands of individuals. I just wanted something different for myself, so I learned the technique. Art is a by-product,” he says. His commercial work varies from commissioned bespoke liveries for the Cannondale Pro Cycling Tour De France 2014 team, in which riders received spirit animal-themed frames (including the hotrod frame of superstar rider and winner of the green jersey Peter Sagan) to former F-1 pilot Nelson Piquet Jr’s heat pattern-inspired NASCAR truck. “In my mind, art needs a message. You can’t just say it’s art. You can’t just park a motorcycle in a gallery and say it’s art. Park a motorcycle upside down in a gallery, then it’s art. With what I do, I think yes, some of it is art, and the rest is… well, fun.”
Finding inspiration in all eras of motorsports, the artist cites the decade of 1985 to 1995 as his favorite for its dichotomy. “Motorsport was transitioning from analogue to digital in both equipment and design,” he notes. “There were 500cc bikes that were barely ridable and graphics that were being born from the first computers—for good and bad results.” His coffin soapbox cars (sans brakes) called “Cigarettes & Alcohol” were inspired by some of that era’s classic branding and sponsors—Marlboro and Martini—whose presence was almost paradoxical in an already dangerous sport.
Gwyther has several shows planned for 2015, the first being in Tokyo. His Joe Strummer helmet, The Map of Hip (which features Strummer’s handwriting) will be auctioned off at the Joe Strummer Foundation event on 19 March at the Boisdale of Canary Wharf in London. But his pet project has been the DSC Racing Sports in which he is helping young athletes in various disciplines with equipment—without corporate alliances, PR hype or energy drinks.
Images by Joe McGorty