Cover art by Darren Holtom

Cover art by Darren Holtom

Hip
Hop
Art

How did a postal worker, delivering mail in the picturesque town of Cheltenham, end up crafting artwork for the legends of the Hip Hop world?

Words by Rory Payne & Giles Mountford

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Words by Rory Payne & Giles Mountford

Whilst Darren Holtom was studying Art at college in the late 80s and drawing video game characters with a mouse on his Commodore Amiga, Public Enemy and Chuck D were ripping up the rock ‘n’ roll playbook and launching Hip Hop towards world dominance, building on the foundations of an acclaimed body of work that carried heavy social and political relevance throughout the 90s.

Despite his upbringing in rural England, East Coast Hip-Hop connected with Darren at a profound level, fuelling an undying passion for the music, a commitment to the message of social justice and a fascination with its creators.

Connecting his musical passions with his art, in time, Darren advanced his own creations with the help of newly upgraded kit (Wacom tablet and a new Mac for the initiated) and started drawing Hip Hop portraits and caricatures. It was a hobby he enjoyed. And for some time, it went no further than that.

It is like he has drawn the soul of the subject onto the screen.

‘The Get Down’ on Netflix

Hip Hop’s relationship with visual art can be tracked back to the links with graffiti art from its birth, but the consistent investment of individuals from both art forms has moved beyond collaboration to the creation of a subculture that is now dominant in the world entertainment scene. 

Fab Five Freddy © Laura Levine/Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Netflix

In 2003 Eye Magazine explored how the energy and talent of ‘train-writers’ (graffiti artists) of the early years offered a model for later graphic designers. 

The Get Down Dj GIF By NETFLIX on Giffy

It’s a theme that Netflix’s short lived ‘The Get Down’ gloriously elevated to almost mythical status (a good box-set binge for anyone interested in Disco/Hip-Hop/Art and a classic love story). 

Background image by Danilo Perazzone

As Eye Magazine explained it: “these (early artists) are not designers with clients: these are individuals who are an integral part of a subculture”.

And culture, sub or otherwise, is not to be taken lightly, it’s a lifeforce that can influence and shape every aspect of the way we feel, think and behave.

As Eye Magazine explained it: “these (early artists) are not designers with clients: these are individuals who are an integral part of a subculture”.

And culture, sub or otherwise, is not to be taken lightly, it’s a lifeforce that can influence and shape every aspect of the way we feel, think and behave.

For Darren, a long-time devotee of all things Hip Hop, it took the advent of social media to bring the visual artist and his musical heroes together. DJ Lord of Public Enemy stumbled across Darren’s portrait of Chuck D Facebook and shared it with the man himself. To Darren’s amazement and delight Chuck D not only liked what he saw but reached out,

“He invited me to join his online ad agency, mADurgency. There must be twenty graphic design artists there now, all dedicated to servicing Hip Hop and the entertainment industry. Since joining I’ve had this bug of producing artwork for the world to see.”

You can see for yourself why Darren’s work caught the eye of Public Enemy. He has a unique ability to depict the character of the subjects he draws and, perhaps more impressively, the meaning of the music he is creating artwork for.

I’ve had this bug of producing artwork for the world to see.

I’ve had this bug of producing artwork for the world to see.

No Sympathy from the Devil.

 A US policeman overlooks a young black teenager, his reflection mirrored in the policeman’s sunglasses. The song’s lyrics highlight societal unrest and police brutality. With Darren’s vivid imagery amplifying the issues raised, it is a perfect example of the two arts in motion: each articulate on their own but together elevating the message and underpinning connections with the audience. 

Watch an elite athlete in the flesh and you’ll see a seemingly effortless fluidity in everything they do. A great portrait artists’ works is comparable to this. They provide a different set of eyes for you to look at someone: from the inside out. The way Darren, at his best, manipulates images it is like he has drawn the soul of the subject onto the screen – telling the story of a life in the stroke of a pen.

He’s no longer just an observer but an insider.

Darren’s distinctive body of work today consists of album covers, caricatures and portraits. It’s a portfolio that is brimming with famous figures from the world of music and entertainment, with American hip hop an enduring focus.

Darren’s stock continued to rise in the Hip Hop community, gathering regular commissions and continuing his own work. In 2017 Darren designed the album cover for Public Enemy’s ‘Nothing is Quick in the Desert’: a piece he is justifiably proud of. Not only is it a contemporary piece of album art that manages to reference and respect the musical heritage it is attached to, it also the culmination of twenty years of work that has seen him move from fan to artistic collaborator. He’s no longer just an observer but an insider: a white postman from the UK who has made his own small, but indelible mark, on a black, American subculture he’s loved for a lifetime. 

The elements are essentially what HipHop is all about. MC DJ Dance and Art cultures. Although minimally termed as ‘graffiti’ the expansion of it covers from gear design to architecture. Darren Holtom’s illustration is a statement above photography itself. He imagines HipHop into a magical colorful space with his artwork. His brush pen pad canvases project a visual impossibility so complete that you hear a banging beat along with what you see.

CHUCK D

Images © Darren Holtom via Instagram

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You can see more of Darren’s work via his instagram account: @darrenholtom_art

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