We spoke to JJ Hudson, otherwise known as DR NOKI, a renowned artist, upcycler and activist based in Brighton who became widely recognised in the mid-1990s. He reached acclaim as a result of his ongoing war against fast fashion, and fought through the subversion and customisation of discarded materials and garments by mainstream brands.
Sick to death the fast fashion brand establishment and want to fight-back in a sustainable way? Then here’s your guy.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I grew up in Scotland and went to Edinburgh art college where I studied fashion design from 1989-1993.
Then I went to New York, came back… moved to Brighton, then moved to Shoreditch, London in 1995 where I lived the warehouse dream for about 8 years. This was at a time where there was nothing in Shoreditch at all but was where I discovered the rave scene.
How did living in the thick of the 90’s rave scene inspire you?
The mashup was what was going on in the rave. It was how I felt about seeing sportswear worn in layers with words and concepts of new music, new apparel, new footwear… all very new, modern connections within my own tribe. It wasn’t until the rave came along that I felt like I was communicating with my own people, my own youth culture. If you wore an Adidas tracksuit or had a Nike pair of trainers on or had an Ellesse t-shirt you’d be identified as going to and being part of the rave because you have the guts to wear that stuff.
When and why did you decide to create Noki?
Living in Shoreditch gave me that chance to realise that I’d become a billboard, a puppet. The corporate was the puppet master and it was using us all as billboards. I came across a great book called Culture Jam written by Kalle Lasn. This book explained a lot of this stuff and it introduced me to the idea of memes and power memes etc. It basically inspired me to reject my own youth culture which was starting to evolve into a really big, dirty, drug addicted mess.
The mashup became very difficult to control and the rave was collapsing. A lot of the utopian concept in my head was just falling apart. So it was within that falling apart that I was inspired to connect together what was happening and I started chopping up my rave garments that happened to have Adidas, Nike, Fila, Ellesse on them. It was just a liberating moment.
Why did you start creating ‘T-shirt magazines’?
I started making magazines to parody the point of sale and how we are being fed concepts of consumerism. I would sew two t-shirts together, pile them up as if they were a big thick magazine and then I would tear double paged spreads out and give them to my friends to wear to the clubs.
The t-shirts would get loads of attention but they weren’t really saying Adidas they were saying aids, or ellesse had been changed to sexless. People would connect to this familiar typography but would be reading something new. It wasn’t about printing on new like in the 80s, it was about using the second hand textile that had already been printed because from the 80s-90s a myriad of t-shirts had been printed to facilitate the rave.
So what inspired you to use branded t-shirts as a medium for your art?
When the brands first started out their t-shirts were quite expensive so you would hold onto a favourite t-shirt. But by ’95 you had your JD sports selling 5 for £5. Something had changed within the corporate and I just saw the brand becoming mundane, boring, non-functioning and losing its value. I realised I’d become a billboard to that. I was giving up my youth culture, my sexuality and I felt abused. I transferred my abuse to getting my scissors and just chopping into it. Any holes in a second hand t-shirt would be added to, and I would create faces so you would be like facing up to this hole, stains would get stencils over the top of them. I was creating this new canvas using t-shirts… I was smashing t-shirts like my graffiti peers were smashing walls.
The customisation spawned into different things like the sob masks.
Why is upcycling so important to you and your brand?
Using second hand gives me a brand value that I haven’t torn into the fresh commodity. I get the modernity of the rip and tear but I choose to rip and tear from what’s already ripped and torn. There’s plenty within the rag pile and the landfill… there’s enough commodity there to be able to create my message .
Why do you think upcycling important for us as a generation?
To realise that we are being manipulated to rip and tear constantly without any knowledge of the harm it’s creating. We are now in a generation of design for design’s sake, so that alone increases the rip and tear. It rips the minerals out of the earth to create a product that is design for design’s sake which will forsake us all in the end. There needs to be a stop and reflection and for me that was realising that the ragpile gave me everything.
What do you think is the worst thing about the commercial fast-fashion industry?
Design for design’s sake… trying to give a consumer some reason to spend money on something that has already been made before. Commercial fast-fashion feeds addiction and it’s purely an endorphin rush. When you go shopping you get an endorphin rush from the hunter gatherer in you. You can’t really afford these things but you buy them anyway. But you don’t really even own them because you are in debt to the bank.
All these things are part of the hypocrisy that consumerism creates. Creating denial and hypocrisy and negativity within, self-harming… consumerism is a bit of a self-harm y’know. All the unworn clothes thrown into a pile in the corner of the room are like a dead energy, which is emulating hypocrisy, addiction and denial.
How is Noki trying to combat this?
Noki is all about trying to create something positive and something unique out of the hypocrisy, addiction and denial. Noki is trying to fly the flag for youth culture and brandalise their addiction so that they can communicate with each other and have a laugh rather than feeling guilty and hypocritical and as a result reclaim our humanity.
Fashion has the power to drive change. What do you think of this statement?
Well it’s definitely changed me because I’ve found a unique place within the concept of collaging, which is using the information highway of textiles. It’s generally done through paper. Critics say to me ‘You’ve done a textile transfer which is really different and a thought provoking thing to find within an art forum.’ So it’s given me the power to not use paper collage and just use a different kind of carbon. I’m an art brand. Within the fashion side I’m playing, parodying, mocking fast-fashion, even trying to bring it back to the best fashion which was couture, y’know the idea of sculpture.
However I do think fashion can sometimes be a bit constricting and I like the non-restriction that art gives. When you design something you are controlling somebody but I don’t want to control I want to liberate. My art is very uncomfortable, very provoking, it drives ideas and narratives that are subliminally hidden behind coutureism and the entertainment of the mind through global infiltration of information.
As an anti-fast fashion activist and upcycler what are the biggest problems you have faced in the industry?
The homogenisation of singular ideas I have created that have been put into the fashion industry through stylists photographing and inspiring generic designers ideas and seeing multiples of that happen through the idea of pattern cutting, again controlling people.
Each second-hand t shirt is different, it’s dimensions through washing, it’s colour wear, it’s been consumed it’s been taken from the multiple design format but once it’s in the ragpile it’s not left as a singular entity. I can then take a craft… cut it, formulate it, customize it and collage it in a certain way to create a pattern that’s unique within a pattern, rather than a constant homogenised pattern. So I’m challenging the idea of design in a sense through the collaging of the corporate leftover.
Where do you source your materials from?
Second hand shops, friends, family, skips, and donations. When I make my canvases I like my clients to source their own materials. I want to use items that they are already attached to, that have been rejected and it’s never worn anymore but they have a memory. I then want to reclaim a lot of the negativity and put up for debate why they bought it, why they stopped wearing it and why they never got rid of it. Using second hand also gets rid of that rag negativity of dead energy.
Noki proves that you don’t need money to create, be ethical and sustainable, and to create amazing designs. What do you think of this statement?
It’s not about money, it’s about sticking to your beliefs, being part of change and knowing that there’s a new trend that’s happening and not giving up on it and being proactively interested in change. You can certainly go second hand shopping and spend less in a second hand shop then you would in Primark and do Noki, and make street couture and do something cool. When I did the 2008 fashion moment for Fashion East, the philosophy behind my collection was don’t buy me, copy me. However, unfortunately, that philosophy actually ended up being copied by companies not the individual which was the sting in the tail.
Do you customize and wear your own clothing?
What do you think? [He laughs and looks himself up and down.] Everything! These jeans alone with the double knees, I have just overlocked down the side and created a pocket out of the industrial double knee. This jacket I cut the sleeves off and added in. I have these generic tags to attach to zips… Dr Noki’s NHS. My shirt is covered in pen work, and my trainers are all done up as well. I practice what I preach and I enjoy it. That’s how I started! I was always wearing stuff that was on the edge, like I wore my own masks.
Tell me about a piece of your artwork?
This piece is called Four New Horses of the Mini Apocalypse.
This piece is based on the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I found all the materials for this in the Martlets Aids Hospice on London Road [Brighton] when I was looking for inspiration for a piece commissioned by a client. I wasn’t going to buy them, but it was too tempting, the whole collage narrative was on its own on the rail. One after the other, they appeared.. the Ralph Lauren ego horse tops all in a row and amongst them the living dead t-shirt. Following these finds I moved onto the ladies section where I came across the red Mickey Mouse multi print I used for the skyline. In one charity shop I managed to find materials that perfectly symbolise the whole idea that we are heading towards a mini apocalypse as a result of fast-fashion and consumerism and was inspired to create the piece that had been brewing in my mind for a long time.
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For more info on Dr Noki and his work, visit: