Artist Corbin Shaw on slogans and subversion

The Sheffield-born artist talks to us about the power of wordplay and textiles, how artists can work successfully with brands, and why football fans are “practising artists”

“I always found it a really scary thing, a sewing machine – this big, mechanical device,” says Corbin Shaw. “I always felt it might take my hand off.” The London-based artist has long since shaken off his fears. Although he has worked with other mediums like printmaking and pottery, he has undeniably built his name on textiles. You’ll have likely encountered his banners and wall hangings by now, many of which bear terse slogans and loud designs. At least, you might think you’ve seen them, given how he plays with symbols and language that are familiar in one way or another, from conjuring well-known brands like Carlsberg and Burberry to adopting and subverting the Saint George’s Cross.

Growing up in a village near Sheffield, he saw how fabrics could carry messages that would struggle to come out of a person’s mouth. Flags, banners and shirts became a vehicle for tender expressions of passion, grief, and identity where words fail people, particularly men who perform a certain kind of masculinity. The first flag he ever made drew on these observations. “My dad grew up in a mining village and one of his mates that he used to go to football with, he took his own life, and they all made flags in the area as an ode to him. I was just really interested in how these quite rigid, hyper-masculine blokes were able to express themselves in that way. It’s so subtle. And I just thought that was gorgeous.”

Football occupies a prominent role in Shaw’s practice, landing him a spot in football-themed exhibitions at Oof Gallery and the Design Museum in London this year. But more than the game itself, he’s interested in the culture around it: “How people talk about it, what they talk about in the pub, what they wear, what they sing. Football songs are the last folk tradition in this country, and I think that’s such a beautiful thing. I don’t think it gets spoken about enough.” He highlights how inventive supporters can be when it comes to chants, slogans, or more recently, tweets. “In their own right, football fans are practising artists, I’d like to think, and I’m just almost parodying it,” he says. People sometimes alert him to pictures of flags that feature messages written over the top. “They say, oh, someone’s ripping you off, and I’m like, no, no, no. I didn’t invent it.”

Soften Up Hard Lad. All work by Corbin Shaw