London artist Mr Bingo interview: “I was jealous of the NHS”

·6-min read
 (Abha Shah)
(Abha Shah)

Geoff Hand, the artist better known as Mr Bingo, is sitting opposite me holding up a shocking print he made in 2020 in the blistering heat of the pandemic, which reads ‘F*** the NHS’ (except without the stars).

“That was not a clever piece of work, it wasn’t some kind of satirical statement.” he laughs, eyes twinkling with mischief under cropped curls “I was jealous of the NHS because they were getting so much attention. When everyone was clapping and had rainbow signs in their window, I remember walking around the neighbourhood thinking, “it’s so boring. Every house is “We love the NHS”. Imagine if someone put something up like F*** the NHS. It would be so weird, so confusing. I think there’s a lot of comedy in doing the opposite.”

The provocative print found fans in an unlikely audience: NHS staff themselves. Why does he think that is? Was it a way of putting two fingers up to an institution working them to the bone, rebellion against being in the Covid trenches with feeble government support? He explains: “It could be as simple as, even though you like the NHS and what they do and what they represent, for those people, the NHS might be their boss. Perhaps they thought, I don’t like my boss. I don’t like my shifts. I don’t get paid enough. So it’s like saying f*** Tesco, or whatever. Or maybe they just enjoyed the subverted silliness of it.” Sales of the print were donated to NHS-supporting charities.

Mr Bingo has built his brand on silliness. The Kent-born, London-based artist is known for his profanity-peppered sketches and prints that poke fun at everything from Covid restrictions to exasperating health fads, harnessing a knack for capturing the national mood with delightfully juvenile schoolboy humour.

His revised 1,000 print run of a bottle of Camden Hells, on which the label read F***ing Hell I’m Bored of Covid, sold out in 24 minutes, propelling him into Glastonbury ticket sales-levels of success. “it kind of… broke the internet. My website and Camden Hells’ website went down. That’s a success,” he laughs.

His light-flooded corner studio sits on a leafy corner beside Exmouth Market, where in early December 2021, Mr Bingo hosted two weekends of open studios, allowing fans a glimpse into his ordered universe. Artwork and amusing fan mail are taped up neatly on a huge wall and pencils in pots are all sharpened to a uniform length. I nose around his desk, smiling at his to-do list, a miniature work of art in his signature cursive script and underlined capitals.

Held in a gap between government restrictions, he sold open studio tickets online and welcomed groups of six for 50 minutes at a time, chatting, laughing and sinking bottles of beer on his balcony. With Omicron now surging through the population, it was just in the nick of time. Will the new variant fuel more works of pisstakery?

 (Mr Bingo)
(Mr Bingo)

“To be honest, I am bored of COVID so I don’t really want to make anything else about it. But if it does keep dragging on and there’s a fresh angle on it then I’m sure I might do something.” It seems remiss not to, given lockdown turned out to be such a muse - but who isn’t feeling battle-worn at this point?

“I sold a lot of art during the pandemic because people want a little trinket or memento to remind them of that historical occasion. It’s exactly the reason why people buy royal plates, or Olympics tat. There’s always loads and loads of merchandise that people buy that ends up in charity shops. I’m kind of doing a modern version of that. That’s what’s nice about humour in a crisis. My job wasn’t to find a cure for a vaccine, it wasn’t to comfort people: my job was to entertain. I got so many messages saying ‘thanks so much for keeping us going’. It’s as if you’re providing a public service. Really they’re buying stuff and that’s paying my wages.”

It’s a bit of a hunble statement. One of the people buying his stuff is David Hockney. The prolific artist ordered 40 Bored of Wellness beer mats in November, giving Mr Bingo a real fanboy moment. “He is genuinely one of my favourite artists in the whole world, probably my favourite artist actually. I can’t think of anyone I like more than him.” He shuffles in his bubblegum pink All Stars, adding: “It’s a sweet story of a really small artist who does quite silly stuff and then a huge prolific artist buying the smaller artist’s work. Art can be expensive. David Hockney has sold millions and millions of pounds worth of art but it was great that he was buying an £8.50 silly thing. The next day he bought another 10 packs, and two Don’t Forget To Have Fun gravestones. He also asked to get a F*** the NHS print sent to him.”

As well as Hockney, celebrity fans also include documentary maker Louis Theroux, who receives one of his scratch-off advent calendars in the post every year. He’s been releasing a fresh festive design for the last five years, drawing characters from real subjects: “About 400 people apply to be in it. I pick 25 based on as much diversity as possible, in terms of age, gender, race, sexuality, and body type and disability. I try to represent as many different people as possible.”

 (Mr Bingo)
(Mr Bingo)

An artist for the people, I wonder if there’s anything he won’t mock? “When I did my Hate Mail series [a project where paying punters are sent offensive postcards that proved so popular it spawned books and exhibitions] there were four things I didn’t go anywhere near: disability, sexuality, race, and religion. None of those are funny to attack.

“Religion is too risky. You might get killed. The only time I’ve ever made a joke about it was the I’m Terrified I Don’t Have a God to Look After Me print, but that’s me saying I’m jealous of people who have faith.”

Mr Bingo does have faith in his following though, and despite everything, hopes to hold another open studio in 2022. The way things are going, we’ll need all the comic relief we can get.

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