A few months ago, TSJ came across a video showcasing the work of David Arnott, an artist who, using just standard tiles and adhesive, had fashioned a near-photorealistic depiction of Marvel’s Avengers. This video (along with many others he’s posted) garnered thousands of views, and although it’s a slightly tangential to this magazine’s traditional subject matter, the work was so impressive and so intriguing that we just had to get in touch.
This month, TSJ spoke with Arnott about his unlikely journey from the bottom of his class at college to the heights of the fine art world, as well as his thoughts on the differences between his mosaic artwork and traditional tiling.
“It was a strange story really,” Arnott begins. Having left school, he had enrolled on a wall and floor tiling course, but struggled with behaviour and focus, soon falling well behind his classmates. The situation deteriorated to the point that eventually, his tutor (who still teaches at St. Helen’s College today) sat Arnott down with his mum for a serious heart-to-heart. “Look, you need to get a grip on what you’re doing,” he recalls his tutor saying. “You’re letting it all slip away.”
Even though he’d only tiled roughly “about a wall” at that point, Arnott explains, his tutor clearly saw something in him, and his harsh but fair words made a strong impression on the young tiler.
Fortunately, although he was far behind the other students on the course, Arnott’s tutor gave him an extra two years to complete it, and he didn’t take this gift for granted. In fact, by the time the other students were finishing the course on schedule, Arnott had actually caught up! He had no intention of letting his extra time go to waste, however, and when it came time to complete his final project, he decided to take on a rather ambitious endeavour indeed.
“So they gave me four panels on a wall: one was herringbone, one of them was diamond, and another was just normal tilling, and on the last one they turned around and said I could do whatever I wanted on it – I had plenty of time,” Arnott recalls. Even still, despite his drastic improvement since the start of the course, his tutors were still somewhat sceptical when he asked if he could try a mosaic. “Well, that’s a bit difficult,” he remembers them saying.
Of course, by now, they might have known he would only take the words as a challenge. True to form, Arnott spent the next few months studying hard in the library. He read up on the techniques, the different traditions from Spain and from Italy, as well as famous mosaic artists, taking significant inspiration from the likes of Antoni Gaudi, who he credits as the basis of his style today.
Four months later, the piece was completed, and Arnott took home every single award he was submitted for at the college that year. The mosaic was so impressive, in fact, that City and Guilds granted him a bursary to finish out the rest of his course. “And it just spun out from there really. To be quite honest,” Arnott reflects, “I don’t think I would’ve stuck it out on that path if it wasn’t for my mum and tutor, really.”
Path to success
Of course, while that path has now led Arnott to a high-flying career in the art world – with clients including Mercedez Benz, Nike and the Kardashians – his success was anything but guaranteed. Towards the beginning of his career, he had “all kinds of jobs,” including a stint in a meat factory, but even when he started as an apprentice tiler, Arnott’s artistic ambitions were always important to him.
Working for a local tiling business in Salford, he would save the off cuts from jobs in order to work on mosaic projects in his own time. “Now, of course, it’s very different,” he says. “Because of where I’ve gotten to in my career: I’m sponsored for my tiles, I’m sponsored for my adhesives, I’m sponsored for my boards.” Back then, though, he had to recover every spare piece of kitchen or bathroom tile he could to scrape together enough material for a portrait or a football badge.
Now, it’s been many years since Arnott has done traditional wall or floor tiling. “The last time I did any standard tiling was my sister’s kitchen,” he laughs. “And it drove me mad!” But at the same time, he recognises the multitude of similarities between the two disciplines. “I work with ceramic tiles, I work with adhesives, I work with grouts. We all work with the same things, it’s just a different type of clientele.” Indeed, it seems to Arnott there’s almost a contradiction in the way people view tiling and mosaics alongside each other – if a mosaic portrait should be considered a piece of art, why shouldn’t a perfectly tiled floor? “Even if it’s a mosaic on the floor – it wouldn’t be considered an artwork,” he points out. “With standard mosaics, like people doing wetrooms and stuff like that, some of them are absolutely stunning. I look at them and think to myself, how on earth has somebody done that?”
Of course, the uniqueness and pop culture appeal of Arnott’s artwork naturally attracts attention beyond a straightforward appreciation of the superb craftmanship. His pieces hang in galleries next to Picasso, Warhol, Salvador Dali, and plenty of other globally recognised figures, and he’s represented by Clarendon Fine Art, one of the world’s leading art galleries. He has created realistic portraits of George Michael, Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss, even Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris, as well as artistic renditions of brand logos, football badges and animals.
Arnott was also part of projects to construct the world’s most expensive roulette table and the world’s most expensive Christmas tree. The former was completed in collaboration with Debbie Wingham (described as “a celebrity haute couture designer turned caketress”) as a gift for a billionaire’s son, and included more than 35,000 pieces of 24 carat gold tile – as well as $3.5m worth of diamonds. The latter involved creating Christmas decorations on a lightweight construction board, which would later be adorned with diamonds, “and that came to just under £20 million,” he recalls. “Different world.”
But despite spending so much time in that world, Arnott hasn’t let the success go to his head. Although he’s travelled all across the globe for work, he still lives in Salford, and when asked where he’s most proud to see his artwork hanging, he answers without hesitation: “Probably my mum and dad’s house. I did a little personal plaque for my mum, back when I first started, and I did a little Celtic badge for my dad as well. You could see the difference in it, though, you could literally get your thumb through the gaps!”
Perhaps it’s that humility and lack of presumption that has helped Arnott ascend so far in the art world. He never expected to work with celebrities or to have his work hung in prestigious galleries, but he’s also never missed an opportunity or allowed a setback to discourage him. Arnott refuses to accept the idea that there are places he and his work don’t belong. As an example, to procure the raw materials involved in an upcoming project, he recently visited the Dorchester Hotel in London to smash £500 teapots with a hammer! “It was just perserverance,” he explains. “If someone said no to something, I’d find another way around it.”
One important key to Arnott’s success is the exact thing that led to this interview: his videos. In recent years, social media has become a powerful way for tiling contractors – particularly those smaller companies without enormous budgets to spent on marketing – to promote their work, both to the public and the trade. Arnott understands this well, having fully leveraged the democratising power of the internet to spread his work far and wide. In years past, as he points out, people would either need to travel to see artwork, or they would have to see it by chance on television or in a magazine. “Now,” he says, “you can post it and the next thing you know it’s been pinged over in America and people are seeing it there, then it’s in Australia, then it’s in New Zealand, within a matter of seconds.”
In fact, he points to social media – the videos in particular – as one of the most significant factors in his success. Of course, this is helped in part by the distinctive nature of his artwork. Anyone, regardless of their interest or expertise in tiling (or mosaic for that matter) can see Arnott’s pitch perfect celebrity likenesses and appreciate the obvious artistic and technical skill that went into their construction. Moreover, the commissions he receives often reflect cultural touchstones of the moment – his Avengers mosaic, for example, has naturally received a lot of attention, not just for its outstanding workmanship but because people are already searching for artwork of the Marvel characters.
Indeed, while there is a significant (and growing) audience for videos and images of traditional wall and floor tiling on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, this content will naturally remain more niche than the pop-culture references of someone like Arnott. Of course, anyone can appreciate the beauty of a well-finished bathroom or shower, but it takes a little more experience to understand exactly how a professional tiler is able to achieve that result.
This was illustrated to Arnott recently when he watched a video of a shower tray installation. Amazed by the neatness of the cuts and cleanliness of the job, he showed the video to his wife, but her reaction was totally different. “She didn’t have the same perspective,” he says. “She looked at it completely differently to how I looked at it – obviously because I was at college doing tiling, so I know how much skill that took. Now, if you put a shower tray in front of me like that, I’d much prefer to do a portrait on it!”
The right tools for the job
Of course, while his output may look very different, Arnott’s work is very similar to wall and floor tiling in many ways, and nowhere is this similarity more apparent than in the products he uses to carry out his work. Both Laticrete UK and Johnsons Tiles sponsor the artist for his adhesives and tiles respectively, while Montolit supply his cutters.
In order to get whichever colours he needs to portray his subjects, Arnott selects tiles from a catalogue of Johnsons’ Prismatics range of small format tiles. “So I end up with a crate with about 20 boxes of tiles in it,” he says. “Lucky I’ve got a studio!” Fortunately, he’s able to keep waste down thanks to the quality of the tiles themselves, which he says are much easier to cut than the old tiles he used to lay in kitchens years ago. “When they broke they literally broke like the shape of a crocodile’s mouth,” he laughs. “It took ages and ages to clean them up, but with Johnsons they’ve got a nice break to them. I’m fortunate to have them as a sponsor.”
Arnott is further aided in the challenge of minimising waste by the precision of his cutters from Montolit, which he says “anyone who works with mosaics” will know. This can be really important, not just for the very valid reason of avoiding too much waste product going to landfill, but also because the materials Arnott works for are often very high value. On one job, he had to cut £30,000 worth of gold, imported from Italy. “And basically, those cutters just cut through the tiles like butter,” he says, “so there was no waste.”
For his adhesives and grout, Arnott is sponsored by Palace Chemicals. Last year, he used the company’s products to complete a mosaic project marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Speaking about their adhesive, he said: “You know that if you use it, it’s going to last. I’ve never had any problems at all with it – it’s the best adhesive out there”
Arnott has some exciting projects lined up for the near future, including a partnership with a UK-based brand of gin, a series of NFTs based on his works, as well as one more which was agreed upon only minutes prior to our phone call! While much of his upcoming work is under strict NDA for now, he’s keen to share more as soon as he’s able. Watch this space!