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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Tom J Newell

In one of Tom J. Newell’s comic strips, dating back a few years now, an illustrated incarnation of Stevie Nicks makes one simple demand: she wants some fun superhero action, and she wants it delivered in short comicstrip format. Tom’s pen responds, with a series of quick, four-frame tales, whose heroes include Carol Vorderman and a teenage Jesus. With its music and popular culture references, and a good smattering of the surreal, this retrospective example of Tom’s work may offer some indication of the way his imagination works.

In the late 2000s Tom made a name for himself in Sheffield, Leeds, and London with his poster illustrations for gigs by the likes of Slow Club, Jeffrey Lewis, MF Doom, and Daniel Johnston. Tom’s work took a nautical direction for some time, with his Good Ship Sheffield print, his work as part of the Dead Sea Mob collective, and his large-scale murals for Kraken Rum, with their writhing and menacing tentacled creatures from the deep. You'll now see Tom's penmanship in some of Sheffield's finest independent institutions – from Twisted Burger Company to Bear Tree Records to Hop Hideout.

Whether human or animal, or a bit of both, it’s Tom’s twisted take on characterisation that makes his work so distinctive: living skulls, freakish hybrid creatures, piercing third eyes, intricately-patterned bodies.

How would you describe your work?
Awkwardly and with a distinct lack of eloquence... but I think it may have been described by others as ‘low-brow’ at one time or another. I’ve done comic book stuff, gig posters, gallery shows, large-scale murals, and drawings that have been used by tattoo artists, but it’s sort of a bit of all these things and none of them from day-to-day, depending on the project.

What inspires you?
Getting out of the studio, cycling around and going to record shops, book shops, and taking in some of the details in between. I just saw a window frame on the church near my house that is going to form the basic composition of something I’m working on.

What’s your desk or workspace like?
It’s great! For a long time I used to just work on the kitchen table, but since we moved back to Sheffield I’ve got a whole spare room to myself with a big drawing board, surrounded by stuff.

What do you love about Sheffield?
The novelty of feeling like you’re travelling in front of an infinite-looped Scooby Doo background made up of Greggs and Subways soon wears pretty thin, so anything and anyone who break up that monotonous landscape are going to ensure the city’s personality shines through.

What would you do to improve the city?
I’m not sure how much of an improvement it’ll make, but I’ll just continue to draw things, exhibit work, play records to people, and support and promote all of the other creative stuff that my friends are doing.

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