Thursday, 21 June 2012

On Militant Art: Part 2 - King Mob

King Mob 

King Mob was a radical English art collective, based in London, in the 1960s and 70s.  They sought to emphasize the cultural anarchy and disorder that they saw as being ignored in Britain at the time.


The brothers David and Stuart Wise (who had studied art in Newcastle) were the most dominant members of the group from the outset. The Wise brothers developed a combination of hard-edged politics (Russian nihilism and texts such as Pisarev’s “The Destruction of Aesthetics” fuelled notions of value, politics and the lack of a social function in art) and the disruptive potential of Dada and Surrealism

After they moved to the Notting Hill area of London, the brothers came into contact with Situationist International – two of whose members (Chris Gray and Don Smith) joined King Mob.  They also met, and worked with, John Barker who would later serve a prison sentence for his role in the Angry Brigade bombings. 


King Mob used a variety of techniques which could be placed into two categories:

  1. Writing and propaganda.  This included: Graffiti, distribution of flyers, posters and their publication The King Mob Echo.  
  2. Direct Action. 

Writing and Propaganda

Their most famous graffiti slogan appeared as a message mocking commutors on a stretch of the Hammersmith and City line.  IT stayed there for several years, surviving until the 1990s (see below).    

Same thing day after day- tube - work - dinner - work - tube - armchair - TV - sleep - tube - work -how much more can you take? - one in ten go mad, one in five cracks up

In fact, King Mob took their name from a piece of graffiti that appeared on Newgate prison during the 1780 Gordon riots.  Rioters smeared the walls of the prison with the phrase “His Majesty King Mob” after having gutted the prison itself.   King Mob planned to paint Wordsworth’s house with the slogan “Coleridge Lives” but never realised this act. 

King Mob used posters and their publication The King Mob Echo to disseminate their political beliefs.  These publications sparked controversy by applauding murderers such as Jack the Ripper, Mary Bell, and John Christie.

They even went as far as to celebrate Valerie Solanas' 1968 shooting of Andy Warhol and to include a hit-list of several celebrities: Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Richard Hamilton, Mario Amaya (who was also shot by Solanas), David Hockney, Mary Quant, Twiggy, Marianne Faithfull, and IT editor Barry Miles.  Their publications were satirical and featured cartoon characters such as Andy Capp and the Bash Street Kids (from the Beano).  

Front cover graphic from a King Mob anti-art diatribe, circa 1968. Anonymous. Courtesy Tate archive. A dancing skeleton holding a burning torch captioned "anarchy" and wearing a sash captioned "communism", unfurls a scroll labeled "Mob Law", upon which is written a message from King Mob encapsulating the group’s ideas regarding culture - "the commodity which helps sell all the others".

Direct Action

Some of King Mob’s other ambitious, and unrealised, plans included blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District and hanging peacocks in a London park.  

One infamous stunt that was executed was a critique on the ownership of public and private space that saw the group, dressed as gorillas and pantomime horses, storm a private west London park and tear down its gating in order to open the park up as a children’s play ground.

A strong case can be made that King Mob's use of direct action was influenced by Black Mask.  In the 1960s King Mob spent time with Black Mask’s Ben Morea and co-signed at least one statement by Up Against the Wall Motherfucker!  In a 1967 anti-war rally the group was able to storm the Pentagon (which led to a severe beating).  Militant acts such as these distinguished King Mob and Black Mask from the intellectual French Situationists and the British Situationist support for Morea led to their expulsion from Situationist International. 

Like Morea’s Motherfuckers, King Mob was more extreme than, and suspicious of, most other “radicals”.  They were often an unwelcome presence at events for example: during the famous Hornsey Art College occupation they were thrown out for mocking the level of debate.  At the LSE occupation, student leaders removed their sexually explicit posters. 

Inspired by Black Mask's "mill-in at Macy's", twenty five members of King Mob stormed London's Selfridges, with one member, dressed as Father Christmas, to distribute all of the store's toys to children. The police were called and forced the children to return the toys.  King Mob claimed they were not as radical as Father Christmas, as "he breaks into people’s houses". 

King Mob's legacy includes their influence on Malcolm McLaren, who claimed to have been at the Selfridges event, and apparently adapted their Situationist models in the promotion of the Sex Pistols. 


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