David Shrigley used to hand out his doodles to friends. Now his work, as well as adorning t-shirts, CD covers and greetings cards, is taking centre stage at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum
What's it like being David Shrigley? There you are, a shy artist who in his own words can only "nominally" draw, doodling away at home in Glasgow. You start giving out your morbidly funny little books filled with morbidly funny little characters to friends at gallery openings. Slowly, people want more of these strange and surly scribbles that come from a place, as Shrigley once said, where "giant cantankerous dogs roam the land refusing to let you use their deodorant sticks". Suddenly, they're everywhere: on tea towels, T-shirts, greetings cards, and in books, magazines, galleries, and chainstores. Bands want to use them on their album covers. Directors want them to accompany the opening credits of their films. Fans want them to be turned into tattoos. Pringle of Scotland wants them to sell sweaters. And just like that, David Shrigley finds himself on the front row at London Fashion Week, a big friendly giant in a Pringle v-neck jumper looking distinctly out of place beside Tilda Swinton and Courtney Love.
If anyone is going to see the surrealism in the line-up, it's Shrigley. How did he find the front row? "Very uncomfortable," he says after taking me round his Glasgow studio, making me a cup of tea, and setting out nuts and dried apricots for us to munch on while we talk. I nod sympathetically, imagining all that proximity to couture brought Shrigley, a quiet, baby-faced man with a wit sharper than his pencil, out in a cold sweat. "No, the seats," he explains. "I liked all the nice jumpers I got for free. I went to Milan as well and when I got to the hotel there were new clothes laid out on the bed for me. On the bed!" He shakes his head in disbelief.
"It was bizarre being there in my Pringle sweater, getting asked inane questions by Elle and pretending to sort of... care," he goes on. "In London my stomach was rumbling. Everyone was going 'there's Courtney Love' and all I could think was 'I don't care, I'm starving'. I mean the clothes are nice but beyond that there isn't a lot to say. I don't know or care about the world of fashion."
Indeed, Shrigley thought a twinset was underwear before he worked for Pringle, and in a recent short animation for them a one-eyed alcoholic storms the catwalk and the voiceover bemoans the use of models who "are all horribly skinny like skeletons". As we talk I notice he occasionally gets clothes and crisps in a muddle, as in "I felt the Pringles thing would be OK because they accepted everything I did". It's safe to say the free jumpers haven't turned his head.
We meet in Glasgow Sculpture Studios in the city's west end. The building, a former interview centre for asylum seekers, is so cold we can see our breath. Still, it's buzzing with artists making art in fingerless gloves and beanie hats and Shrigley, a towering 41-year-old with a voice so soft he apologises for it, knows everyone. For a shy guy, he is very sociable. In his studio, where body organs – hearts and lungs and intestines – made out of clay are piled up, he introduces me to another artist, Nick Evans, who is helping him with his new show. There isn't much work around – Shrigley claims to throw away about 70 per cent of his drawings – but there are moulds for the organs, odd organic forms that could be people or potatoes, and giant clay boots.
"I know if I make enough stuff some of it will be all right," he says. "There's a moment when you look around in the studio and you realise something about the work. Sometimes that moment doesn't happen. And sometimes, six months later, you think oh, that giant skull I chucked out was actually brilliant." Evans butts in: "So you like the skull now?" "No," Shrigley replies. "I still think it's crap. It'll probably end up in the skip."
He will be exhibiting the sculpture that doesn't end up as landfill at the Kelvingrove Museum as part of Glasgow International, the city's burgeoning festival of art. In a room that usually houses a suit of armour, native American clothing, daggers, dolls and pieces of pottery, Shrigley will be displaying a series of sculptures in 21 museum cases.
"There are 42 objects so I've got a lot to play with and can afford to make mistakes," he says. "Nothing will be art until it's displayed anyway. Everything has the possibility of being a mistake." As for what the assortment of organs and giant boots represent, he has no idea. The moment of realisation has yet to come but he doesn't seem worried. "I've just got to fill the space available," he shrugs. "That's my whole strategy for making art anyway. I just fill the page, fill the space, fill the time I'm given. I've bought all the clay and plaster and metal and stuff and once it's used, that's it."
People tend to be disappointed when they meet Shrigley. He seems so much nicer, so much more normal than his art. While Shrigley is polite, friendly and lucid, his art is rude, weird, and inarticulate. But he seems to enjoy confounding expectations and doesn't see why he should have to resemble his art. "I suppose people think I should be some elderly, less healthy looking, less polite person with fewer social skills," he muses. "The characters I create are like that and they probably do represent some kind of catharsis for my angst. But no one knows who anyone is." One of Shrigley's favourite games is to draw someone just before he meets them for the first time. "The image you have before you meet someone is gone forever as soon as you see them," he notes. "I like to preserve that image. I like how wrong it is." I think Shrigley realises that if people drew him before they met him the results would be as wrong as wrong can be, and he likes it.
Artists are often victims of their own success. Like Banksy, the world's most famous graffiti artist, Shrigley has become so popular, so familiar, so ubiquitous that for some, it has affected the art. It's a tricky business for the artist who suddenly finds himself becoming a brand. Does he think it's a problem that we've all been given a card with 'News, Nobody Likes You' scrawled on it? Does he mind that quirky, faux-naive outsider art now tends to be described as Shrigleyesque? "People think art should be elitist and that appreciation of it amounts to some kind of esoteric knowledge" he says. "Whereas I think art can be anything, be made by anybody, and be appreciated by anybody. Not all of Banksy's artwork is successful, but then neither is all of mine. I don't think designing a greetings card or a T-shirt or a badge is a bad thing as long as it's a good card, a good T-shirt and a good badge. The problem comes when you start doing things that aren't very good. I try to avoid that."
Does he often get asked to do things that horrify him or make him cringe? "All the time," he admits. "Like doing a milk commercial for some Vietnamese company, carving politicians out of potatoes, or going on TV to make a programme where I find a student artist who makes work like mine and then try and flog it to collectors. No way." He does, however, offer a free tattooing service and his website includes photos of a hairy leg on a hairy leg, "hello" on the back of someone's neck, and "toe" on a toe. "I'm wrestling with the idea of really giving someone a tattoo," he confesses. "But I'm quite squeamish. Also, I don't like tattoos. Why does someone want a tattoo by me? By someone who has made a career out of being unable to draw? If I had a nice arm like that, I wouldn't want an idiot like me designing something to go on it."
Shrigley was born in Macclesfield and moved to Leicester with his parents and sister when he was two years old. His mother, a former computer programmer, and father, a retired electrical engineer, are devout Christians but Shrigley renounced religion as a teenager. He maintains, however, that his art is influenced by religion. "I think it's a positive thing," he says. "I think life would be really tedious if we were all like Richard Dawkins. I like my parents and I like that they have a moral framework. It makes as much sense as anything in this stupid life."
Shrigley was, in his own words "a bit of a weirdo" at school. He would make spaceships out of cardboard boxes from the supermarket, draw dinosaurs, and he knew early on that he wanted to be an artist. "I was really into art and music and football, which are still my three passions in life," he says. "When I was 12 I was really into Adam and the Ants. I used to take the albums and make covers for every track on the album. I wish I still had them." These days, he is as much a darling of the music world as he is a regular on the art scene. He DJs at parties and art openings, makes spoken word albums that have led to collaborations with Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos, Hot Chip and David Byrne, and has animated music videos for Blur. Next he is working on a synth-pop album with Malcolm Middleton, one half of Arab Strap, and a piece of live musical theatre with composer David Fennessey, which has just won funding from the Scottish Arts Council.
In visual art his star continues to ascend, too. Later this year the renowned Edinburgh publisher Canongate will produce the first proper, grown-up David Shrigley coffee table book. Though it's a 350-page anthology including drawings old and new, photographs, and sculpture there will only be room for a fragment of his work over the past decade.
"I got a literary agent and suddenly had publishers bidding against each other," Shrigley says, as bemused as he was about the free Pringle jumpers. "I was like, what? You're prepared to give me money in advance? Are you sure? It's pretty amazing considering I started out making photocopied books and giving them out to people at parties. Suddenly, well 20 years later, I'm doing a proper book with a proper publisher."
Success certainly hasn't made Shrigley take his foot off the gas. In June he will marry his partner, also an artist, whom he has lived with for 14 years. He is typically understated about his relationship. "I think it's kind of nice," he says quietly. "I'm 41 now so I guess it's about time. And it's not like I'm still waiting to find the one." He still finds time to do around 30 drawings a day, as well as a weekly political cartoon for the New Statesman. "It's a really interesting exercise," he says as he walks me downstairs and stoops to kiss me politely on both cheeks. "Most people who do things like that can draw really well. I can only draw nominally. I mean I can't do Tony Blair at all. I always have to draw him from behind."
David Shrigley at Kelvingrove Study Centre, Glasgow, 16 April-10 May, www.glasgowinternational.org
• This article was first published in the Scotsman, Saturday April 10, 2010