A tribute to Russell Mears aka Rusty Spray

Wandham Stringers

This weekend an old friend passed away, someone who inspired me a great deal artistically back in the day. Please indulge me whilst I go back on a trip to the mid 80s and reminisce over writing in aerosol paint in the small town of Reigate in Surrey where I grew up.
Russell Mears was the first person I know of who did a piece of graffiti in Reigate. A Beat Street-inspired piece complete with train, ‘Zulu’ and Smurf character appeared one day in ’84 / ’85 on the abandoned Wandam Stringer building near the station. It was signed ‘Rusty Spray’ and it set a lot of tongues wagging and wheels in motion.

Wadham close

Soon after, a second piece was added in the same style, this time with head-spinning breakdancer, boom box, tombstones and the word, ‘Fresh’. It now spread across the whole wall and the words ‘Rusty again!’ taunted us that he’d struck twice. I had only just got into graffiti and not painted my first piece or even seen a copy of Subway Art yet (the equivalent of the Bible for UK writers at the time). I, probably like Rusty, was getting my graffiti inspiration from films like Beat Street and record covers like The Rock Steady Crew’s Uprock or Malcom McLaren‘s Duck Rock. Soon after, more pieces appeared around town bearing his name, ‘NTF’ (Night Time Flyers I think) and ‘Rebel’, both with variations on the same character cribbed from Subway Art. He got caught for the latter but I can’t remember what punishment was dealt out.

NTF + CopRebel + Cop

It being such a small community, word got around and we soon ran into each other. He was a few years older and possibly in art college at this time, whilst my crew and I were still in school. Even though he was older he never seemed to look down on us and was always humble about his work which was astonishing to see in his piece book. By this time he was light years ahead of us in terms of style and technique – plus he’d seen the Chrome Angelz (see ‘Chrome’ piece copy here that he gave to me) and his style had made a quantum leap forward. I think we all had to raise our game once we’d seen Russell’s work (how I’d LOVE to see his 80s piece book again).

Chrome

Rusty Spray tags
ExE + Duck SantaEXE

Two memories spring from these photos: we (the crew I was part of – TWB) had arranged to battle Russ and his crew – Executive Artists which included Chris Burrell and possibly others I can’t remember. We decided to get the jump on them and spend all Saturday night in the spot the battle was supposed to take place in, the disused swimming baths in Reigate. We’d paint a burner across the whole end of the baths – a bite of Kaze II’s digital style with two characters, (see below) – and when they walked in on Sunday morning we’d be there already – ‘tadaaaah!’.
Downside, the wall we painted on was a knobbly blue colour, the paint dripped, it was dark and cold as hell and we were shitting ourselves half the time at any noise we heard. As it turned out, Russ and crew turned up, went into a side room, found a nice white wall, did a quick ‘Rus’ piece and handed us our arses.

DigitalDig 3Rus 2Rus

After this we were cool with him and became friends, we met other local like-minded artists and DJs like Peter Myers (seen below here on the ground with fellow EA member Chris Burrell – Russ is on the right), Tim ‘DJ Stubble’ and Jim Davis.

ChysaChysa + crew

Chysa big

Russ, Chris and Richard Lomath had painted a whole room in the Reigate Parish First School caretaker’s cottage (Chris’ dad was the caretaker at the school), almost choking themselves on the fumes. It was something we could only hope our parents would one day let us do (mine never did but we painted friend’s bedrooms over the years). This no doubt helped hone their skills with a spray can, note the difference in the style of lettering from ‘RPR’ (Rebel Pro Rockers) to the ‘Chris’ piece from the others, a big stylistic jump.

BreakinMad Cop Cobalt 60 RPR Hulk NTFChrisAndy Capp

Super Chip in progress

A year or so later, we got commissioned to paint the shutters of the local chip shop on the estate that crew member Ricky Groombridge lived on. We decided to get Russ in to help us out as (I think) we weren’t confident on our lettering skills to do a good job. He graciously agreed and designed the Super Chip piece and we painted it on a Sunday with what seemed like half the estate watching and the police turning up and one point.

Super Chip 1Super Chip 2Super Chip 3Super Chip 4Super Chip 5

It was a thrill to paint with him – the Super Chip piece seen in progress here sees Russ in the pink, Ricky in green, David Jarvis in pale yellow and me with graffiti jacket over Nike windcheater. Russell was a master at lettering, colours, outlines, having a couple of years on us young pups and he made us all look better. We’d never seen anything like this style before, readable but with huge areas to put colour and effects in.

Chique Rusty

I remember going to his house one time and he let me use his airbrush – something no one else I knew had – to colour backgrounds on a piece I was working on in a new book. His parents had let him spray a whole wall of his bedroom (the ‘Chique / Rusty Spray’ piece above) which was mighty impressive. We last spoke a couple of years ago when he sent me a shot of one of my tags, still visible over 30 years later in Reigate.

Dvice tag

I dug into the deepest recesses of the archive to find these images because Russ’s art affected and inspired so many of us when images and info were scant. He led the way in showing us that you could take this foreign, urban artform and try your hand at it. Great times and memories, never forgotten. Rest In Peace Russell aka Rusty Spray.

One thought on “A tribute to Russell Mears aka Rusty Spray

  1. Hi Kev. Sorry to hear about the passing of your friend. A great tribute and posting the photos really captures the essence of the time you shared. RIP.

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