Influx meets the North East based artist obsessed with deep black lines, motorcycles and skeletons

Ryan ‘Roadkill’ Quickfall is a new breed: the 21st century illustrator and pop artist. He has a black line style as thick, deep and dark as the River Tyne, which runs a stone’s throw from his studio. At 38 he’s over a decade into the life of a full-time, self-supported ink-slinger.  Is it possible to resolve the dichotomy between art and commerce?

Billeted in a fifth-floor of a 100-year-old Art Deco office block, on the dusty, rundown edges of Newcastle city centre, Quickfall flip-flops between painting his own gallery work, creating Roadkill-branded merchandise and prints to sell online, and working for clients ranging from small to huge. When monsters of rock Iron Maiden wanted a satirical animated short film to accompany their 2021 comeback song, Quickfall was chosen to create the Four Horseman and the rest of the post-apocalyptic carnival of human wreckage. Close to 30 million views later it is undoubtedly his most recognisable work (yes, you can watch it with the sound down…).

Sometimes Ryan wrestles with the balance of being both a commercial illustrator and wanting to develop his own art that stands on its own two feet, but not for long. And he can easily compartmentalise it.

‘For me there’s a key difference, and that is the brief behind them,’ says Ryan. ‘With commercial illustration the brief comes from the client and I’m a tool in the process. The client comes to me with a brief, I interpret it, put my twist on it, and produce the work and get paid for it. I execute my [personal] artwork in exactly the same way, but the brief is from me, I’m creating it for myself, not anybody else. There’s some murkiness when it comes to timescales. If I’m short of time, because a client hasn’t left enough, I’ll create all the artwork digitally on a Wacom tablet, when normally I’d prefer to ink it by hand, then work on it digitally, but nobody is going to tell the difference.’

When faced with examples of both, it’s often quite easy to tell the difference between the subject matter of the softly-spoken Geordie’s commercial and personal work. All of it is, he explains, ‘Very heavily influenced by comics I read as a kid, driven by that heavy black ink work. Which, in the pages of all those comics, was all about how much impact you can make with one colour, black.’

The commercial output is often more literal. Recently, the personal works are absurdist cartoon characters, sometimes decaying cultural icons. If there is a constant, between both areas of his output, it’s wheels and smiling death’s heads.

‘I’m fascinated by skulls,’ says Ryan. ‘People associate skulls with death, which absolutely, yeah, there is that connotation, but there’s no gender or race attached to skulls, and everyone’s got one. Strip everyone’s skin off and they’re all identical inside. In this world of people being more socially aware, the skull and skeleton is all-encompassing. You can interpret it one way, but someone else sees themselves in it.’

Inspired by machines and often adorned with skulls – Ryan’s work is about colour, movement and humour.

Ryan is also typical of the new breed because he is a grafter. He doesn’t spend 12 months creating a work hoping a gallery can shift it for £25,000. His output is prodigious, because art isn’t a hobby, it’s work, graft and hustle.

‘There should be a level of hard work. It shouldn’t be an easy ride, otherwise every man and his dog are going to be into it. Art should be easy and accessible for people to do, but the reality of it is, to make a career out of it, to make money, to pay bills day to day, is very hard.’

While this series of Influx films concentrates on regions of the UK, Ryan doesn’t believe his north-eastern home has much influence on him. ‘Lots of people assume I live in California, so it’s not about the locale, it’s more about how I spent my youth, riding BMX and mountain biking and moving into motorbikes, because you don’t let that stuff go, it’s all encompassing and it transferred into my artwork. It’s less about the locale and more about the environment, the things that you do.’

Ryan spends much of working time alone, only recently sharing time and space with a group of fellow Newcastle artists, under the name Vandalux. The camaraderie is invigorating. The churn and plagiarism of Instagram gnaws at him, and working with other artists, creating group shows helps deal with doubts caused by the feelings of shouting into the void.

‘I want to do more shows of my artwork, and do some larger scale stuff, painting more walls and stuff, and spreading my work a bit more in the physical form, so people can see a painting, not just a digital version, because I’m so sick of social media. If I can keep making money as an artist, paying my bills and having the life I have now, that’s the perfect situation.’