Painter David Shillinglaw On Meeting Heroes and Finding Inspiration in Ibiza

The English artist was invited to complete a mural inspired by the work of his favorite Beat Generation writers, and the project was a match made in heaven.

When I first meet English artist David Shillinglaw on the rooftop of Las Mimosas in San Antonio, Ibiza, he is speedily sketching a birthday card for Irvine Welsh. The Trainspotting playwright has been one of Shillinglaw’s favorite writers ever since he discovered his work in the 90s, and he is hopeful that a meeting with his literary hero could spark a collaboration—or even something more.

David Shillinglaw working on a mural as part of Beat Hotel. Dan Medhurst

“Sometimes meeting your heroes can be a massive disappointment, and a bit embarrassing, you almost wish it hadn’t happened,” he explained. “Other times you meet someone and it’s amazing. I guess the end game is that you might end up becoming their friend.”

Or, Shillinglaw mused, perhaps Welsh would ask him to do the cover of his next book.

The painter and writer both found themselves in Las Mimosas that afternoon as participants of Beat Hotel, a shape-shifting, roaming event that came to life as part of the historic Glastonbury Festival almost a decade ago. Since expanding beyond Glastonbury’s Worthy Farm site, the event has traveled to Marrakech in 2019 and for the last two years, Ibiza as a week-long series of happenings that aims to bridge the gap between the Balearic island’s mystical side and its infamously hedonistic nightlife. Early morning yoga sessions and talks with well-known writers pair well with Michelin-standard culinary experiences and late-night sets from world-renowned DJs and performing artists for a truly singular Ibiza experience.

SEE ALSO: Artist-in-Residence Programs Put Art at Hospitality’s Forefront

The event’s name is an homage to a small, dilapidated hotel in the Latin Quarter of 1950s Paris that was supposedly dubbed “the Beat Hotel” by writer Gregory Corso on account of how frequently it was inhabited by his fellow writers of the Beat movement. For the uninitiated, the so-called Beat Generation was a term given to a subculture of mostly American writers and poets of the era that include On The Road writer Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and the aforementioned Corso. The Beat writers, known to some as Beatniks, shared several sensibilities, including a strong commitment to sexual liberation, a willingness to experiment with drugs, a love for aimless travel and the rejection of materialism.

Las Mimosas in San Antonio, Ibiza. Dan Medhurst

Throughout the late 1950s to the early 1960s, this nameless, unassuming hotel, with scarce hot water and bed linens changed only monthly, was a safe haven for these writers when they traveled to Paris for inspiration. It was in one of these dingy hotel rooms that Burroughs completed his seminal novel Naked Lunch, and Ginsberg began penning his poem “Kaddish”—still considered his finest work by many scholars.

Taken by Shillinglaw’s signature effervescent murals, the Beat Hotel founders invited him to Ibiza to work as artist-in-residence at Las Mimosas. It was a serendipitous union, as Shillinglaw just so happens to be a lifelong Beatnik obsessive. “It was a crazy coincidence because my Mastermind topic would be Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks. I was, and still am a little bit, obsessed with Kerouac in particular… I loved the Beat Generation so much that I even went to places that they went to in Morocco,” he explained to me as we sat under the warm rays of the Balearic sunshine.

“I especially loved Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg,” he went on. “William Burroughs a bit, but mostly Kerouac and Ginsberg who then led me to Richard Brautigan, who’s one of my favorite writers, and Hunter S. Thompson—this whole family tree of writers whose origin I feel is those three guys.”

Beat Hotel asked Shillinglaw to complete a mural project on the walls of Las Mimosas—something that drew inspiration from the original Beat Hotel and its famous residents. For Shillinglaw, the challenge was figuring out how to marry his signature style of simplistic, almost childlike drawings, with the complicated spirit of his favorite writers. The approach he took was not to depict Ginsberg and company in a literal sense but to represent their interests via the symbols he chose and their writing styles through the flow of spontaneity in their work. He hopes the same spontaneity is also apparent in his own.

“I would say that there’s a sense of flow in what I do,” he said. The Beat writers were committed to improvisation—of one thing leading to another, a free association—which is how he paints and draws.

Shillinglaw’s mural contrasts beautifully with Ibiza’s natural beauty. Dan Medhurst

Shillinglaw, who was born in Saudi Arabia but raised in London, calls his murals “a collider of influences from science, religion, botany, biology” with a “universal language of mixed cultural references, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to medical symbols.” It’s yet another element of his artistic practice he shares with the Beat Generation. Neurology, mental health and the workings of the human brain were also common themes in the work of the prominent writers of the era.

He tells me he hopes the black and white murals are successful in “piecing together this cosmic space that I think they were all really interested in. Ginsburg and Kerouac had these epic poems where they’re diving into fiction, fantasy, history, and politics.” The murals, which span the entire perimeter of the hotel’s rooftop walls, offset by the breathtaking Ibizan vista beyond them, are a notable departure from his typical bright and colorful style. This is by design. Though his chosen images do reflect the Beatniks’ spirit of spontaneity, the overall concept was refined in partnership with the Beat Hotel organizers and Las Mimosas over many months.

“It was a kind of relief when they were like, ‘No, we want something a little bit more muted’,” Shillinglaw revealed, adding that initial ideas included blue and brown and white paint over pitch black walls. He feels the simplicity of the approach they settled on allows the work to speak for itself. “I’m so glad it’s turned out the way that it is. Using just black paint and one brush allowed me to focus purely on the content rather than the materials or technique which can overcomplicate it. I really love the black and the white against the blue sky and the greenery, I just feel like it says enough.”

Shillinglaw thought it was important to clarify that his work pays tribute not just to the Beat Generation writers and artists but also to their cultural descendants. “I’m heavily influenced by other artists who were influenced by them,” he said. “Basquiat famously died holding a Jack Kerouac novel. Keith Haring is a huge influence of mine, and he was mates with William S. Burroughs.”

Another view of Shillinglaw’s mural. Dan Medhurst

Although most famous for the literature giants who frequented its shabby hallways, the original Beat Hotel was a home away from home for an assortment of artists, including painters Claude Monet, Brion Gysin and Elliot Rudie, and photographer Harold Chapman. It existed as a melting pot of creatives, some taking refuge there at pivotal moments in their lives and careers.

For Shillinglaw, the modern Beat Hotel has the same spirit. “There’s an amazing mix of people I’ve met from intellectuals to writers, DJs, poets, chefs—it’s like this melting pot,” he said. “I don’t know how unique or specific that is to Ibiza, because I know they’ve done it in Marrakech and other places, but it feels like this is the perfect setting.”

The comparison Shillinglaw dropped sparked a visual in me, and I couldn’t help but be amused at the mental image of Monet furiously scribbling a birthday card for Allen Ginsburg in an act of friendship—or perhaps in the hopes of lending his services for the cover of the writer’s next book.

Later in the afternoon, I spotted the artist chatting enthusiastically with Welsh over a Patrón tequila cocktail by the pool, where the playwright-cum-DJ had been spinning the decks only hours earlier. He seemed, at least from afar, well on his way to kindling a friendship with his hero.

Painter David Shillinglaw On Meeting Heroes and Finding Inspiration in Ibiza