Greetings from Darktown…

Jonny Hannah’s Darktown Taxi, a real-life illustrated car, is on display outside House of Illustration all summer. The artist tells the story of how it came to be here...

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  • Jonny Hannah
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For some time now, I have been going to Darktown on a regular basis. My alter-reality hinterland is accessible via ferry over the Sea of Possibilities and by road down the Lost Highway. It's a place where anything can happen, but little does. What makes it special are its residents and shopkeepers. Slim Gaillard runs the second-hand emporium to die for, McVoutys. B-movie superhero Jacques Tourneur curates an ever engaging set of films for the local dilapidated Moving Picture House. Amalia Rodrigues, queen of Fado, sells only hearts and hands. Sadly, Emmett Miller’s Unquiet Grave junk shop closed down only last week. 

Darktown offers me a refuge from modern life and council tax payments. A relief from x, y and z factors. Any visit to this distinguished distopia guarantees a relaxing coffee at the Mermaid Cafe, a great bowl of mussels at the Hotel de la Plage, and a chance to draw and paint in my modest hideaway in Rue Zig-Zag in a leisurely manner, with fewer deadlines than normal.

Looking back, Darktown began in my formative years growing up in Dunfermline. I reckon The Skids were on their way there, when going Into the Valley. Couple that with buying dark, dark denims, with bright yellow stitching at Donaldson’s on Dunfermlines High Street, and an annual treat from the Kay Bruce toy shop on East Port, and before I realised it, Darktown was born. But it would take decades to rise to the surface.

To help that process happen, I played Fats Waller, Hank Williams and CW Stoneking, obsessively. I watched Wages of Fear and anything by Jacques Tati, Les Diaboliques, The Red Shoes and Whisky Galore over and over again. I poured over Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind. And there it was... I had my ferry ticket to Darktown in my hand and have been setting sail ever since.

I’ve made several attempts to bring it to life for others. For my exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Main Street, I created three shops, including Brel’s Record bar (inspired by my many hours spent in Dunfermline’s Europa Music all those years ago).

Last summer, at Heart HQ, Darrel Rees suggested they buy me a set of wheels to customise (or is it vandalise?). So after looking on Gumtree, we bought a Saab 93. I hired a studio in Southampton (my other home) and a week later we had our very own Darktown Turbo Taxi. It’s often seen driving around the rues and lanes by the Queen of Darktown (people often double up on their jobs there, just like in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero).

But here it is, in the big city, outside one of it’s natural homes I think. Both myself and the other illustrators at Heart have spent years considering what illustration can or can’t be. Book cover? Yes. Weekly column for The Guardian? Yes. An 18-year-old car covered in painted motifs for an imaginary coastal town? I think so.

So, gather round and enjoy. Immerse yourself in this place for just a few moments, or longer if you fancy it. Imagine you’ve just been dropped off at Ol’ Whitman’s Printshop to pick up your inflammatory pamphlets, or The Owen Coffin Chandlery to buy some of his good, sturdy rope. I know I do, every chance I get…

Need a bit of help to get you started? Find out more  and listen to Jonny's House of Illustration Darktown Turbo Taxi playlist on Spotify.

Like to be set creative drawing challenges by Jonny? Tickets are on sale for our December Sketchmeet.  

Heart Talking Heads # 4: Jonny Hannah. Watch the video.