If you’ve scrolled through Instagram’s “explore” section recently, odds are you’ve likely come across the artwork of Sam Cox, better known as Mr. Doodle.
Known for his mixture of characters and loose, black and white scribbles, Mr. Doodle’s work has shown up all around the world, from apartment walls to high-profile clients like Adidas and MTV. A style known as “Graffiti Spaghetti,” Mr. Doodle’s work twists and tangles over everything in its path in the form of murals, street art and art installations.
The backstory for Mr. Doodle is quite easy to follow. Growing up in London, Mr. Doodle realized he had something called OCD—”Obsessive Compulsive Drawing”—which eventually led to him spreading his signature doodle drawings all across his hometown and eventually the entire world. He eventually struck a deal with the “Anti-Doodle Squad” to leave Earth and spend his days in the “Paper Galaxy,” a completely white space in the outer galaxy where he came up with the name Mr. Doodle. Meanwhile, back on Earth, his evil twin brother created a doodle machine to create drawings, as he was jealous of his brother’s talents. Mr. Doodle’s twin brother then creates a vortex which leads to the “Paper Galaxy” and kicks out Mr. Doodle, sending him back to Earth for taking over the world with his doodles. And that’s where we are today—Mr. Doodle trading drawings in hopes to eventually find a way back to the “Paper Galaxy.”
Pretty simple, right?
I spoke with Mr. Doodle about his descriptive backstory, future goals and pressure to live up to the Mr. Doodle character at all times.
You came up with a pretty elaborate backstory for your Mr. Doodle character. Did you think it was necessary to have this intricate story to help promote your art?
When I first came up with the Mr. Doodle character I was still in university. I was studying illustration there and they taught me about narratives and kind of making narrative sequences and stories and things like that and those elements were always a big focus on the work. So, I thought it would be better to attract people to the work if the character had a bit of a story and it was a way to anchor the work and build a plot for me to then build bits of work from that. So, I made videos relating to the story and small projects of different parts of the story. It really gave me this starting point from where I could start to branch out.
You’ve done short films and documentary videos about your backstory, but it seems like it’s really simplified in recent years. Was this on purpose?
It’s definitely evolved as I’ve gone on. I’ve learned how to simplify it more rather than expanding the storyline, because I always start with a lot of stuff and begin to trim it down as I start to learn what’s more effective and what works best for people to understand. Focusing this story is definitely the main, evolving factor of everything I’ve done, so it’s a little easier to grasp instead of the whole full story, which tended to oftentimes go on random tangents. Things have sort of moved on a little bit since that initial short film from a couple of years ago, but it’s still at the heart of the whole concept. It’s definitely like a progressive thing where each year I add a bit or take away some plot points of the character.
I found some videos of your previous design work and it was a lot different from your current black and white line work. Did you have to go through a lot of different styles and concentrations before eventually getting to where you are now with your doodles?
That’s a good observation, actually. It’s kind of like it became more important to me to make the visual language as universal as possible. I found that the less unnecessarily detailed my work was, the easier it was to achieve that goal. I’ve definitely trimmed down and focused more on characters instead of these intricate patterns and things. I like having the focus on these characters and keeping them simple to an extent, while still having the drawings stay very busy. But it was definitely a conscious decision to start filling my work with these sort of simple and easily identifiable characters.
How did you come up with the term “Graffiti Spaghetti” to describe your drawing style?
When I was at university, a tutor described my work that way and I’ve just kind of run with that phrase since then because it really captures my style quite well. My work really consumes surfaces and wraps around like spaghetti with the layers and the way it tangles around. But, it’s also sort of got that kind of graffiti, cartoon sort of look with the actual style of the work as well.
Looking at your Instagram videos and your live drawings, it seems like a lot of your doodles are off the cuff. Is there a lot of planning that goes into your drawings or is it usually done as you go along?
It definitely gets easier to do it faster each day. But, especially when I do work for clients, they’ll usually give me a list of things and themes that I try to reflect through the drawings. For example, if I’m making a design for some office or agency, they’ll give me a list of some of their values or projects they’ve worked on in the past, and I’ll try to reflect that in the drawings. I’ll sit down and think more about it in that way, but I won’t plan out exactly where everything’s gonna go because that sort of kills the fluidity of the drawing. It always has to kind of look organic, as if it all came naturally to my head. So, I don’t try to pencil it out and force my designs too much, but I do often think a bit more about it than it looks like a lot of the time.
So far you’ve worked with pretty big clients like MTV and Adidas. Is there one dream client you’d love to work with or an ideal design project?
Definitely. The ultimate thing that I’d love to do is build some sort of doodle theme park or doodle town where people could come visit and the whole space is just consumed by all of my different doodles—like vehicles and tanks and airplanes and stuff. In terms of one particular client—I’ve always had this weird idea of doing something for Coca-Cola where I just draw all over a whole factory in some sort of time lapse where the drawing is growing by itself.
Your character is always pretty upbeat and funny. How important is it to keep your work light and humorous?
I think when I was younger I really tried to be a bit more serious with my work. I really liked Banksy’s work and people who did this type of work that had deeper political messages and things. But whenever I tried to do that, it just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t manage to express myself in that way. That’s when I started to realize that I didn’t even really want to express myself that way and I was just trying to find things for myself to say that felt forced. I think a lot of art necessarily goes down that route—like a lot of people feel like they have to do that kind of thing. When I realized that wasn’t my style, I realized that it was much more in tune with my own personality to do this funny, less-serious work. That’s why I think I’m so drawn to doodling, in particular. Doodling doesn’t have so many rules or standards that drain the process as much. It’s more about just drawing for fun, which is always really important to me. When I try to draw the things that bring me the most joy at that time, I’ve noticed those are the things that have always gotten the best reactions out of people and just feels the most natural. My work might not always get taken seriously, but I love reaching people who might not be interested in this fine art world and are just by-passers who can enjoy my little doodles and the silly outfits I wear.
As your work has gotten more well-known, you must get noticed on the street a lot. Do you ever feel like you have to live up to the character you’ve created?
Well, at first when first started doing this character I was definitely a lot less confident and there was a bit of a difference between how I’d be on camera and when someone saw me in-person. But over time, there’s gotten to be less and less of a difference and I just try to be as happy and friendly without being over-the-top. I’m not as over-the-top as I seem in the videos, but I still do try to be as much like how you’d imagine the person who does these types of drawings to be and try to give off a good energy. I’d like people to leave feeling happy to have met me instead of seeming too serious.
One of the signature characteristics of Mr. Doodle is the head-to-toe doodle outfit. Is this something you wear every day?
Whenever I go out, I’m always in it. There are maybe a few days when I’m indoors and I have to put the suits through the wash. But I got six suits and I’m always in one of them, whether I’m working from home or out working on something. I just always known art is such a hard thing to really get into and I felt that advertising myself as much as I could with these suits was a pretty good idea. It’s become less necessary now that I’ve gotten better known, but I still value the importance of it. It’s also sort of like a cape or something, where I feel like I could work better while I’m wearing it.
In recent years, a lot of doodle artists like Kerby Rosanes are rising in prominence. Why do you think this is and do you think social media played a big role in publicizing this art form?
I don’t know what it really would’ve been like 15 or 20 years ago. But I think, in general, it’s a good time for any artist to be doing what they’re doing. Especially if it’s something visual like doodling—which most people could recognize—it’s a great time for that because everyone has an Instagram or Facebook where their work could just reach so many people who like that type of work. It’s an all-around good time to be an artist. There are definitely some downsides to the internet and stuff, but most of it is definitely great for artists. I can’t imagine living in a different time, how that might have gone down. I don’t know if I’d be able to do what I do without the facilities that I have in this age.
Your style is pretty reminiscent of Keith Haring’s work, such as his black and white doodles at the Tate Modern in London. Is this a comparison you seem to get a lot and how has his work influenced you?
He was definitely a big influence on my style. There were offspring that I’d imagine he’s influenced, which in turn have influenced me, as well, because there was a sort of generational gap between he and I. I’ve gone back and looked at hieroglyphics and artists like Hieronymus Bosch and certain things like that. But, the Where’s Wally? books were a huge influence on me. I think some of the things that made me really want to draw when I was a kid were games like Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario. Those were the things that made me really want to put pen to paper because I liked how the characters looked and wanted to create these imaginative worlds similar to those. But loads of street artists and graffiti artists in general really helped me progress from just looking at something and really studying it. It’s important to take influences from all over the place and try to mash them up. I do think Keith Haring is probably the biggest artist that’s done anything in the realm of what I’ve done. He might’ve had some deeper social messages compared to my stuff, but I definitely think he’s the one people jump to when they see my work.
When did you realize that you could create art full-time and live off of your work?
It was really weird because when I was younger, my art teachers at school would always push this idea that making a living as an artist was the hardest thing to do. So I’ve always had this idea in my head that I better give it all that I’ve got or I shouldn’t really bother with it. When I left school, it was maybe a little bit easier than I expected it to be, maybe because my teachers kept telling me it was impossible to do. But, the more I did stuff for local businesses and restaurants and I started to realize this was the kind of thing that people wanted on their walls. You really have to make a market for yourself.
Your career has really blown up in recent years. You’re doing Youtube videos and commissioned pieces all the time. Where do you see your designs taking you next?
I’d love to have some sort of TV show—that’d be amazing. I do think it’s a little bit different getting a TV show today than it might’ve been like five years ago because loads more have happened on the internet. So, I’m a bit more excited about building my own kind of platform of some kind beyond Youtube or Instagram where I could create my own little world for my work.