A look at the mysterious masked artist of Glasgow, Rebel Bear.
Early into lockdown, I strolled along Bank Street to see the now famous mural of a man and woman kissing with their medical masks pulled down. This mural, titled Fear and Love, began popping up all over the place: on the news, on people's social media, and even on television. After a follow-up mural popped up on Ashton Lane, I decided I had to figure out who was behind this. However, the more I looked into the world of the Rebel Bear (the artist in question), the stranger it became.
The bear has a lore or cannon of sorts. They started out under the name of The Pink Bear, and claimed to have been born “out of the swamps of the Absurd”. They released a manifesto reaffirming their nihilistic stance and got to work on their first projects, which were mostly public installations providing critiques of capitalism, religion, and the contemporary desire for fame. Some installations of note were church pulpits placed in front of cash machines, and a giant build board that read “You Will Not Be Famous”. Then, the bear switched focus to more political issues, including art targeted at Donald Trump - this is where they began making murals and graffiti art. The bear hit out against Trump's rhetoric against race, stance on weapons, and policies towards climate change. The bear also completed their first work in the West End which criticised the colonial past of Glasgow's historic statues - unfortunately, it appears the work has since been painted over, like many of the bears' early works. This would begin the divergence into a new wave for the bear.
The bear’s next period hit out against fame and internet culture. This period, while short lived, produced the most unique murals that were overt and cartoony with bright colours and stark messages. While some were quickly taken down, like the West End piece Free Wi-fi, more began to stay up longer, and the bear began to produce prints of their work for modest pricing. This is the point at which the operation and quality of the bear’s work began to improve, coinciding with their venture into experimenting with short film and photography. After success, the bear went back to their nihilistic and political roots to produce larger scale installations. Perhaps their most popular installation was a toilet with what was supposed to be £50 billion being flushed, meant to symbolise the funding of Brexit. This is also where they changed their name to the “Rebel Bear”, and started drawing their inspiration heavily from Banksy.
There’s no question that the art is very similar in style and colour scheme to Banksy; the parallels are astonishing, and while most artists would hate to base their name to another artist's likeness, Rebel Bear embraces it. On their website, Rebel Bear describes themselves as “The Scottish Banksy”. While Banksy has a rigorous “Pest Control” to verify work, Rebel Bear has a process known as “Grrrrr”. Rebel Bear’s work seemingly combines all aspects of their previous movements - they remain nihilistic and thought-provoking, even through the artistic changes that have been endured. The Rebel Bear has worked to make their work both local, commenting on the Old Firm, and global, doing a commission for the United Nations.
Make no mistake, however - Rebel Bear hasn’t forgotten their message. When a building with one of Rebel Bear’s works painted upon it tried to sell after realising the mural could increase the property value, said building was mysteriously defaced with the words “Graffiti Art Culture Is Not For Sale”.
Rebel Bear has taken a new form as of recent, focusing heavily upon COVID-19. With their two West End works and another in City Centre, Rebel Bear explores our humanity in the age of the virus. Rebel Bear has also taken funds raised through some prints of these works to donate to the NHS.
While the bear has a long complicated history and is shrouded amongst us, I think we can all find ourselves in their work - either being the ones mocked or viewing it as the bear himself. I think we all have a little bit of the Rebel Bear in us, looking at our surreal society and growing nihilism towards reality. Rebel Bear points out the fact that we've become normalised to the bizarre occurrences in our society - whether it be through the virus, the rise of the internet, or our need to constantly be better than we actually are. This is what I think separates the bear from Banksy; while we look and think about what a Banksy painting means, the Bear looks at us and asks why we can continue as if our reality is normal. We have become “The Absurd” from which the Bear was born.