Growing up in northern England, muralist ATM enjoyed roving the countryside to study the beauty of the native wildlife, with an eye for the feathered kind. At the same time, his roaming helped him understand how harmful human disturbances can be to the natural world. Now, decades later, those years have led him to launch a career in street art that aspires to spread environmental awareness.
After painting his first imperiled bird—a snipe—at the South Acton Estate in London in 2014, ATM’s work spread across the city, then into Poland, Spain, and other neighboring European countries. The transition to painting climate-threated birds for the Audubon Mural Project was “a natural one,” ATM says. This fall, the artist came stateside to paint splashy renditions of the Red-faced Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, and Williamson’s Sapsucker in West Harlem, New York City. Audubon caught him on the scene to talk about his methods and motivation.
Audubon: How did you come up with the nickname ATM?
ATM: Originally it was a crew of us [back in London]; we called ourselves ATM because we were doing political street art and anti-war graffiti, but also graffiti against the commercialization of street art. So we were kind of protesting against that. ATM, which stood for Anarchist Trouble Makers, was also a play on automatic teller machines. It was a play on the idea of street art just being something to make money off of.
A: Are there any differences between your approach to Audubon's NYC murals and your work back home?
ATM: No, the approach is the same as it is in Europe because the issues are the same worldwide. It’s destruction of habitat as a consequence of industrialized farming and urbanization, which also drives climate change. So the paintings are really to raise awareness of the problems that are happening everywhere, and to try to inspire people to do positive things that help reverse the crisis.
A: How receptive have people been to your work on both continents?
ATM: This was the amazing part. Literally every time I was painting, people were stopping and saying really nice things about how much they liked it, and how much they appreciated the improvement to the neighborhood. People just saying thank you; loads of little kids jumping around squealing, all happy to see a big painting of a bird on a wall. It’s incredibly positive. It always is wherever I paint.
A: Is there a conservation aim behind these murals?
ATM: There are two goals, really. One is to create a nice environment in the city. Often these gray, dull, boring places are made nicer and more interesting to live in because they have nice, big, colorful paintings. The other reason is to draw attention to these birds that a lot of people probably didn’t know even existed. So I want to make people aware of these birds, and what they can do to actually help them. In many instances, residents can do local things such as planting native plants in their gardens that particular species need to live.
My ambition really is to make people appreciate the beauty of birds and the value of them, and also the places where they live. The woodlands and wetlands always have a special atmosphere, and it’s absolutely worth preserving those places or restoring them when they’ve been degraded. I want to inspire that desire to improve habitats.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.