Bagsy: The anonymous Rhondda artist who made art on grocery bags a successful business
You’d think Valleys-style merchandise consisted simply of local rugby club shirts and bobble hats, but thanks to an incognito Rhondda artist, wearing a piece of home has become a little more diverse than just donning the shirts of our favorite sports teams.
For Rhonddas Bagsy, who began secretly dropping his sketches of local, recognizable faces and places into shopping carts during his weekly shopping spree in hopes they’d be shared on social media, the designs and valley-related bevels featured on famous logos lots of immortalized images and slang terms that you couldn’t buy anywhere else.
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Five years later, Bagsy, who initially wasn’t exactly hoping to become an anonymous designer, or even trying to be Rhondda’s answer to this famous rebel artist from Bristol, is still the valley’s best kept secret. Or worst of all, if you know, you know.
But his designs have shifted from lifetime bags to t-shirts, hoodies and tote bags – and from this month these bags are exclusively designed and made at Rhondda in a new sewing studio on the site of the former Polikoffs/Burberry factory.
For Bagsy, staying local is a big deal, right down to the color of his products – they only come in ‘Rhondda Gray’ apart from a few special offers – and the support he’s had from customers near and far , has fueled his passion for his work .
I visited his studio, which has grown from a relative’s garage to a local workshop in the heart of the Rhondda, to find out where the creativity and inspiration behind the hyper-local, heartfelt designs come from.
“I was dying to get back into drawing as I hadn’t done it since my master’s degree, I’d been doing more online projects,” he said, explaining how the tote bag portraits got off the ground. “I was like, ‘Do I have anything here so I don’t have to go out and get a pad,’ and it just so happened that my wife and I were recycling a load of bags, and I was like, ‘I’m going to just use these.’ .’
“And I could never find a way to do art about the Rhondda, it was always different stuff, and there was a lot of negativity around MTV The Valleys, and there wasn’t a positive attitude towards the Valleys, so I just thought, I’d.” try to start something positive.
“I think the anonymity just came from me being a sort of Banksy parody in that someone went around drawing anonymously on tote bags. It’s probably the Rhondda’s worst kept secret and I often forget four or five years later that I’m even anonymous. I half expected people to name me within the first two days but never really cared, I think they like that they’re part of the joke.
He says his supporters are so bought into Bagsy’s anonymity that while they’ve chatted over the years, the idea of swapping ideas over coffee is off the table for those who love the mystery.
It’s almost as if the Rhondda or Valley people who love Bagy shopped fun and creativity because it’s something special that only belongs to them. The way it captures identity cannot be underestimated, and that identity has been flung far and wide, with customers taking their Rhondda Athletic, Twp Mun t-shirts and more to places like Antarctica, Alaska, Ghana and the peaks of the USA, of course, bear Welsh mountains.
Can he believe how far his Bagsy business has come (and traveled)? Not bad for someone who got laid off from two zero-hour jobs and initially had to use the same screenprint for umpteen different designs because they couldn’t finance it anymore.
“I wouldn’t have believed it at first,” he admits. But he added that his designs came about through a mix of two things – sheer determination and support.
“I also have the support of an audience that must be the most patient people in the world, they have been with me from the start and throughout my journey of starting a business and everything that comes with it. Failing sometimes and making it up to you.
“It was interesting, the move away from drawing to a sustainable business for the Rhondda, no one was really making stuff about the valleys, now we see so many local businesses embracing all aspects of handcrafted products, from products like mine to homemade gifts like candles or food products – really embracing what the valleys have to offer.”
In practice, Bagsy’s has a lot to thank his better half for pushing him to pursue his passion for art and design, something he studied at university, because after he was fired it was her who said: “You can either just dally around and feel sorry for yourself, claim unemployment benefits, or really do whatever you want in life.”
From there, he printed actual tote bags with his designs on them, learned how to hand-make his own screen-printing equipment on YouTube, and, with just a month of money, gave himself that four-week limit to make or break whether he would continue with the bag business that we now know.
“I built my own press with my wife’s great-uncle, who was a design teacher, and I built the exposure unit,” he said. “If you can make a screen, you can print anything.
“I remember listing my first bags on eBay because I didn’t have a website at the time and they banned my account! I posted that I only had 15 bags and sent them all to eBay and the traffic closed my account. I then thought ‘there is a need for this’.
“Then in early 2020, people started asking me about t-shirts. I thought if I made them I would make them pretty unique and I said I would only make them in ‘Rhondda grey’. Kind of Henry Ford you can be any color as long as it’s black,” laughed Bagsy – he has a good laugh even if his online videos sound pretty low key.
And while the pandemic of the last two years put an end to bag drops, orders began to come in large and fast, and time allowed him to develop his business and marketing skills.
“Not as obvious during the pandemic but the bags originally went all over the world like every country you can think of I probably have a photo someone sent me from there,” he revealed. “And now T-shirts are on the rise again. We send to America, Australia and New Zealand and I also sent them to Europe. A guy sent me a photo on Christmas day and I thought it was photoshop at first until I read the caption which read “Hello from Antarctica”. It was cool.”
For such a specific collection of Valleys-influenced designs, Bagsy reveals that around a third of his sales are from the region, another third from across Wales and the remainder from around the world – firmly answering his critics, who thought his business would soon run out of customers.
“When I started thinking about it more as a business, the first reaction was, ‘There aren’t enough people in the Valleys, they’re not going to buy this and you’re going to lose interest after a while. There aren’t enough people for you to keep the business running.’
“But they didn’t realize how many ex-pats we actually have around the world. A lot of people would say that many of the phrases are a type of Welsh general or also South Wales general and can be branched about like South Wales and even North and West Wales.
“One of my dreams when I started my business was, you know, when you’re on holiday and someone has a Welsh flag beach towel. I wanted it to be something like that.
“And then when people were first allowed to go on holiday, I had a message that said, ‘I went to Tenerife and I was carrying my Bagsy when someone came up to me because they were from the valleys too. ‘ They could identify her as from the valleys by her t-shirt. That’s enough for me.”
The feeling of increasing “Hiraeth” during the pandemic has helped many of Bagsy’s clients reconnect with their place of birth and he loves the feedback from clients including one whose 100-year-old mother who suffered from dementia perked up, seeing the Llwynypia mining family statue emblazoned above a tote bag, so how does it feel to remain the hidden creator behind an increasingly popular brand?
“I had the luxury of being able to develop things creatively. But at the end of the day I don’t think these things are about me, I have nothing to do. A lot of me T-shirts don’t even have my logo on them,” he explained.
“I think it comes down to anonymity. A lot of my friends say, ‘The project is really big now, you must be famous.’ But I still walk the streets and just live here, I can enjoy the valleys without feeling different from everyone else.
“I feel like this part connects me to the Valleys because I’m just like the guy on the street who sits quietly and prints bags, t-shirts and hoodies at a very good price!”
You can find more information about Bagsy here.
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