When Andy Warhol developed his distinctive brand of pop art he worked with images that meant something to him – from the icons of the day to the varieties of Campbell’s soup he grew up on.

Similarly, Epping Forest-based artist Ryan Callanan has drawn on his own obsessions with music and film, combined with years working in sign-making, to create his own distinctive 21st-century pop art.

Over the years his work has utilised images such as the Acid House smiley and sideways looks at Damien Hirst’s dot paintings.

But this current Brighton exhibition – Word Up – focuses solely on his work with words and phrases – turning film catchphrases and hip-hop lines into beautiful hand-carved signage.

“People on the street would say that’s an art,” says Callanan, remembering his time crafting signs for pubs across the country.

“I thought to make it art I need to change its context or change its subject and present it in a different way. Instead of writing The Dog And Duck I could write Yippie Ki-yay.”

Having studied model-making and 3D design at art college, Callanan landed a job at a sign-making company, where he learned the slowly disappearing skills he uses in his work.

“I was doing every part of the job,” he says. “Manufacturing, gilding, designing, cutting boards and even putting them up. We had the Wetherspoons contract, so I ended up seeing most of England – the first time I went to Wales was to fit a No Smoking sign in a Wetherspoons pub!

“They are definitely dying arts – plastic has replaced most of the materials in the sign industry.”

His work deliberately combines a symbol of England – the pub sign – with words and phrases which he believes have encapsulated certain times or have resonances that have lasted.

Much of his inspiration for his work is drawn from his love of movies and his obsession with music.

“I’m basically a failed DJ,” he says. “I have a massive vinyl collection but was never good enough to play clubs. I got into collecting in 2000, when I was at college, and got into drum and bass.

“When I get into something I back-track, I’m not just happy going forward.”

The journey took him to the early days of the UK rave explosion and acid house culture, as epitomised by the smiley symbol.

“I wasn’t a raver – I was born in 1981,” he admits. “I remember my dad going out in 1988 and hosting after-parties every weekend – it was a crazy time.”

When he started going to drum and bass raves in his late teens, he realised the whole scene had changed.

“They are called raves but they are organised ticketed parties,” he says. “They’ve all got health and safety in place – the rave scene has become controlled.”

This was partly the inspiration for his popular images of acid house smilies kept behind Victorian glass – combining the very British rave scene with the British institution of the pub, but also creating a distance by trapping the image behind glass.

“People who buy them often say: ‘I love it, it takes me back to Ibiza and the summer of love,” says Callanan. “Or they say, ‘It’s a bit weird’ – they’re not sure if it’s smiling at them or acting as a warning. It’s cut into negative space, so it’s 3D, but it’s also concave and untouchable. You would have to break the glass to get to it.”

He admits his work doesn’t focus on any current lyric or film-line.

“Everything is over five years old at least,” he says.

“I’m trying to celebrate stuff that I think is valid and has stood the test of time.”

The lines he uses are designed to work on their own, from Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, to Fatboy Slim’s Right Here Right Now – but often have double meanings in the context they are taken from.

“I’m trying to make pop art – it has to connect on face value,” he says.

“With Kasabian, most of their songs are about heroin addiction. The ‘I’m a king and she’s my queen’ taken out of context works as something someone can put on the wall of their house but it’s actually from Shoot The Runner and is about heroin as the king and queen.

“I always think Right Here, Right Now has an underlying sexual connotation.”

Callanan is now working with Fatboy Slim on his graphics and branding after meeting Norman Cook at his Hove home. Callanan has since created flyers for Cook’s Glastonbury hidden tour and festival dates, as well as working for a free art drop around East London.

He admits there is a connection with the way they put their work together – with Callanan borrowing lyrics for his images, and Cook sampling rare grooves to make his music.

The collaboration looked like it might have a bumpy start after Callanan showed him his Right Here Right Now piece.

“From his reaction I didn’t think he was that into it,” admits Callanan. “He just said ‘It’s nice, I wouldn’t buy it but I would have it if someone gave it to me’.

“I told his manager who said that meant he really liked it but had got too embarrassed to say so.

“I’ve got to know him a little bit now over the last few months – he’s obsessed with smiley culture!”

  • Ryan’s work will also be on display along North Road, with his own creations replacing the signs outside The Fountainhead and The 3 Jolly Butchers to coincide with the exhibition

Ink_d, North Road, Brighton, Friday, August 2, to Monday, August 26

Open Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm, Sunday noon to 4pm, bank holidays 11am to 5pm, free. Call 01273 645299