Birmingham’s new motto seems to be ‘fuck it, put up a statute’. The latest is Tat Vision’s immortalisation of the ‘Four Lads in Jeans’ outside All Bar One. Tim Mobbs is ready to defend it with his life and discovers a new awful discourse at Grand Central.
At the dawn of the 2010’s, I was in my early twenties and knocking out 80,000 word dissertations and contributing bits of writing towards various music publications on the internet. Even back then, over a decade ago I knew that the idea of pursuing journalism, or indeed writing longform in exchange for money, was about as far-fetched as becoming a pop star. Like the music industry, it was obvious that the trade (or at least the idea of it being an accessible career path) was dying, if not dead already.
Even after the Brexit referendum, when half of the population seemingly snorted cocaine off of a toilet in Wetherspoons and the other half smoked the kind of weed that makes you think writing “cockwomble!” on a protest banner is both hilarious and worthwhile activism, writing about anything seemed futile. Everything was too nuanced, people’s attention spans were too short and nothing seemed like it was worth fighting for. That was until I saw local artist Tat Vision’s statue, Four Lads in Jeans, unveiled at Grand Central. Or, more accurately, when I saw the online response to it.
Statues are, of course, a bizarrely sore subject for a nation that seems to be constantly in the grip of a hysterical mental breakdown and resembles the kind of family dynamic where an incensed parent disowns their only child for not kneeling at the altar of Boris Johnson, a man that neither of them will ever meet and couldn’t give a single shit about either of them.
To recap this exciting front of the endless culture war, after the statue of “beloved” slave-trader Edward Colston got chucked in the drink in Bristol back in the Summer of 2020 a small clutch of confused racists tried to “defend” George Eliot’s statue in Nuneaton. I should also add, as an aside, that I wouldn’t be too fussed about anarchists tearing down George Eliot’s statue because I had to suffer reading Middlemarch during my literature degree.
The idea that a bunch of lads fired up their WhatsApp group (probably called “EDL Elite” with a lion emoji, despite the hate group basically having disappeared years earlier), raised the alarm and got out there to defend a female Victorian writer’s statue is almost as hilarious as the shrunken papier mache heads of Tat Vision’s artistic homage to pumped up Love Island lads taking an awkward photo outside of an All Bar One. While the knuckle draggers in Nuneaton didn’t really understand what they were doing two years ago, other than hoping they’d get to beat up some lads with long hair who use words they don’t like or understand, I will happily lay down my life to defend Four Lads in Jeans fully aware of the sacrifice I am making by facing the inevitable and depressing fever-dream of really terrible discourse.
Like most people my age, commenting publicly on social media is reserved exclusively for tagging your significant other and saying “this is u” on a video of a little animal wearing a silly hat and eating some crisps. It seems, however, in the unique circle of hell that is Birmingham Live’s Facebook page, people have some opinions. As young people would say, there are some very “hot takes”.
A confused elderly woman called Brenda, with 7 layers of profile picture banners all awkwardly stacked on top of each other in a graphic design nightmare that means she can simultaneously support the troops whilst also celebrating Christmas 2018, blathers on about how it’s a “waste of council money when we should be feeding the homeless” when it literally says RIGHT FUCKING THERE IN THE FACEBOOK POST that the artwork has been funded by The Bullring and The Hippodrome. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to assume that Brenda’s exhaustive list of work to support the homeless community in her area is as non-existent as Andy Street’s or indeed a tram on Corporation Street.
How much do you reckon spray-painting four old mannequins and putting some papier mache heads on them cost anyway, Brenda?! You never see these lot thumping their displeasure into their smartphones about how much it cost Liz Truss to go and dick about in Australia via private jet in January (hint: half a million quid of your taxpayer money, you Kool-Aid guzzling bozos)
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll take any opportunity to criticise Birmingham City Council as the civic embodiment of a 1950s dad who forgets it’s his kid’s birthday, gets absolutely rat-arsed, knocks up a dodgy Wendy House and then suddenly brings home a labrador that dies two days later. But are we genuinely so dense as a population that we can’t even do the most basic of research and reading? The simple information on who funded Tat Vision’s creation wasn’t buried on paragraph 12, under a raft of pop-up ads that render the article unreadable, kill your smartphone and set off your fight-or-flight response. It was literally in the short paragraph of copy that accompanies the Facebook post itself.
Old people on the internet, who will doubtlessly be crowing very soon about how much they loved having ice on their windows back in the 60s so you should put a jumper on while you freeze to death this winter, are an obvious and easy target. Do reserve some of your ire, as I have done, for the lads out there who have haircuts that look as though they were hastily drawn on by a four year-old with a Sharpie. “This statue is fucking shit! An embarrassment!” they cry. The endless comments about how it “doesn’t even look like them!!” hammers down like a deluge of idiot rain.
These lot are young enough to know how the internet works, presumably, as they already all do a good job of hiding their OnlyFans activity from their poor sad misusses, so why can’t they do a quick Google on what Tat Vision does? For a subset of the population who exclusively communicate by posting cry-laughing emojis on news stories about refugees drowning in the channel, do they not realise that this statue speaks in their native language. It’s an obvious piss take! A meme! Can something just be a bit of fun without having to quantify exactly how many pounds of tourism it directly pumped into the big Primark?
You suspect that even if they did have the figures (written out nice and big on paper with curved edges so that they can’t hurt themselves on it) that they don’t like it because it isn’t being horrible about women or the LGBTQ+ community. To flip reverse their favourite line of attack back onto them I say: “What’s the matter? Can’t take a joke, mate?” But why not indulge the question even if they don’t want the answer: do we have any evidence that meme art can bring in that sacred tourism money that those monarchists love to bang on about? Yes! Monkey Jesus brings 16,000 visitors every year to the Spanish town of Borja. I rest my case. Now go back to shouting racist slurs on Call of Duty.
Adjacent to this lot is the swathe of general jobsworth pricks who say that the work is just “bad art”. You don’t have to hack their social media activity to know, instinctively, that what they imagine is good art is a 14 year old on TikTok doing god awful photorealistic pencil drawings of Drake or some other culture vacuum. You can also guarantee that if you asked them when the last time they went to BMAG was, they’d probably reply with: “oh, I thought BHS had closed down? Is it back in The Bullring?!” Never forget: these are the kind of people that would dob you in to your boss for taking two extra minutes on your lunch break.
Some of my favourite responses have gone so far as to suggest that it’s “a waste of brass”. I think when I first saw one of these comments my eyebrows genuinely left my head, such was the distance I raised them. The overwhelming urge to reply with: “IT’S MADE OF PAPIER MACHE AND OLD MANNEQUINS, YOU THICK TWAT.” is almost unbearable. But, as we’ve learnt over the past six years or so of this unbearable and never-ending hell of discourse, what’s the fucking point? I don’t really understand what could ever satisfy these people. Do they want us to live in some sort of failing Soviet-style state where everything serves a stolid utilitarian purpose only? “Yes, I’ll take one government issued art piece, please. Ta very much, glory be and may we crush our Manchester rivals!”
Maybe if Tat Vision had whacked up a giant glass building around Four Lads in Jeans for a few more billion pounds, and covered it in “Exciting Unit Partners Coming Soon!” signage, it might attract the attention of those utterly braindead Instagram accounts that post the same picture of Chamberlain Square with the caption: “Birmingham: you looking fine today!”
Is a character like Tat Vision, living with his mom and making weird art out of stuff he finds in charity shops, really so hard for the spittle-flecked online population to comprehend as nothing more than a bit? He even wears silly clothes and has a comedy handlebar mustache, for Christ’s sake.
Rather than just being mean about people, I’m going to be vulnerable for a minute and do what most people, like myself, who have had their brains melted by the internet are often too scared to do: express an opinion. What do I think about Four Lads in Jeans? I love it. I particularly like how intentionally crap it is in an area of town that is so glossy and strains very hard to give outsiders an inoffensive and retail-heavy first impression of our simultaneously amazing and flawed Birmingham. To put it right outside of our biggest train station, where most visitors first glimpse our city on a sunny Saturday afternoon, is genuinely commendable. Had it been put in Digbeth, I don’t think it would have had half the impact. It’s a hopeful hint of the enthusiastic changing of the tired narrative about Birmingham that the Commonwealth Games, for better or worse, has kicked off. A genuine attempt to “Be Bold”.
But back to the idiots and, finally, a special mention to the bloke on Twitter who said, I quote: “When you consider everything else in Birmingham looks like it’s stuck in 1970’s this is positively futuristic for them”. To borrow a commonly used retort from the same era where your tired, tired gag would have been actually original: 1998 called, mate, they want their joke back. It truly conjures a mental image of an irradiated and dead Britain where a small handful of Tories scrabble over the last bottles of Bollinger in an underground bunker and, meanwhile, a bloke in rags barbecues a dead rat over a toxic campfire and, with his dying breath, rattles out the phrase: “Birmingham is shit, isn’t it. Ha ha ha”.