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He is a classically-trained pianist who ended up living on the street. But now he has become an unlikely ‘face’ of World Homeless Day.
John Dolan, a street artist who was until recently homeless, teamed up with StreetLink to celebrate the international awareness day with a mural of Viktor, a trained pianist who came to England looking for work and ended up homeless and addicted to drugs.
Dolan and his dog George also feature in the picture.
The mural of Viktor, created on Thursday, 8 October in Bethnal Green Rd, aimed to promote a new phone app that helps people contact StreetLink when they see someone sleeping rough. Members of the public, or even homeless people themselves, can text StreetLink, which then passes on the information to the nearest outreach teams, allowing them to follow-up the sighting.
But on Thursday the public were invited to add to John’s picture with their fingerprints, underlining the point that help for homeless people is “at people’s fingertips”.
Dolan, who was homeless for over 20 years before being discovered by gallery owner Richard Howard Griffin, said: “I used fingerprints to fill in the shadows, details and features of the portrait as they are the most iconic markers of individual identity... and because that’s how people will use the app.”
Few other street artists can claim such an affinity with the pavement.
John – a warm, charming and open man – was shaped by a tough past and a complicated family dynamic. As a child, his supposed parents Dot and Gerry “spoilt me rotten”; it turned out they were his grandparents. His ‘sister’ Marilyn was actually his mother, his brothers were his uncles and he barely knew his dad.
He said: “Up until that point my life was idyllic. It fucking turned my world upside down. I was too young for that sort of revelation. My trust for people went out the window.”
He declined into a spiral of delinquency, depression, and drug addiction. At first heroin helped but self-medicating backfired spectacularly as the consequences of his drug use destroyed both his quality of life and and his self-respect. Family relationships deteriorated rapidly and addiction locked him into a cycle of crime and incarceration that landed him on the street.
One morning after a heavy night’s drinking in a hostel, he awoke to see a strange dog looking at him. He’d swapped a can of Special Brew for a Staffordshire bull terrier. George, as he called the dog, would come to define the rest of his life.
Dolan used to find robbery easier on his pride than begging, so he dealt with his embarrassment by training George to sit 10 feet away with the cup in front of him. The humorous image connected with passers by who got to know John and George as a team.
Another way John coped with his awkwardness was to bury his head in his sketchpad and draw. He sat and drew the same buildings every day for practice and started selling them, but it was his sketches of George that attracted the most attention.
He was “discovered” and after several lucrative exhibitions and a successful book, entitled, John and George: The Dog Who Changed My Life, he has managed to establish himself as a successful professional artist with a future.
But the transition hasn’t always been easy.
It isn’t just the physical scars and broken teeth that have followed him from the street: he is still battling depression and until recently has found the money and attention difficult to handle. After several relapses he is currently clean and resolute about his recovery for the first time in his life, something he credited to his regular attendance at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. ‘
Like many in recovery he is motivated by appreciation and shame to give something back now he can.
Viktor, the friend of John’s depicted in the mural, hasn’t been so fortunate.
He came to England looking for work but ended up on drugs and living on the street. According to John: “You couldn’t get more destitute than this guy, poor old Viktor probably hasn’t seen a bath in ten years, he’s crawling with lice and dirtier than you can imagine.”
The StreetLink service, run by Homeless Link and St Mungo’s Broadway, is not universally popular. Some homeless people dislike the way it asks the public to “report” them. Others use it to request help but claim it is ineffective; outreach workers don’t always respond.
But Matt Harrison, director of Street Link, claims it is needed more than ever. In London there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of people sleeping rough in any one night in the last five years, with 7, 781 people being recorded as sleeping rough in the capital.
He said: “The aim of the day was to raise awareness of StreetLink amongst people who regularly walk past people sleeping rough in busy urban areas and are perhaps unsure about the best way to help.
“John’s story demonstrates that we shouldn’t define people by their current situation. People have talents and abilities that can help them rebuild their lives away from homelessness if given a chance to develop.
“We need to give all rough sleepers the opportunity to maximise their talents by getting them off the streets as fast as possible”.
Contact StreetLink by calling 0300 500 0914, visit www.streetlink.org.uk, or download the mobile app for Apple and Android devices.