'I've survived being homeless and made £4million in one year selling my artwork'

Sharkey pictured with paint on his face

Irish artist ‘Sharkey’ makes £4million in one year selling paintings around world (Image: Gareth Chaney)

A once-homeless artist from Dublin is now making £4million a year selling abstract paintings around the world.

Kevin Sharkey, 62, who started painting at age 12 “in secret”, has since become a firm favourite among celebrities like Kate Moss, to world leaders, such as Irish President Michael D Higgins.

The Irish artist, who goes by the name of ‘Sharkey’, said he sold his first painting to Bob Geldof, the lead singer of Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats whom he got to know through songwriting in the eighties.

He said: “My first exhibition in Dublin sold out in 24 hours. My first auction of 172 paintings sold out in one hour 43 minutes.”

Sharkey, who described his childhood as “difficult”, said he used painting as a means to cope with feelings of “loneliness and sadness” during that time. He was put up for adoption at six months old and raised by a family in County Donegal but was “abruptly” returned to the care system at age 12 and remained in a children’s care home until the age of 16.

Sharkey standing with arms folded in front of paintings

Sharkey used painting as a child to cope with feelings of “loneliness and sadness” (Image: Gareth Chaney)

Sharkey, who currently lives between Dublin and Barcelona with his three dogs and pet bird Linda, said: “I started painting at 12 years old after being sent to the children’s home but hid my work from the public and friends until I was 38 years old.”

“Painting was always very private and it was a way of dealing with the loneliness and sadness. It was the escape that I valued more than the finished painting. I used to throw the paintings away. When I painted, I felt less lonely and less desolate, less stressed.”

It took an art teacher who came over for dinner one evening and told him his work was “amazing”, to get the artist to share his paintings publicly. Sharkey told Express.co.uk: “It was a very, very tall mixed-race gentleman by the name of Ade Antigha who taught art. He came to dinner and fell in love with my paintings – and I fell in love with him.

“He came to dinner one night and there was a painting blocking a hole in the window and he spotted it and asked if it was mine. I used to hide them when people came around the house because I felt embarrassed.”

He added: “I used to be a fisherman, you can’t tell your mates you’re making paintings, they would take the p***. So I watched him get very excited whilst looking at the rest of the work which I pulled out for him to see. Some of it was in the garden because I used to throw it onto the roof at night as the cats would make an awful racket. So I went and collected them and showed them to him, and he got very excited, he was very enthusiastic.”

After telling Mr Antigha he was self-taught, the art teacher urged Sharkey to become an artist. Sharkey said: “My first exhibition was in a warehouse in Brixton, it was called ‘Google me B****’. I sold two paintings from that exhibition, which were my first real sales, and it was very exciting because I had never really even seen many paintings.

Sharkey walking his dogs in a park

Sharkey now lives between Dublin and Barcelona with his three dogs and pet bird Linda (Image: Anna Gordon)

“So to be in a situation where people were willing to pay for them was a huge moment for me, and it just confirmed what Ade Antigha had told me.”

But Sharkey has more than made up for the lost time in the art world. Since becoming a full-time artist, he has produced and sold more than 10,500 original paintings.

Some notable pieces include icon Sir Elton John breastfeeding, fused with Myra Hindley’s infamous mugshot and the Pope officiating a same-sex wedding.

Sharkey said: “When Elton John decided to adopt a baby, it was the first time in public that a man talked openly and honestly about wanting to have a child even though he was gay. And I thought that was an amazingly brave thing for Elton to do.

“I wanted to commemorate that so I thought about what society thinks a man can never give a child, and that’s nurture and succour. It was a very tasteful artwork, but the image was of a man nurturing a child and it just went all around the world in no time at all.”

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Sharkey painting a canvas

Sharkey most recently opened his second art gallery in Notting Hill’s Westbourne Grove (Image: Gareth Chaney)

Sharkey added: “I would describe my work as bold, colourful, expressive and original. As a self-taught artist, I have had no influences other than nature and life. Creativity drives me always, making beautiful things to share with people is my passion.”

But despite his meteoric rise in the art world which led to him becoming a multi-millionaire, he said he lost it all in the 2014 financial crisis and ended up homeless, living in a tent on a campsite.

Sharkey said: “I made €4.5million euros (around £3.9million) but ended up spending €5million and being homeless, but boy did I have a good time spending it. I travelled the world in style, had an art gallery in Mayfair next to Louis Vuitton, plus other galleries in Ibiza, Barcelona and Ireland.”

An abstract Sharkey painting of colour spread on a red canvas

Sharkey described his work as “bold, colourful, expressive and original” (Image: Sharkey)

After a number of years in the wilderness, Sharkey eventually managed to re-establish himself in 2018 and is now back to his best, with a successful gallery on Dublin’s Dawson Street and a wealthy and loyal clientele.

Sharkey said: “Being an artist means life is fraught with good times and bad times, mistakes, lessons and successes. When I see my paintings now going into beautiful homes, it’s so far away from the lowest point of my journey.

“I’ve never gone down the route of selling my art in other people’s galleries because I find it’s so enriching to meet the people who are going to value your work for years to come. You meet their families, you sometimes visit their houses.

Sharkey pictured against one of his paintings

Sharkey is set to open his third gallery in New York next year (Image: Anna Gordon)

“Meeting the customers is probably just as rewarding as getting paid for your work. The steps that I took to get back into selling my paintings included selling at auctions and selling at exhibitions. I even used to hang up my paintings on a railing in Dublin’s Merrion Square for quite a few years, which involves being out there sometimes in the wind and pouring rain!

“I was lucky, a lot of people who had never seen my work came along and I sold well. So that’s what got me back into opening the Sharkey Gallery in Dublin and now in London.”

The artist, who most recently opened his second gallery in Notting Hill’s Westbourne Grove earlier this month, is set to triple that number next year with the launch of another new display room in New York.

Sharkey hasn’t just been a success in the art world, having tried his hand at a number of different skills and professions. Over the years, the multi-creative starred in the comedy sitcom Father Ted, wrote songs for the likes of Boney M and The Boomtown Rats and presented the iconic 80s TV music show, The Roxy, alongside David ‘Kid’ Jensen.

He said he worked as Kirsty MacColl’s cleaner when he first came to London, as well as a head chef at the Hard Rock Café on Hyde Park Corner. In 2018, he sought a nomination to run in the 2018 Irish presidential election, but later withdrew his bid to focus on his art.

Sharkey said: “Success to me emotionally is a wonderful validation of the kid in me who wasn’t sure if he had anything to offer the world. And I think as an adult, as a man of my age now, I feel like I’ve created a huge legacy, through music and through art and I’m very proud of that.

“So that’s a nice thing because as a kid, I didn’t have many things to feel proud of. I was the only black child in an entirely white environment. I never saw a black person until I was 12 and a half. So my whole existence was solitary and isolated in many ways.

“As an adult to be in a place where you know that people love and appreciate what you do. They respect what you do, they treat you with respect. It’s lovely.

“Now it’s changed, but at the time when I was growing up, you picked what you wanted to be based on what was available to you. I was never very good at basketball, wasn’t interested in football, and had a short attention span with everything, which is why art suited me so well.

“So to have all that come into a place where the reward financially matches the effort I’ve put in, I’m very, very proud of myself because I’m a self-taught artist. I learned that you can be the greatest artist in the world, but unless you learn how to be a shopkeeper, you’re depending on somebody else to sell your work for you, and that’s probably the most important part of the job.”

Sharkey added: “I know I am the next real big thing in the world of contemporary art. I am the new Jean-Michel Basquiat. I will become a very rich artist in the next five years: my four paintings for my New York exhibition next year are priced at $250,000 each. It’s called ‘The Million Dollar Collection’.”

Sharkey’s London gallery can be found at 118 Westbourne Grove.

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