John Dolan: from homeless addict to street artist and author

John DolanHere’s a wonderful article about street artist John Dolan and his dog George which appeared recently in the UK Guardian.

Aged 10, John Dolan was told a family secret, which set him on the road to crime, addiction and homelessness. Now his life is transformed, thanks to his dog, George, and a gift for drawing

Anyone who has strolled down Shoreditch High Street in east London in the past few years will probably have seen John Dolan drawing, with a cup for coins on the pavement beside his dog.

A tourist from New Zealand browsing an art gallery nearby is typical of many of us: she stops in surprise when she sees a sketch by Dolan on display. “I saw this guy in the street the other day, just opposite,” she says. “I wish I’d stopped now and talked to him.”

Dolan, until recently a homeless heroin addict, is now a “famous artist” as he puts it when he rushes into the Howard Griffin gallery, soaking from the rain. He has a sellout exhibition, a second just opened and a new memoir, which could become a bestseller.

As he is well aware, the interest in his intricate drawings of London buildings, and of his dog, George, is piqued by his remarkable change of fortune. This poses two questions: where did it all go wrong, and where did it all go right? The answers, as many people find, are bound up with family.

Unusually, however, one member of Dolan’s family is particularly crucial: his dog, George.

Dolan’s life has been transformed since Richard Howard-Griffin, a street art devotee and gallery owner put on an exhibition of Dolan’s drawings last autumn. But Dolan, a charming and rather delicate man, is still shaped by his past. Most of his teeth are missing and he carries the vulnerability of someone in the early stage of recovering from many traumas.

Surprisingly, perhaps, his early childhood was happy. The son of Gerry, a dustman, and Dot, a cleaner, he grew up in a council flat within sight of St Paul’s. His brothers, David and Malcolm, and sisters, Jackie and Marilyn, were much older, and Dolan was a cheeky youngest child, spoilt with toys, sweets and comics, which he would spend hours trying to copy, drawing in his bedroom.

Then, aged 10, his world was turned upside down. Gerry, his authoritarian but loving father, abruptly told him that his parents were in fact his grandparents: his “sister”, Marilyn, was his biological mother; his father a lad called Jimmy he had met once or twice. “I think I was too young to be told that, and it knocked me for six, it really did,” says Dolan. “It had a huge impact on me. I went right off the rails. I was a proper problem child.”

Dolan remembers telling himself that nothing would change and outwardly it didn’t: Dot and Gerry were still his mum and dad and Marilyn remained a distant figure. But Dolan’s cheekiness became delinquency. He was obese – 13 stone, when he was nine – and bullied at school. “I hated school, absolutely hated it.”

So he began to play truant, sniffing glue, throwing milk bottles from tower blocks, getting chased by police. Faced with this misbehaviour, Gerry threatened to put him in a children’s home or send him to live with Jimmy, Dolan’s biological father. Dolan had met “Uncle Jimmy” and he was fine, but those threats “had a huge impact on me, more than I realised then”.

The art teacher was the only person at school who had time for Dolan and he left without any qualifications. He got occasional work for Jimmy Dolan’s secondhand office furniture business but never found what Dot and Gerry called a proper job. “I didn’t have the confidence to get myself a job,” he says. “I fell into a heavy depression.”

He also fell into six months at Feltham young offenders’ institution: a fat petty thief, who forged signatures in savings books, was shoved alongside murderers and gangsters.

When he came out, Dot and Gerry wouldn’t take him back. He was homeless. He took up burglary, targeting commercial properties (“I wouldn’t ever break into anyone’s house”). West End sandwich shops on a Sunday night with a weekend’s takings in the till were particularly profitable.

“My criminality was rife,” he says.

Dot and Gerry’s home was repeatedly raided by the police and not long after one raid, Dot died of cancer. Gerry never really forgave Dolan – “He always said if it had never happened she might still be here now” – but the older man needed help and Dolan moved home.

Grieving and lonely, Gerry raged at Dolan – “You useless piece of shit.” He was typical of his generation, “A real shouter and growler,” says Dolan. “He used to really tear into me. He shattered my confidence. By the time I was in my late 20s, I was a wreck.”

According to Dolan, one of his brothers recently said he blamed Gerry for the Dolan’s delinquency. After a decade in and out of prison and now abused by his angry, ailing grandfather, Dolan sank deeper into depression and tried heroin.

“It was like someone was giving me the biggest hug I’d ever had in my entire life,” he writes in his memoirs. “I hate to say it,” he tells me, “but for the first few years the class-A drug use really did help my depression but in a negative way – I became addicted and it came to rule my life.”

When Gerry died in 1997, all Dolan’s family, except his sister Jackie, severed contact. Dolan became homeless again when he failed to pay his rent and by 2009 had more than 300 convictions, 30 stints in prison and an arthritic ankle.

He got a council bedsit and then George, a young Staffordshire bull terrier, entered his life. Dolan had befriended a young homeless couple and when they were offered a flat they had to give up George, acquired when a drunk had swapped him for a strong can of lager.

Dolan was terrified to be entrusted with George, his first ever responsibility. “How was I going to cope with him? I couldn’t even cope with myself,” he says. But he’d loved the family dog, Butch, as a boy, and he noticed how George always looked him in the eye when he talked.

They bonded and Dolan had a stark realisation: if he went to prison again, he would lose George. So he gave up crime. “It was only because I had the animal and he’s a responsibility,” he says, stroking George. “He’s like my child in a sense and I feel obliged to keep a roof over his head and keep him warm.”

Unlikely to ever find a job, he felt, Dolan decided to try begging. “I threw on an old jacket, just for the fun of it.” He pauses. “I found it really tough and degrading.”

But he hit on a winning sales technique: placing the cup in front of a charming (now well-trained) dog. You’re not stupid, I joke. “And I don’t claim to be,” laughs Dolan. Then he started drawing again. “Sitting there holding out my hand was so embarrassing, so degrading. I didn’t like to look at people as they went past. I picked up the pen mainly so I could bury my head in a drawing pad.”

He started drawing the buildings opposite, over and over again, to recapture and improve his childhood skill. It took him about three months “to get into a groove” and then he started selling his drawings to passers-by for a few quid.

He was commissioned to do some drawings for a book, Shoreditch Unbound, alongside other local residents such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. Eventually, a gallery director, Richard Howard-Griffin, asked if he would draw some large streetscapes for him.

“Griff” had the smart idea to invite other street artists, including ROA and Thierry Noir (who drew on the Berlin Wall) to draw on Dolan’s pictures. These collaborations sold for £50,000.

In the run-up to last autumn’s exhibition, Dolan finally visited a doctor, obtained a prescription and weaned himself off heroin. Going through withdrawal was “the most painful thing I’ve been through”, he writes.

Does he worry he might relapse, especially now he has money? “It’s easy to go back to it but you’ve got to not want to go back to it. No positives will come from taking it, no matter how much money you’ve got,” he says. “Not that I’ve got much.”

Dolan’s pre-exhibition nerves were greater than most. He invited his family and hoped to see them for the first time in years. “I owe my family an apology for the way I grew up,” he says. “Finally succeeding and having a show was a ‘sorry’ to my family and my parents who brought me up so lovingly and responsibly.”

He was delighted that Jackie, Malcolm and David all showed up with their families. In the months since, he has seen them “all the time” and has especially appreciated spending time with Malcolm. “He was the one who hated my guts the most because he was the closest to my mum, my nan,” he says.

What about his biological parents? Although he hasn’t had direct contact with Jimmy recently, Jimmy posted a nice, rather sad message below an online interview with Dolan: “hello john good to c u getting on well take care dad.”

Dolan is not in touch with his biological mother, Marilyn. “She’s had her chance,” he says quietly. Is he angry with her? “It is what it is. She was a product of her time, a young girl growing up in the 60s. She was a teenager, she made a mistake. I don’t hold it against her.”

At the heart of Dolan’s family is George. “I feel like he’s a guardian angel. If it hadn’t been for him I’d have never picked up my pen,” he says, stroking his companion.

George is seven now, and looks in excellent shape, as does Dolan who has joined a gym although he hasn’t yet plucked up the courage to go.

John Dolan is famous in east London, does charity work for the Big Issue Foundation and Unicef and is off to Los Angeles for another exhibition (he’s only been abroad twice, to Bologne and Amsterdam). What about the big-budget movie? One Hollywood producer has already offered “stupid money”. And? “He didn’t offer us enough,” says Dolan with a grin.

He is ambitious for his art but rather more cautious about his personal life. Would he like a girlfriend and children? “I’ve not long come off the streets. My old way of life has only just changed,” he says carefully. “A girlfriend in time, I can see that happening.”

Given his success, I’m surprised that he still sits on the street and draws. He is happier than ever and yet he admits his story is not quite happy-ever-after. “I suffer depression really badly and sometimes I just have a bad day and I need to get out of the flat – get some fresh air and see people.” Does he like himself more now? He pauses. “A little bit,” he says. “But I’ve got to get my teeth fixed. Next chance I get, I’m going to get that done.”

• John Dolan’s exhibition, John and George, is at the Howard Griffin Gallery London E1, until 17 August,’