Former chocolatier to the stars, Dave Pop! on downsizing his larger-than-life artwork and saying ‘cheers’ to Sussex’s LGBTQ+ community. Interview by Rebecca Pitcairn
From creating costumes for drag queens to making chocolate cakes for celebrities and even releasing his own pop single, it seems there aren’t many things Brighton artist David Ratcliffe cannot turn his hand to.
The Kemptown resident, known affectionately as Dave Pop! thanks to his trademark bold artwork inspired by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons, has exhibited his bright and colourful creations at Theatre Royal, Bush Gallery and Fishing Quarter Gallery in recent years. And, anyone who has arrived in Brighton by train and taken the underpass towards The Lanes, will have found it hard to miss the mural he painted this year as part of a colourful wayfaring art trail for English Tourism Week.
However, if like me you’re a fan of behind the scenes documentaries, you may find his face familiar from the fly-on-the-wall TV series, Choccywoccydoodah, which followed Dave and the team at a famous Brighton chocolate shop as they went about creating outrageous sweet sculptures for celebrities including Kylie Minogue, Derren Brown and Boy George.
“It was an incredible time, I got to travel the world. They took me to LA and New York and I met Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Collins, who is my absolute favourite author,” grins Dave, who started working at The Lanes-based chocolate store by chance in 2000 and was responsible for creating the shop’s colourful signs and wall murals, as well its edible constructions.
“I didn’t have any experience as a chocolatier or in baking, but I took along my art portfolio to the interview and they seemed to like my work so I got the job,” the 53-year-old admits. “I used to sketch the cake designs and shop signage and after I’d been there a couple of months, they trained me in how to use chocolate. It’s not dissimilar to using clay, which I worked with at school and in my art training, it’s just with chocolate you are always working with temperature and with clay it’s all to do with moisture.”
The television show ran for five years from 2011 to 2016 and gave Dave a taste of on-screen stardom, but it wasn’t his first foray into the world of entertainment. When he first moved to Brighton from Swansea in the early 90s, the lure of the city’s exotic nightlife saw Dave become a club kid, wearing outrageous outfits, and making them for local drag queens, before becoming a wannabe pop star.
“When I first came to Brighton I was in my early 20s and was really living the dream enjoying the nightlife the city is renowned for,” he says. “I used to do some acting and backing dancing and I liked to write songs. A friend of a friend wrote music and I managed to get a small recording contract. It was before the time of The X Factor so things were quite different back then, but I do remember going and buying my single on CD in HMV. That shows how long ago it was. I mean who does that these days?!” Sadly, the single, Am I in love, or am I insane, failed to set the charts aflame, but you can still find the video on You Tube.
Despite its popularity, Choccywoccydoodah, which also had a shop in London, went into administration in 2019, at which time Dave took the opportunity to launch himself as a full-time artist. “Choccywoccydoodah was such a famous brand I think we all thought some big company would swoop in and buy it but that wasn’t to be the case,” he says. “It was tough to know what to do next – it was such a specialist job so there weren’t really any similar jobs out there that I could apply for.”
Dave decided to go back to his artistic roots and, despite a tough start, soon found his niche. “Living by the pier, I’d always liked fairground art and then, during lockdown, I did an online course in it and that really helped to elevate my work,” he explains. Dave’s first solo show Wonderful Darling took place at the Brush Gallery, Brighton that same year and he has since been commissioned to create art for a variety of business and organisations including Brighton Palace Pier, Brighton Arts Council, Theatre Royal Brighton, L.O.M. fashion, Revenge Bar and Club and the Fallen Angel.
His larger-than-life street murals feature vintage fairground style art and carousel horses inspired by Brighton’s seafront, as well as classical nudes in a pop art style, which give a nod to Dave’s fine art training at Coventry University.
His saucy seaside-inspired work recently caught the eye of Kathy Caton, founder of Brighton Gin, who commissioned two limited edition bottle labels to coincide with Brighton Pride last month. The distinct bottles celebrate the diversity and beauty of the city’s LGBTQ+ community and feature Dave’s trademark pop art, which for this project had a ‘March of the Mermaids’ theme. “I wanted to do something that was a bit cheeky and I chose ‘merpeople’ because they are perfect for my saucy seaside style of art, and also there are tattoo parlours on every corner in Brighton,” Dave explains.
The bottle’s ‘Cheers Queers’ tag line might not sit well with some but, Dave says, its meaning has shifted to a term that is now all-encompassing for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Some people don’t like the term queer, my husband still isn’t completely comfortable with the word because of the way it was used negatively in the past, but in more modern times it’s become a word that is inclusive of everyone, whoever you are, and I like that,” he says.
The bottles are being released in batches of 500 with a proportion of profits being donated to the Rainbow Fund, which supports grassroots LGBTQ+ organisations in Brighton and Hove. Each bottle has been signed and numbered by Dave.
“What’s lovely about it is that as well as supporting the LGBTQ+ community, the bottles are like a piece of Brighton you can take away with you – a miniature piece of my artwork you can pop on the shelf at home.”