Streets ahead: Pegasus books in for the duration

London's renowned street artist-to-the-stars on meeting Johnny Depp, the death of his friend Amy Winehouse and collaborating on a good cause

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Street artist Pegasus was in the middle of his first exhibition when his manager asked him to clear the room because "a very important person" was dropping in.

"I thought it was Babs Windsor," he says.

It wasn't. Instead of the doyenne of Albert Square, Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp swaggered in to the London gallery.

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"Johnny Depp," Pegasus says. "And I thought it was Babs Windsor."

Speaking to this softly-spoken American-cum-Englishman, you get the feeling he would have been just as delighted to have the legendary Carry On star view his work. Such cultural icons are, after all, his stock-in-trade.

Born in Chicago but resident in London for "so many years I'm English now", Pegasus has won a celebrity following with his irreverent takes on some of the most famous faces in the modern world. On his gallery visit, Depp paid a reported five-figure number for a naked painting of a heavily pregnant Kate Middleton, entitled Game of Thrones, and commissioned another. Mean Girls star Lindsay Lohan also boasts a Pegasus, as does the likes of Adele, Kim Kardashian and England rugby star Ben Cohen.

Why is his work so popular with the famous? "I haven't the slightest idea, to be honest," he tells Portfolio, at the unveiling of four exclusive pieces for the St Giles Hotel in London last week. "The very first one was Lindsay Lohan and she approached me when she came here for her stage play. I thought it was a joke. You know – someone says to you, 'Oh by the way, you have to do a painting for Lindsay Lohan,' and they give you the details of what she wants and you think, 'You're pulling my leg.' It just spiralled from there."

He has been painting for as long as he's been alive - "From the moment I could walk and talk, I had pencils in my hands. While all the other kids were playing Nintendo, I was the nerdy kid in the corner with a sketch book" – but shot to fame after the death of his friend Amy Winehouse.

"I knew Amy when she was alive and obviously after she died, it was very emotional for me and I ended up creating my very first tribute piece to her without really knowing what I was doing," he says.

"I was in a shop on Oxford Street on the day she died. They were listening to the radio and I remember I had loads of shopping in my hands and I heard the words, 'Amy Winehouse is dead.' I dropped everything and I ran into an art shop in Soho. I was planning on painting an image of her on canvas but it was almost like the spray paints were calling to me. It was the first time I'd even picked up a can of spray paint. I went home and ended up creating this very amateur painting of Amy on the streets hours after her death. "

Fallen Angel, a black-and-white stylised stencil of the singer wearing angel wings, became an impromptu shrine to the singer and is now a must-go site for fans, along with Pegasus's loving tributes to David Bowie, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. His work now forms parts of street-art tours around the city.

His appeal is simple, he says. "People grow up with these legends and they form emotional bonds with them so when they lose them, they almost feel like they've lost part of themselves, too, so when they see an image of their biggest icons out on the street, they think 'Oh my God.' My biggest icon is Madonna and when I'm out on the streets in New York and I see a Madonna street art, my heart goes and I think, 'That is amazing – that's my queen.'"

More recently, Pegasus's irreverent takes on the likes of the Queen, Prince Harry and Barack Obama have been joined by more damning statements on world leaders such as Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un and Theresa May, as well as a powerful portrayal of young Syrian refugee Omran Daqneesh.

"I'm trying to put messages out on the streets. I'm trying to send a positive message, a message of love, but sometimes things happen in politics which rub me up the wrong way and I have to put my message across," he says.

"For the longest time, a lot of people thought all I could do was paint pretty faces all day long and that I didn't really have much of a brain. I wanted to - it was nagging at me a little bit and I started thinking, 'Well, now I've got this platform, I can start expressing my opinions. I can start putting messages out there that people can relate to, to have that interaction with people out on the street.' I don't always like doing political pieces, I would like to paint beautiful people all day long, but sometimes you just have to do it, especially when there's so much ugliness in the world and not enough people are addressing it."

His desire to fight the ugliness was one of the reasons behind his collaboration with St Giles London, for whom he has created four exclusive portraits of Bowie, Winehouse, the Queen and Naomi Campbell to greet guests in the lobby. The collaboration is part of Hotels with Heart, helping local charities, for which Pegasus also created an image of the Queen to be auctioned to raise funds for children and young adults through the YMCA. "The work that I've done for St Giles is very close to my heart," he says. "It's something I enjoyed doing."

Future collaborations are planned for New York and possibly the hotel's new site in Cuba, with the artists hoping for a Pegasus Penthouse. As well as this, Pegasus has also worked on an Amy Winehouse range for Fred Perry, to raise money for the Amy Winehouse Foundation.

With such mainstream outings, does he think street art has hit its peak and – to quote his hero, Andy Warhol – this is his 15 minutes of fame?

"I kinda feel like I've used up my 15 minutes, to be honest," he says, laughing. "But I'm riding it as long as I can."

Pegasus's four portraits are on permanent display in the lobby of St Giles London, Bedford Ave, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3GH. His fifth portrait, of the Queen, is being auctioned online, with all proceeds going to Hotels with Heart charity. Follow @stgileslondon for details. The winner will be announced online at 3pm on Thursday 18 May.

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