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Former armed robber tipped to become top British artist

John Costi during filming of Johnny Gets Beaten Up. John Costi during filming of Johnny Gets Beaten Up.

Friday, January 10, 2014
1:00 PM

At the age of 19, John Costi’s life was on the brink.

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Having taken part in a string of armed robberies on bookmakers in East Finchley, he was sent to Feltham young offenders institute in Middlesex.

Facing the daunting reality of a six-year sentence in one of Britain’s most violent youth prisons, things suddenly became very serious for John.

However, a fateful encounter with an art therapist early on in his sentence would prove decisive in setting him on a journey of redemption.

Now 26, having graduated with a first class degree in fine art from world-famous college Central Saint Martins, he has been recognised as one of Britain’s most talented new artists.

John, who grew up in East Finchley and now lives in King’s Cross, is one of 40 artists profiled in The Catlin Guide 2014, which is considered the definitive look at the best new art talent.

Among the work which captured the attention of the guide’s curators was a film by John, titled Johnny Gets Beaten Up, exploring the aftermath of a violent attack which recently left the artist with multiple fractures to his nose, jaw and an eye socket.

He said: “I was beaten up in High Barnet. I was on my way home and I was set upon by a group of men who stamped on me, bottled me and kicked me in the head.

“The film documents the recovery but throughout the film it’s clear it’s more about the transition from being in prison – where violence happens every day – to being in art school for three years. I softened up. So I was a bit down about the attack.”

John set off on a criminal path at an early age, selling drugs aged 13 before progressing to armed robberies.

It was during his time at Feltham that his artistic talents were discovered by an art therapist, who then asked him to decorate part of a new hospital wing at the prison with graffiti art.

He was subsequently rewarded for his work by the prison authorities who “downgraded” him to an open prison in Ipswich. There, he began supporting adults with autism and Down’s Syndrome while on day release.

In the end, he was released from prison after 30 months. He then enrolled on the three-year degree course which culminated in his inclusion in The Catlin Guide.

He said: “If I didn’t have the opportunity [from the art therapist] that fell into my lap, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“When you come out of prison with no support structure you go back to old habits which would have been crime for me.”

John now works full-time for prison arts charity the Koestler Trust, supporting offenders through art, as well as working on art commissions from curators at his very own studio in King’s Cross.

So have coming so far, how does he now feel about his past?

“It’s quite a strange feeling,” he said. “I have to face it and acknowledge that I did wrong but I can’t let that prevent me from going forward.

“But sometimes I don’t want to enjoy myself too much because I do feel bad about the things I’ve done.

“The more time that goes by the further I get away from the person I used to be, the less I remember him and the closer I get to the person that I know I can be.”

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