This is the tale of Octagopus and how the image inspired by an octopus, came to be.
Octagopus is probably our most popular image after Curly. I may have to enter a sort of whimsy-world to describe her in an entertaining way. So here we go…
She was waiting in my head to be drawn; but she was waiting a long long time. This is a short story of how she got there and how she got out onto the paper.
The Undersea World
Among my favourite experiences of early childhood was sitting on a parent’s lap and journeying into the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau; I loved it. Co-inventor of the aqualung as we know it today, Cousteau was obsessed with marine life. He used his luck and pluck and the new medium of television to vent his obsession to the world by taking us all under the sea with him. I’d read about octopuses in my encyclopaedia and was already a fan but Cousteau took me into their world. In an episode dedicated to octopuses he revealed their beauty and intelligence to the point that my status ‘a member of the Earth’s dominant species’ shook, crumbled and collapsed. Octopuses, beneath the sea were easily better than us. I became a sucker for octopuses.
Naturally, on holiday, I would want to visit the seaside aquarium. But octopuses were either not exhibited or were “hiding in their little home.” I didn’t just want to see one; I longed to see one. We visited so many aquaria, so many times that I can not remember where my first octopus was. But it wasn’t moving. It was at the back of its tank stuck to the glass in a corner. It looked asleep. We didn’t have the capacity to photograph it, and were told “DO NOT TAP ON THE GLASS” by signs on every tank.
So the only place I could put the octopus was in my head, and imagine its movement, it underside, its features. If I could have spun the tank around like a revolving magazine rack, I would have been more than happy. But there she was, stuck in the back of my mind, minding her own business. But somehow, calling to me to do something with her. If you’ve ever tried to draw animals in a public aquarium as a child, you’ll know that it’s irksome. People bustle past, comment, nay, critique, your work and vent their unsatisfied desire to tap on the glass, by disturbing you instead. There’s nowhere to sit or rest your art pad so it invariably becomes a hasty gathering of memories. But memories can snuggle in deep, like an octopus in its lair. Taking possession of the cavity as their territory.
Beguiled by the Octopus
I was beguiled by how the octopus had neatly folded her arms. I desperately wanted to see the other side, the business side, the suckers. Scientifically speaking, octopuses don’t have tentacles, they have arms. It’s a bit of a technicality, or tenticality if you prefer, but tentacles are the long grabbers that cuttlefish and squid shoot out to grab prey; octopuses have evolved them away.
Anyway, lets fast forward past many more frustrating experiences of public aquarium octopuses, stuck to the glass in the far corner, to about four years ago, when I found a living octopus on our local beach. Groggy, and barely able to move, she was just going to wash back in on the surf if we threw her into the choppy sea. So she came home for a night in a bubbling tank and a photo session.
Stuck To The Side of The Tank
The following morning, she was looking great and she was doing it. She was stuck to the side of the tank. But this was a home made, 20 litre tank that could be turned around like a magazine rack. We quickly learned that she wouldn’t allow it though. Any movement alarmed her and there was a danger that she would squirt ink and suffocate herself. So, all our movements had to be very slow and the best experience was just watching her for the hour or so before low tide when we’d release her.
She wandered slowly around the tank feeling for a way out and then settled on the glass with her underside on show to us. Leaning slowly forward I saw that, while I was watching her, she was watching me, peeping through her tentacles. Was I a danger? It was at this point, that I realised that the most frustrating position I’d seen an octopus in, was also the one that fascinated me most. Using a man-made material they find a position in their cell, where they feel safest and the most in control. Under natural conditions, the suckers, arguably the most fascinating parts, are mostly hidden from view, but resting on glass they are gloriously visible, if you’re on the right side of the glass. I knew what to do with the octopus in my head.
Watching Me Watching You
I’ll digress a little here. Having read everything I can find about octopuses, I have learned that they can be playful and that aquarium octopuses seem to recognise their keepers individually. So, if an octopus is looking at you, it probably really is scrutinising your features. Without getting too wordy… I like that.
The Only Container!
This wasn’t our first experience of the local octopus community. The first was a dead specimen washed up in a storm. I made a plaster cast of her and she inspired our logo Curly. The first living octopus came tumbling onto the beach in the night in a big wave and writhed on the sand in confusion in the torchlight. I bundled her into the only container I had available as I was worried that my hands would be too hot and the sea was too rough here to throw her back.
So, with octopus in dog-poo bag and as much water as would go in there, I ran the quarter of a mile to a sheltered spot with tidal pools. There was a delay initially though. As I swished the water into the bag it startled her and she ‘inked’. Cephalopods do not survive in their own ink which is made to dope predators such as cod and conger eels. They squirt their cloud and dart away. The water turned black and I had to quickly empty her out and set her up more carefully in another bag. I released her into a sandy pool. She crawled out of the bag herself and began to ‘puff’ water through her funnel onto the sand , blowing it up into little clouds of grit that tumbled back down around her like confetti.
I wasn’t sure what she was doing as she wriggled and spiralled her arms but it soon became obvious; she was avoiding me. With a combination of puffing and wriggling, which looked like a dance on a very small stage, she sank into the sand. As she concluded her illusion of invisibility, she folded her arms in an almost ritualistic, and very symmetrical, way. This position, this event that I’d never seen before in my 50 odd years on Planet Earth, was the inspiration for what Kerry calls, ‘resting octopus’. You’ll find that image on our other new hoodie here
The spiralling of arms, the symmetry and the awareness of living octopuses are spell binding. The suckers themselves are not just suckers but organs of taste and smell, packed in their hundreds onto arms which can ‘think’ and move independently or be controlled by the octopus’ central brain. The octopus stuck in the cavity of my head was taking shape. I wanted to explore her symmetry as a being based on an octagonal blue print, evolved, who knows when, from tube shaped ancestors. I wanted to capture her spirals and her peeping inquisitiveness.
The Boring Bit
So here’s the boring bit. I drew an octagon, divided it into a pie and sketched a spiral into each section of the pie. I had to part two segments in order to let Octagopus peep through. Despite the octagonal template which should (and probably did) make it simple, I constantly referred back to reference photographs and the plaster cast to render Octagopus as I wanted her. By the end of it, I was spiralled out and felt a bit Frankensteinian with my creation; it was out, what would happen next, would the people accept her or shun her?
They called me Monstermash at school; maybe Frankenstein-Ian would have been better. I was probably partly inspired by MC Escher although I wasn’t thinking about him when I drew it, he’s infiltrated my thinking and has a little sitting room in my poky little brain where he’ll often have a cup of hot chocolate with Ernst Haeckel to plan what they’re going to get me to do next.
Anyway, Octagopus is there for you. Another episode of my fascination with these endlessly fascinating beings.