Bone of contention

As street murals become more mainstream, are they being driven by social media likes and commercial interests rather than artistic and political instinct? 

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When the mural of Manchester footballer Marcus Rashford was defaced following England’s loss at the Euros final in July, street artist Akse was soon on the scene to rectify the image he’d been commissioned to create by Withington Walls, a street art project that connects “artists with spaces and people with places”.

But even before news of the damage made headlines, the mural, created last November, had garnered huge interest, not only due to Rashford’s popularity, but Akse’s too, reflecting the scene’s ever-growing following.

“It’s kind of flattering that people come to see my art and share it on social media as you feel your art is appreciated,” says the artist, who’s been drawing since he was a kid.

“I became interested in hip-hop culture in the late 1980s. Graffiti naturally appealed to me, and I picked up spray cans in 1992 painting letters and B-boys but quickly realised my characters stood out more than my letters, so I focused on painting them, and my style naturally developed towards street art and photo-realism portraits.”

His breakthrough work was the mural of Bryan Cranston’s Breaking Bad character Heisenberg that appeared in Manchester’s Northern Quarter in 2013 and went viral.

Since then, he’s created dozens more murals in the area, including those of Captain Sir Tom Moore, Manchester Royal Infirmary’s operating department practitioner Debra Williams, George Floyd and Game of Thrones’ Arya.

“Time is probably the biggest challenge with my commercial work. A portrait on a 3m x 3m wall usually takes me a couple of days. I usually put all shades in on the first day and work on details and likeness on the second day. When it’s a 10m x 10m wall, it usually takes me about a week to complete,” says Akse.

He’s used to constant interruptions while he works. “That’s part of the whole process, and it’s always interesting to interact with people. I enjoy it. It’s street art that gives a city a kind of identity.”

Although the scene is often associated with its emergence from the graffiti culture that began in the late sixties, it’s a common misconception that street art is a relatively new phenomenon.

“You go back 40,000 years to caves in Indonesia and they would blow pigment over their hands to create stencils. It’s the same thing – mark making and communication – and it just evolved,” says Doug Gillen, who explores street art and graffiti through his production company Fifth Wall TV.

“Art galleries can make you feel like it’s not your space, but art should never be made for the upper echelons of society. Everyone should have the chance to access it.”

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In the last decade, the increased interest in street art has led to an explosion in art tourism across the world, including unexpected spots such as the Ukrainian capital Kiev and Lodz in Poland where former Soviet buildings play host to some of the world’s biggest murals. In Australia, the ailing farming town of Brim with a population of 100 kickstarted an industry from a series of murals painted on its silos. Here in the north, there’s been growing curiosity too.

“The north’s got a great scene,” says Gillen. “Sheffield is a particularly exciting city and has been for the last 10 years. Street artist Phlegm’s got a huge reputation up there and Jim McElvaney is crossing this line between fine art and street art as he does this weird, dark portraiture. Tank Petrol and Nomad Clan from Manchester have made solid reputations for themselves, and New Brighton in Merseyside has got a really interesting direction behind it with a host of local and national artists.”

Street art’s move to the mainstream was fuelled by the emergence of Banksy in the early 2000s and the rise of social media – for good or bad.

“It’s given real opportunity for a whole new wave of people to come in and make money as creators and industry professionals,” says Gillen. “This generation of artists have more opportunities to not just survive but to flourish and be masters of their domain.

“All you need now is a camera phone, a sketch book or a wall and you can go out and build your own audience. But social media has a huge impact on the kind of art we like to see. This real design-led, colourful work seems to be made for likes almost, and that’s not why people should be making art. They should be making art because they want to say something, or they want to make people feel something.”

Arguably though, all street art has a story to tell in its own way, which is why street art tours have emerged as a popular way to explore a city, providing the opportunity to see beneath the glossy veneer.

“Street art is a really good way to talk about subjects, because there are often social injustice murals and motivations behind the art, and it means we can address what’s going on in the city,”
says Hayley Flynn, a northern-based curator, researcher, tour guide and founder of Skyliner, an online magazine focusing on street art.

“But there isn’t as much political street art anymore. It’s becoming more commercial or funded by the council and it does mean they can veto some of the stuff that goes up. If you go to Sheffield, the artwork there is just amazing, on a really huge scale, and really spread out over the city, but in Manchester’s Stevenson Square for example, the council has been quite reluctant to allow it to be a canvas for political messaging. Instead, there’s a lot of cuter, cartoony stuff, which is really nice and great for families, but it’s definitely changed the overall vibe.”

There are also blurred lines between what is classed as commercial and non-commercial work.

“It’s great for the street artists that they’re getting this stream of revenue and I don’t think anyone could take issue with that but it’s really difficult to find the difference between what is and isn’t an advertisement,” says Flynn. “There’s no obvious difference in motivation. You only really see the political stuff come through in commissioned murals for social justice festivals like Cities of Hope, or in graffiti tags, but people don’t value those tags as much as the street art.”

There is an argument that street art has a detrimental effect by gentrifying urban areas and ironically making it less accessible. Seen as the next cool spot, property developers swoop in, prices increase and the neighbourhood loses its soul.

“It’s why some artists, like Axel Void, won’t work in a city centre unless it’s for a charitable or social justice project because of the ties between gentrification and street art,” explains Flynn.

“As a result, you’re getting a lot more artwork in the likes of Rochdale and satellite towns, and you can see a change in motivation as you go further out of the borders. At the moment that’s working really well because it’s bringing people into those places and putting them on the map. But I’m curious to see at what point they then associate that town with street art and gentrification and where they move next.”

From the artists’ perspective, the ideal scenario for many is to fulfil both creative and financial needs. One way of achieving this is by using two monikers, like Russell Meehan who’s based in Trafford, Manchester and uses both Qubek and Mural Life.

“Mural Life is probably the more corporate, commercial side of what I do, and then Qubek is just for the stuff from my own head and my own ideas. Some of it’s a bit weird, a bit subversive. It makes me cringe that some clients will look at the page and see some of the things I’ve painted, but things need to be separated and it’s nice to be able to do the thing that pays well and then switch off and go and paint all the weird stuff,” says Meehan who studied art at college while immersing himself in Stockport’s graffiti sub-culture in the mid-nineties. He recalls getting in trouble a few times
back in the day, and even now will go rogue on the odd occasion.

“I did something last year without permission, but it was such a knackered old wall and everyone loved it when I painted it. I suppose there’s a certain amount of arrogance that comes with that, but it’s that essence of graffiti that shouldn’t leave you, or the art form,” says Meehan.

“It’s all becoming a bit too gentrified now where you only get big walls painted in cities that have had permission or been requested, and then it gets painted over and over because there are lists of people waiting to paint in those spots. It’s nice there are a few people creating new places and walls to paint and pushing the barrier a little bit.”

Meehan was in his late twenties when he started transitioning over to street art, working with locals to produce community-based murals, which he wants to do more of, and getting his own commissions. Now there’s rarely a day that goes by where he’s not painting.”

He would normally only refuse a job if he was too busy, but there are limits. One company asked him to do a 22 bees memorial piece for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing with its logo over the top of it. “No, I won’t be doing that. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s necessary to have public art. Good street art can bring people together, open up conversations and make a place look a
lot more interesting than it did before.”

Photos: Tim Dennell, Rockpointleisure

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