Arts Arts Editor Muse

Taking Art To The Streets

Elizabeth Walsh speaks to Manchester artist Russ Meehan about the power and importance of street art.

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Image Credit: Russ Meehan

Street art is not a new concept. It was first developed in the 1960s and has since changed the face of contemporary urban art forever. By “street art”, I’m not referring to the all too familiar image of profanities sprayed on the side of a motorway bridge. Today, everywhere you turn, large, vibrant paintings are cropping up on the side of buildings and walls, helping to bring often dark and dingy spaces back to life.

As a concept, street art can often be perceived a bit like marmite: people either love it or they hate it. Some see it as unwelcome graffiti and are quick to dismiss its place in society. However, I find well crafted, show stopping murals in the city centre to be thought-provoking and inspiring. They can help bring communities together during difficult times and provide a source of artistic inspiration for the next generation. Murals are powerful, eye-catching, and- as they often cover large areas - they demand the public’s attention in the process.

Not only that, they have also transformed art as we know it. Taking art outside and on to a larger canvas has allowed people of all backgrounds to become more actively engaged. Urban art is not confined to the walls of sometimes elitist art galleries. It is not locked away so that only those privileged enough can get a glimpse. It is laid bare, displayed out on the streets for free public consumption. Many street artists aren’t formally trained, but are able to produce empowering works free from restraint.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Russ Meehan, the man behind the renowned Manchester mural depicting twenty two bees in honour of those who died in the 2017 attack. He described street art as the art of the people; “a lot of people don’t feel like they’re part of the gallery culture or mindset. Anyone can see street art, you don’t have to be looking for it.” Certainly without street art many would never get the chance to see art up close.

Talking more about his craft, Russ described street art as a type of performance art. As he creates, crowds of people often gather to watch, bringing another dimension to the work. He particularly enjoys interacting with strangers, as art helps to bring people together and gets them talking. From an artist’s perspective, Russ explained that getting to speak to members of the public directly is enlightening.“Connecting with people you've never met before and hearing what they have to say is important, especially right now.” He finished by saying, “people don’t think about that side of it.”

Street art can be used as a positive force for change. It is ready and waiting to inspire the next generation, to make them actively consider the most prominent political and social issues of our time. Few other art forms have the same reach. Street artists often manipulate images from popular culture to create socially and politically symbolic images. The politics depicted within the paintings are not quietly discussed. Refusing to sit quietly within the confines of the wall or shop front on which they are etched, they demand to be shouted about. It is almost as though the images extend from the walls and straight into the faces of passersby. The messages portrayed in street art simply cannot be ignored.

Having said this, they can be disagreed with. Those who hold opposing views have been known to vandalise provocative works in retaliation. Through their bold and disapproving marks, intended to cover the original picture, a likely unintentional conversation is started. Street art encourages engagement whether it be positive or negative. It repeatedly makes its way onto the news. Russ noted that as a form of large-scale propaganda, murals are particularly effective. Further to this, he told me that many street artists don’t actually get paid for doing political pieces; they are simply concerned about the issues at hand.

The beauty of street art is that it moves with the times. As it is easily adaptable, paintings pop up seemingly overnight, depicting the most up to date contemporary issues. Recently, the striking mural of George Floyd in Manchester created by another Manchester artist Akse, hit the headlines following the Black Lives Matter protests. It stands proud as a presentation of solidarity. As a result of such work, community cohesion is encouraged through mutual appreciation. Neighbours can stand outside and reflection the issues both on their doorstep and across the globe.

There is also a prominent historical aspect to street art, an uncovering of the past that helps people retrace the origins of their city. A few times Russ has painted in an area and coincidently found out about its history. From this he has been able to create site-specific pieces,teaching people about their area and what’s happened there in the past and instilling a sense of local pride.

Despite the decline of most things in the arts world recently, street art has been on the rise. When the world went indoors thanks to Covid, appreciation in the form of commemorative murals came pouring out. Everywhere you look, the NHS logo adorns streets next to paintings of smiling key workers who, every day, fight the newly-waged war against the virus.

Years from now, these same displays of gratitude will hopefully remain where they were originally painted. The newly crafted murals will act as ahistorical time stamp, marking a new part of world history depicted on the streets. For 150 years, the Manchester worker bees have held great importance. Three years after the attack, they still cover the city’s walls and are recognised by locals and visitors alike as a symbol of unity. In that sense, street art both brightens cities visually but also instills a lasting sense of solidarity in communities.

A national appreciation of street art has certainly started to develop. The notorious street artist Banksy is testament to this. He was voted the UK’s favourite artist of all time in a poll carried out by YouGov, fending off the likes of more traditional artists including Monet and Picasso. Bursting onto the scene in the 1990s and making his way into the public eye, Banksy remains are renowned household name.

We all know of him and can identify his works, such as the infamous ‘Balloon Girl’. He sparks a conversation; who knows when or where his next masterpiece will emerge? The mystery behind the artist’s true identity continues to grip people’s attention.  Alongside the growing reputation of such artists, street art has become more socially acceptable.

Looking beyond Britain, street art has also become a much bigger deal on a global scale. Not to mention that it has gone digital. Through websites such as Street Art Cities (now also an app) which includes work from across 250 cities, fanatics from around the world can connect over their shared love of the artistic practice. With the app constantly being updated to include the newest paintings, it’s a great way to explore hidden gems of the street art world that you may never otherwise have the chance to see.

Russ noted that Britain is only just catching up with the rest of the world as far as public or street art is concerned, explaining that “As a country we’ve always preferred grey or red brick walls. However, a lot of places are now introducing street art festivals, animating walls and making them look interesting.” Every time he gets the opportunity to take part in a street art festival he jumps at the chance.

Reflecting on his own artistic journey, Russ finished by admitting that he never set out to create art on a large scale. Rather, that he started off doing graffiti and that creating street art is just what he’s naturally come to do. For Russ, street art is about being free in the moment and being able to forget about everything else going on. As he paints he finds himself almost dancing as he gets into a rhythm of fluid movements.

Street art certainly has the power to spark creativity in this generation and the next by showing that anyone can have what it takes to make art, no matter their background. The benefits of street art are multifaceted. It can be a good way to modernise old inner city areas by improving their aesthetic appeal. This in turn can drive tourism and improve the economic situation in the long run. Street art is so much more than the paint on the wall. It is a form of individual expression,but also of community integration. Its impacts run deeper than the surface of the walls on which it appears, and permeate right into the hearts and minds of those surrounded by it.

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