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The Secret Artistry of Manchester’s Backstreets: Graffiti, Street Art, and Social Commentary

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A fair amount of backstreets in the city centre area of Manchester have become unauthorised cultural spaces where anyone can express themselves artistically.

Look around the backstreets near Back Piccadilly close to Manchester Piccadilly Station. You will find a variety of public surfaces, such as brick walls, fire exit doors, metal gates, wheelie bins, and more, covered with street art and graffiti. 

What graffiti writers and street artists have in common is they both cover public surfaces with their creativity so the public can see it. However, with both forms of artistic expression, there are some differences. 

Graffiti writers follow the convention of doing graffiti that focuses on their tags: pseudonyms used when doing graffiti. But street artists are known for taking things further by creating art that is sometimes socially conscious.

In addition, some may even refer to many street artists as social activists trying to raise awareness due to the issues they have chosen to address and incorporate into their art. 

Graffiti tags surround a superhero character. Photo Credit: Andrew Dickinson

For example, to help highlight the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a street artist has created a poster that shows a patriotic female superhero wearing a costume with colours that resemble the Ukrainian flag and then stuck the poster on a boarded-up window in Manchester’s backstreets.

Superheroes are usually associated with action films, stories, fantasy, etc. And although we can see a superhero on the poster, the street artist is not trying to minimise or downplay the current situation in Ukraine.

For instance, with the word “UKRAINE” on the poster, the letters are red (done with a stencil) to help represent the severity of the current situation in Ukraine. Red is a compelling choice of colour because red is obviously the colour of blood, and red is also commonly used to signify danger: both direct consequences of war. 

Furthermore, the superhero poster that shows solidarity with Ukraine challenges gender roles. Realistically, what gender is strongly associated with militaries fighting in combat defending their countries? Men; however, this Ukraine poster does not show one hint of male testosterone. It brings women to the forefront, ready to save Ukraine from oppression. 

A poster with a powerful message covers graffiti tags. Photo Credit: Andrew Dickinson

Also, more socially conscious street art found in the backstreets of Manchester focuses on another issue: the Black Lives Matter movement. A black child holding up a sign with the words: “AM I NEXT?” helps raise issues of inequality, and lives can end abruptly because of someone’s skin colour.

Even though we can see an image of a child, the poster still has a certain rawness and lacks any playfulness or naivety usually associated with children. Children should be excited over the prospect of meeting up with their friends, not contemplating their early demise due to their skin colour.

The street artist could have used an image of an adult holding the same sign; doing so would still make a powerful statement to the public but lack the desired effect. The street artist has purposely used shock tactics to make people think more deeply about the issue of racism. A child holding up a powerful sign increases the poster’s intensity in order to evoke more emotion and curiosity from the public.

And while the mainstream media chooses which news is and is not newsworthy. One could argue some street artists are responsible for keeping recent, past, and ongoing events current within society due to their socially conscious and thought-provoking art that can potentially stay on public surfaces for many years. 

For example, the Black Lives Matter poster first appeared in Manchester’s backstreets during the worldwide demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And as of August 2023, the poster is still there, continuing to disseminate the issue of racism to the public.

While other mediums like newspapers and television news will dedicate (if deemed newsworthy) a limited amount of time to something which has occurred or is still ongoing until their news coverage eventually dies out so they can make room for more breaking news.

Many will assume graffiti writers and street artists placing their creativity on surfaces in the backstreets of Manchester is an ineffective way of communicating with the public because backstreets are generally known for being deserted areas people do not use frequently. 

 A deserted backstreet in the city centre area of Manchester with stickers on the side of a building. Photo Credit: Andrew Dickinson 

However, once anyone takes photos of the graffiti and street art found in the backstreets of Manchester and then uploads those photos on social media platforms such as Instagram, those images uploaded will have the opportunity to reach a larger demographic beyond Manchester. When utilising social media correctly, it is possible to interact instantaneously with audiences in other parts of the UK and different countries across the globe.

Therefore, graffiti writers and street artists placing their creativity on any surfaces found in the backstreets is still an effective way of communicating with the public, with the additional help from the internet and social media platforms to enable interaction with the public on a larger scale.

The backstreets near Manchester Piccadilly Station are safe-haven areas for graffiti writers and street artists because it is an area where they can do what they do discreetly. But albeit graffiti writers and street artists cover public surfaces with imagery deemed by some as creative and informative, if they do not have permission to cover any public surfaces with their creativity, ultimately, in the eyes of the law, this is a criminal offense.

If you are ever near Manchester Piccadilly Station, I highly recommend you go and look around the backstreets; doing so could be enlightening as well as an enjoyable experience.

Written by Andrew Dickinson 

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