Meet the female Sheffield street artists leaving their mark on the city centre

A few years ago Jo Peel gave notice on her east London studio and headed back home to Sheffield.

The relocation north was in part due to spiralling rent costs in the capital and, as an artist whose work is often inspired by gentrification, she admits the irony was not lost on her.

“No-one is saying that places shouldn’t change, but often when developers move into areas the families who live there for successive generations suddenly can’t afford it,” she says. “There’s a downside to gentrification and it’s not just in this country; it’s the same problem everywhere.”

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Having studied art in Cornwall, Jo initially balanced her love of illustration with work as an interior designer. Her trademark style – she uses just two or three colours to bring her black outlines to life – has changed little since those early days, but it is now writ large on some of Sheffield’s once forgotten corners.

Megan Russell (aka Peachzz) is a young female artist in Sheffield. (Tony Johnson).

Featuring iconic buildings like the old Henderson’s relish plant alongside cranes constructing a new urban skyline, the striking images are both a nod to the city’s industrial past and an admission that many of the factories and forges on which Sheffield’s wealth was built have become historical footnotes.

“There is no point preserving the past just because of a misplaced nostalgia,” says Jo, whose street art now also graces buildings in Brazil, Poland and Japan. “It’s really easy to protest against companies who relocate from the heart of cities to new out of town developments. Yes, these modern factories are more anonymous, but nine times out of 10 the working conditions are much better.

“At the other extreme it seems completely unnecessary to obliterate the past. What I hope is that my work shows how the historic and the modern can live side by side; that one isn’t necessarily better than the other, but getting that balance is not always easy.

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Jo Peel in her studio at Persistence Works. (Tony Johnson).

“The pace of change can seem incredibly quick and often so much is lost in the rush for the new and the different. A character of a place is made by the people who live there and if they are priced out of an area it’s very easy for that character to be erased and replaced by the bland and the anonymous. Of course, that’s not true of every new development, but once a building or an area is demolished it’s gone forever and we have to make sure that what is put in its place is equal to what went before.”

When we speak, Jo is out in Portugal on a trip which is part holiday/part fact-finding mission for a future project and she has seen the same issues in Lisbon that she saw back in London, with property prices escalating far beyond the reach of those earning the average wage.

“I am not sure we will ever be able to turn back the clock in some places,” says Jo, who as well as her street art, also creates short films inspired by similar themes. The latest, Gravity, was one of the artist’s lockdown projects. “Like a lot of people during that first lockdown I began rifling through old boxes of stuff.

“I found a letter I had written when I was a teenager which was from a girl who had lost her house. It was about how place and personal identity are tied to each other. Sometimes I think we forget that.

Florence Blanchard at work.

“It feels really exciting to be living back in Sheffield. There is a really thriving art scene here; it’s a place which encourages people to take creative risks and it’s really good to feel part of that kind of community.”

Jo isn’t the only street artist who calls Sheffield home. A growing number of female artists whose reputations are spreading internationally live in the city.

One of them is Megan Russell, aka Peachzz, who arrived in Sheffield a decade or so ago. As an undergraduate she dreamed of becoming a tattoo artist, but the city’s industrial heritage inspired her to pick up a spray can instead.

“I was in my second year of my degree at Sheffield Hallam and I heard that a group of artists had begun meeting on a former industrial site, using the derelict buildings as their canvas,” she says. “By that point I had given up on the idea of being a tattoo artist and had I not gone down there one afternoon, who knows what I would be doing now.

“There were some really experienced artists who took me under their wing. I remember watching them thinking, ‘I will never ever be as good as them’. Honestly, what they did seemed like witchcraft.

“It sounds silly, but it was so different from anything I had done before that it felt like I was learning to draw again. I had always loved art, but I had never found a medium that felt quite right. As soon as I was introduced to street art, it felt like coming home.”

While Megan’s early works were in black and white, she is now known for her bright colour palette and her subject matter which brings the natural world into the heart of city centres.

“I like the contrast and I like that when people turn a corner and see one of my works it’s unexpected and that it makes them smile,” she says. “Artists normally create work alone in a studio. It can be a really solitary existence, but I love the fact that my work takes shape in front of the public.

“Public art can be divisive, particularly in terms of cost, but there is something about street art and large-scale murals that people really seem to embrace. If it’s done right, it feels like a celebration of where people live, an acknowledgement that their corner of the world is special.”

Like Megan, Sheffield is also Florence Blanchard’s adopted home. Originally from Montpellier, in the 1990s Florence was one of the first female graffiti artists in France. She moved to Sheffield a decade ago and as perhaps the only street artist with a PhD in molecular biology, her work represents a fusion of art and science.

Easily recognisable by their bold, geometric shapes, Florence’s work turns a microscopic lens on what the human eye can’t see and transforms what is normally minute into large scale works of art.

“It’s about magnifying what the human eye can’t see and my art wouldn’t be what it is without my background in science,” says Florence, whose murals have adorned numerous buildings throughout her adopted city, including Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries and the Leadmill.

Most recently she was commissioned to transform a drab square piece of land outside the Site Gallery. Opened in October 2020 as the country was facing another winter lockdown, the work which uses bright pops of primary colours has proven the importance of making public areas which are inviting as well as functional.

“The aim was to create a welcoming environment that would help people notice the space and its elements and invite passers-by to walk through it,” she says. “I took inspiration from colours and architectural shapes that were already in the park and I am really pleased with the result.

“Art like this is about improving the urban environment. No-one wants to live against a grey, concrete backdrop and after everything we have all been through I think it is really important that our surroundings make people feel as good as possible.

“Street art can play a really important part in that and it’s great to live in a city which really values and understands how transformational it can be.”