Where walls have ears

Turn a corner and Sir David Attenborough beams benignly down at you. Turn another corner and Sir Patrick Moore, bow-tied and monocled, eyeballs you beadily. Turn yet another and big-bearded Charles Darwin tries to ignore the road-digger parked in front of him. All three portraits, by a Sheffield artist called Rocket01, adorn buildings on the city's Street Art Walk, which I'm following. Within a few hours, however, two of the three murals will have been vandalised with graffiti. Street art is by its very nature vulnerable.

My guide round what’s been called an “open-air art gallery” is Dave Surridge, associate lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. “Sorry I’m late,” he says when we meet in the city centre. “I’ve been taking photos of a van that Phlegm painted some years ago.”

Is it famous, I ask. “Yes, if you’re obsessive like me, it is,” he says. We’ll come to this obsession, his role as Sheffield’s unofficial street-art archivist and the collection of 7,500 photos he’s built up. We’ll also come to the artist called Phlegm and another called Kid Acne... but for the moment, a bit of context.

Vandalism aside, street art is thriving in Sheffield, one of the major British centres for a genre that can simultaneously be off-the-wall and very much on it. That’s soon evident on the walk – a half-mile trail devised by journalist and PR consultant Will Roberts for the fresh, informative website of Our Favourite Places, the online Sheffield Culture Guide.

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    It shows wild, weird and wonderful imaginations at work and from this autumn there’ll be even more to see, thanks to the Feature Walls project, part of Sheffield’s Year of Making festival. It has brought 16 street artists from Australia, France, Italy, Austria and Spain to join more local ones in creating new works on gable ends and car park walls around the city. One work is built around a typically Sheffield greeting: “Ey up luv.”

    First, the trail, along streets and alleys on the edge of the city centre, some rundown, some regenerating. As we set off, Surridge, stopping every few yards to take more photographs, explains the appeal of street art and the thrill of finding it in unexpected places.

    “It’s like being a jungle explorer,” he says. “You turn a corner and, instead of a rare bird, there’s this really beautiful piece of work.”

    He discovered the street art scene getting on for 10 years ago while working on a conference paper about changing cities. “I went out to take some photos and saw this stuff all over the place,” he says. “It’s more complex than it looks and a lot of it is transient; it’s here one week and the next week it’s gone.”

    As we head towards Grinders Hill, a steep alley near Sheffield station, we discuss the different layers of street art – and the tensions. Graffiti, which many people regard as environmental desecration, is at its most basic in “tagging” – scrawling sometimes illegible squiggles.

    “It’s saying ‘I’m here’; it’s getting your name up,” says Surridge. “The higher and less accessible you go, the more respect you get. It’s about kicking against the normal, saying: ‘We have a presence as well.’”

    Then there are “throw-ups” and “fill-ins” – spray-canned designs with simple outlines of abstract shapes filled in with colour. And “paste-ups” – printed or stencilled paper pasted on walls. We pause on Grinders Hill at a kitchen-tile-sized picture of a girl on a swing. Nearby is a tribal mask-like cartoon and a paste-up of a man in a white suit with a giant wasp where his head should be.

    Across the trail, boarded-up windows have become noticeboards dotted with dozens of often bizarre images – a telephone with David Bowie on its dial, a tortoise with a tree of skulls growing out of its shell, smooching Fifties couples, an X-ray picture of a human hand clutching a spray gun.

    There are tiny things on skips and on the backs of street signs and, on a more sophisticated level, large-scale murals (often commissioned) created by street artists, many of them with artistic training. These are what the Feature Walls project is about.

    There can be tensions between the graffiti writers and the street artists, says Surridge. “Graffiti seems to be a very punk thing – outside the law, outside society.” So graffiti-ists “may see the people who put up 
attractive murals as selling out to the system they’re against”.

    This is a very public forum for art, but some artists prefer to work in abandoned or derelict factories and warehouses.

    “I used to enjoy going to them,” says Surridge. “It was a real adventure. You’d head out with your camera and your sandwiches and you’d be one of the few people seeing the work.”

    A familiar voice from behind us says: “Are you doing a good graffiti guide?” The artist Tim Rose is on his way to his studio. His sensitive, atmospheric landscapes and townscapes are at a polar extreme from the in-your-face work championed by many street artists.

    I hope for a heated debate between him and Surridge, but no. It’s not his own style of art, says Rose, “but I respect someone who can do it: it’s a sort of counter-culture art”.

    They talk about an artist called Faunagraphic, whose work can be seen around the city. “She’s got her own colour scheme,” says Rose. “She has a cool palette.” Just round the corner is her immaculately crafted nature-inspired mural for Feature Walls (also subsequently vandalised).

    All told, Feature Walls has commissioned new work from 16 artists. One of the most locally familiar is Phlegm, who recently painted the world’s tallest mural, up eight storeys of a Toronto building.

    His new Sheffield mural features teetering fantasy buildings and hunched, insect-like figures. It has a mildly menacing atmosphere, as though the medieval Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch had turned his hand to a sci-fi graphic novel.

    Among the project’s other artists are Sheffield-based Ed Bradbury (aka Kid Acne) and Florence Blanchard (aka Ema). As Bradbury and Blanchard, they run the city’s B&B Gallery and have curated Feature Walls. “We wanted to connect Sheffield to the international scene,” says Bradbury. “And it’s a nice way to inject colour into the city.”

    “Other cities have had street art festivals, but they’ve tended to be free-for-alls,” says Blanchard, and they talk about scouting around for suitable and inspirational walls.

    We’re standing in a city centre car park near two of the walls they found (a downloadable trail of all these sites is being produced). Behind us, Michael Fikaris, from Melbourne, is finishing an abstract panorama – bright and tropical and, he says, “meant to bring a little colour and joy”.

    Round the corner, London-based Roid (Will Gates) is weighing up how to finish his equally colourful gable-end mural created around “Ey up luv” (“quite a positive message... no hidden meaning”).

    He has worked in Beirut, Abu Dhabi, “most of Europe” and Hawaii (“a similar festival to this, but with lots of dolphins”). Successful street artists stack up the air miles. Bradbury has had solo shows in Los Angeles, Turin, Vienna, Beijing and Munich and has taken part in group shows in Paris, Brazil, Barcelona, Sydney, Helsinki, New York and Perth.

    Back on our street art tour, Dave Surridge and I pause at a densely decorated hoarding. A woman clamps her bicycle to a lamp-post in front of it. Does she realise she’s parking her bike in front of a work of art? “The bike’s part of it,” she says. “And so am I.”

    I assume she’s joking. But you never know.

    ■ Sheffield Street Art Walk: www.ourfaveplaces.co.uk/venues/outdoors/street-art. Also published in the Our Favourite Places guide (£7), recommending Sheffield places to visit, eat and shop. Feature Walls: www.sheffieldcityofmakers.co.uk