The best advice to anyone entering the Art of Protest Gallery in York is to turn around and leave. No reflection on this interesting space, but it’s the big wall opposite you want to be looking at first. Until recently the unassuming back wall of Browns department store was in no apparent hurry to announce itself. Not any longer. The loading bay wall now boasts the largest mural in the city. The store’s managing director, Nick Brown, gave his permission and is said to be happy with the result.
The new gallery in Little Stonegate is dedicated to what might loosely be called modern street art, concentrating on art from the past 30 years or so. The owners, Craig Humble, 46, and Jeff Clark, 33, were behind the painting of the York mural, which harks back to the street art of Los Angeles. This is the art of gangs.
“They’ve all been shot at, they’ve all been stabbed, they’ve all had quite a violent past,” says Craig. “But through going to prison and re-studying, they honed their skills and turned it into the beautiful murals we see today.”
Before setting up their own gallery, Craig and York-born Jeff worked for Washington Green, owners of Castle Galleries. Craig, originally from Leeds, was the Northern sales director, and Jeff worked with him running the York branch. Jeff moved up the ladder to Mayfair and then on to another Washington Green gallery, Halcyon, before a company takeover took him to the States.
During his spell in the US, Jeff worked at the Miami Basel art show with the urban artist Retna, now a collectable star whose graffiti-inspired work illustrates the cover of Justin Bieber’s 2015 album, Purpose.
While in Miami, Jeff heard that Defer was the next big thing in typographic art. Art of Protest now represents him outside of the US, and that is why a wall in York today sports such a striking piece of street art.
Jeff and Craig were expecting a visit from Defer, but he turned up two weeks early, carrying four canvases and accompanied by fellow artist Big Sleeps, a tattooist with a global following. They had been in Paris for a tattoo conference and then hopped on to York.
Defer saw the potential of the wall opposite the gallery, but before getting to work on the mural he went on a tour of York with Jeff’s father, who is a city guide.
“He did all the history of York and coming from LA he’d never really experienced a city like this,” said Craig.
“He was very inspired and created that mural based on the facts of York’s history, and weaving the Latin names and Viking names of York, and significant dates.”
Hidden in the mural are 21 different historical references to the city and the artwork took one day to complete.
“It’s the largest piece of art outside of architecture to happen within the walled city, which is a phenomenal thing to be part of,” says Jeff.
Once you have looked at that mural, you should then step into this new gallery, which sits where it joins Back Swinegate, a street corner for street art.
The work on display here will change often, Craig and Jeff say, as they introduce the work hanging on the walls on the day of my visit.
First up is Defer himself, whose painting uses a mixture of written language forms, ranging from ancient Arabic to Hebrew and English and Saxon scroll.
Other artists on show include London artist Zeus, who has been drawing inspiration from urban culture for 30 years, and Colin McMasters, originally from Belfast but now living in south London, who turns found objects into fine art pieces with a 1950s style, often using striking cutouts.
A.CE is a London-based paste-up artist with similarities to Banksy, whose pictures are created in the studios and put up around London at night.
“In the world of street art, he is huge and has been working the streets for probably the last 25 years,” says Jeff. Like Banksy, he likes to remain anonymous. “You will never see his face and you will never know his name. I have been out for dinner with him, but the public will never know [him].”
Pam Glew, from Brighton, uses vintage flags for her canvas, and Jeff points to a ghostly silhouette of David Hockney emerging from a darkened Union Flag.
Then there is H, who emerged from the rave scene of the late 1980s. H likes to play with marketing images and brands – doing a “culture jam, swapping their clothes”, says Craig, pointing to a print of a can in Pepsi colours that bears the slogan “Wish I was a coke”.
Prefab77 used to be a collective working out of Newcastle, and now one artist, Peter Manning, has very much taken on the mantle. In a series of outlines, punk and rock combined with an ethnic headdress of an African woman, using layers of imagery.
“Bringing them together in one image is the best representation of multiculturalism, not didactic but beautiful,” says Craig.
Also on the walls at Art of Protest are two pieces by Benjamin Murphy, a young writer and artist from Ilkley who has a love of French literature and 19th century femmes fatales.
“He’s a very exciting artist,” says Craig. “I think he’ll be stolen from us very quickly.”
Back to Jeff for a final word, and a parting thought about an art-world conundrum. “All the artists want to paint Trump,” he says. “But no one wants to own Trump.”
As for the presently Trump-free Art of Protest, Jeff adds: “There will be lots of exciting things planned – watch this space.”
And don’t forget to look at that wall.