Manchester, February 2016
A street art tour to celebrate 30 years since the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (formerly known as the Chinese Arts Centre) was established, and to coincide with an exhibition featuring artists from RareKind China illustration agency.
The tour took as its basis an expanded definition of street art, encompassing not just what we might usually regard as street art, ie that which is covert, transient and wall-based, but situating street art within a wider context of all art which is publicly visible on the streets of Manchester, from mosaics and architectural adornment to statues and sculptures.
Street art is something which we have all seen, and about which most of us have an opinion. The tour aimed to be informal, accessible, flexible and participatory, with participants invited to share, reflect on and challenge their own perceptions and experiences of street art and to disclose any particular favourites in the area. The tour invited discussion on questions such as: Who gets to decide what is art, and who is an artist? How do works of art on the street influence perceptions of a place, both by the people who live/work there and externally? What is ‘beauty’, and who decides what’s beautiful? Does art need to be beautiful? Can a value be placed on street art?
The tour visited two distinct areas of Manchester city centre – Chinatown and the Northern Quarter – as part of a broader narrative of change and evolution. Manchester has transformed from an industrial Victorian city to a modern city known for its entertainment, creativity and leisure/shopping opportunities, and this can be read through the art on its streets (or lack of it in certain places). Street art may have different motivations, from self-expression and ownership of spaces to decoration, celebration and commemoration of heritage, but all contribute to the identity, atmosphere and demographic of different areas and show how people have shaped Manchester over time.
The tour also offered contrasts and comparisons between: public art which is official and council-endorsed, and commissioned from high-profile artists; gallery-supported initiatives; local businesses promoting local artists; corporate sponsorship of street art, and street art techniques which have been co-opted for advertising purposes; and street art which is unsolicited and illegal.
Image: Northern Quarter graffiti, Natalie Bradbury