From masked lovers to Captain Tom: UK cities embrace Covid street art

Since lockdown began last March, the UK has undergone a revolution in its public spaces. With city centres deserted and galleries closed, artists have used urban walls as their canvases, producing a new generation of political street art.

While street art has traditionally been the scourge of local authorities, much of it is now being either embraced by councils seeking to preserve artworks, or commissioned by companies and community groups to brighten up neighbourhoods.

Around the UK, artists have produced everything from political commentary to tributes to NHS workers and local heroes. Captain Sir Tom Moore is popular up and down the country, most notably in Tamworth, Belfast and Southport. Other work – such as the Rebel Bear piece in Glasgow, which shows a couple pulling down their masks for a snog – document the everyday peculiarities of life in a pandemic.

Even Banksy, the world’s most famous street artist, found time to create a piece depicting a young boy playing with a nurse superhero toy, with figures of Batman and Spider-Man relegated to the bin.

Not all street art produced during the pandemic has come from the grassroots. Much of it – including the Southport Captain Tom portrait – has actually been commissioned and paid for by companies or community groups.

In October, a gigantic painting of a nurse appeared on a three-storey building in Manchester’s Northern Quarter as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Hold Still community exhibition, paid for by the Co-op. It has since been painted over with a Netflix advert.

In Withington in south Manchester, residents raised more than £11,000 to fund a street art project of murals painted on buildings across the suburb. The highlight of Withington Walls is a monochrome portrait of Marcus Rashford, by the artist Akse.

In Northern Ireland, which has a long history of political street art, some of the NHS murals have been painted by veteran Republican artists, according to Bill Rolston, emeritus professor of sociology at Ulster University.

He found it “remarkably interesting” that artists committed to a united Ireland would choose to celebrate the NHS, which could be seen as a more unionist institution. There is even an NHS banner flying outside the Republican Felon’s Club, which only accepts members who have been in prison, he noted.

He said: “When you think what the N stands for, here’s an organisation committed to the Irish nation putting a huge banner in front of their club saying they support the UK National Health Service. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate it, but it’s just a nice little anomaly.”

Some councils have started to see street art as important records of social history, to be preserved for future generations. In Wakefield, the council has been very receptive to its own local Banksy, Rachel List, who did her first mural on the side of the Horse Vaults pub in Pontefract last April.

A professional mural artist, she was determined to keep her work positive. “Covid is surrounded by a lot of negativity, conspiracy theories and distrust for the government so it was important that the murals didn’t reflect my personal views because that would have been divisive,” she said.

List’s work went down so well that Wakefield council’s museums service decided to collect it as part of the community’s response to Covid. “As the street art is on private property, we commissioned her to do some new more portable versions that we could access into the museum collection and preserve in the long term,” said a Wakefield council spokesperson.

Dr Enrico Bonadio, a reader in intellectual property law at City, University of London and author of Protecting Art in the Street, said some street artists seized on the pandemic in order to gain attention.

“Nowadays, there’s a rush to paint famous people or people that have become prominent symbols of different movements. It’s a bit different when people are paying tribute to ‘the silent workers’ or ‘invisible heroes’ but celebrating that sort of thing is a good way of spreading positivity while also giving your mural a chance of being the next one picked up by the media. I’m not saying everyone’s thinking that way but I know the subculture and there are some massive egos,” he said.

Anti-government artwork has been particularly popular in Manchester, where the artist Qubek painted a three-tiered butt plug wishing the prime minister a merry Christmas.

In October last year, graffiti appeared in Manchester Piccadilly Gardens, declaring: “The north is not a petri dish” – a critique of the government’s treatment of England’s upper half during the pandemic. The student responsible, Frankie Stocks, was invited to recreate the slogan after his canvas, a slab of concrete known locally as the Berlin Wall, was demolished before Christmas. The ersatz work is set to go on display in Manchester’s Art Gallery later this year.