This column first appeared in The Western Mail in June 2022
A striking mural commemorating former Wales football manager Gary Speed appeared on the streets of Cardiff this week. Located near the Cardiff City Stadium, the mural by creative collective Unify has captured imaginations across Wales.
It’s part of the My City My Shirt campaign, which encourages more people to connect with their city and football. Other murals in the series include one in Butetown, dubbed ‘Cardiff’s Mona Lisa’. It features mother-of-two Maimuna Yoncana, originally from Guinea-Bissau, wearing a Cardiff City shirt and cradling her baby bump.
The mural was designed to celebrate the city’s diversity and was painted in April 2021 by Yusuf Ismail and Shawqi Hasson, the team behind Unify. As soon as the mural appeared on James Street, it instantly captured hearts, minds and Instagram feeds across the city.
The mural transformed an empty wall into a stunning conversation piece – and carried a strong message about diversity and identity that resonated across the city and beyond. I love the painting so much that I changed my running route so I could pass it a few times a week.
It is a testament to how well-loved the piece became that when a bungling ad agency painted over it, the public outcry was deafening. The mural is now in a new location, just across the road, after it was re-painted with the help of McDonald’s. It was heartening to see the public reaction when, for a brief moment, the good people of Cardiff thought the mural had gone for good. For me, it showed that if you paint it, people will come.
The episode also demonstrated that, given the opportunity and access, people care about street art. And it showed that art doesn’t have to be kept behind gallery doors. Real art can spring up anywhere and help reinforce a sense of identity and community spirit.
Turning our walls and streets into gallery spaces and canvases for talented artists means we can enjoy more vibrant, colourful surroundings wherever we live. And what’s not to love about that?
Street art is precious for those that live in dense urban areas. God knows our concrete and asphalt jungles are vastly improved by more flashes of colour. Our neolithic ancestors were onto this over 40,000 years ago, brightening up their dreary caves with cheeky paintings. You can draw a direct line from those early scrawlers to Banksy.
Because as well as injecting much-needed colour and vibrancy into soulless urban environments, street art can be a powerful way of conveying important social and political messages.
One great example is the Grangetown Whale, a mural project delivered by Extinction Rebellion to highlight rising sea levels. The artwork, which shows a whale gliding through a flooded Cardiff, is part of a campaign to raise public awareness of the climate emergency through street art. It’s more powerful than any preachy documentary or newspaper article precisely because it’s so brutally clear in its message and easy for anyone of any age to understand.
Street art can also provide much-needed opportunities for creativity and self-expression for artists and budding artists. At the weekend, I visited a Graffiti jam in my local park and chatted with one of the young artists. “If it weren’t for getting into painting as a teenager, I’d probably be involved in gangs and knife crime by now. Instead, finding painting changed my life” he told me, and I’ll just leave you to contemplate the power of that sentence.
The pandemic has made us collectively yearn for more liveable communities and cities where we can access green spaces easily and enjoy being outdoors in our neighbourhoods. For me, street art can play a massive part, giving people reasons to slow down, look up, think and enjoy the beauty in the everyday.
When reimagining our cities, we must give people good reasons to leave home and feel included in daily life. We need things to do and see in city centres, not just shops. So we need to make it easier for artists to use empty shops as studio and exhibition spaces, as the brilliant Shift has done in Cardiff’s Capitol Centre.
High street retail is dying, and instead of boarding up empty units, we can better serve our citizens by reimagining how we use space. More accessible indoor and outdoor art gives people other things to do in the city, brings people in to spend money in our hospitality businesses and increases tourism. It also gives young people vital opportunities to take creative risks and try new things.
For me, the best cities in the world are places where art is woven into the very fabric of their streets. Berlin. Belfast. New York. Lisbon. In Paris, inner-city kids shoot basketball on courts adorned with big, bright murals.
Closer to home, we can draw inspiration from places like Brick Lane in London and Stokes Croft in Bristol, which have become meccas for world-famous street artists. These are all places where street art is encouraged and fostered.
So I was excited to discover that Cardiff Council is developing the city’s first cultural strategy that includes street art. We have so much artistic talent here, and if we can join the dots between the hotspots and set out a clear vision, I believe we have the potential to become world-famous for our street art.
As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, I keep returning to a line first uttered by American Suffragette Rose Schneiderman. Campaigning for fair wages and dignified conditions, she spoke of “bread for all, and roses too”. If bread symbolises economic security, then roses symbolise a better quality of life, including the freedom to enjoy leisure, art and all that makes life beautiful. I carry that phrase with me daily as I walk around the capital.
As we consider how to create more liveable 15-minute neighbourhoods, equal consideration should be given to bread and roses. In doing so, we have an exciting opportunity to reimagine our urban spaces and create more vibrant, joy-bringing spaces for everybody to enjoy.