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The Graphic Game: Art, design and football on Wearside - Part 3

In the third part of his series on art and football, Rich Speight speaks to Frank Styles, whose iconic murals bring Sunderland’s rich football history alive.

Continued from Part 2...


Painting the town red and white

The medium of the gable-end mural is something relatively new to the scene in Sunderland, street art graduating relatively rapidly from the realm of social menace to that of social iconography.

In Sunderland in the 1990s, proper street art seemed pretty marginal, a back-street scene that we were warned off getting involved in. You’d have to seek out well-produced works on particular walls in particular post-industrial areas of the city.

In a suburban former pit village like Silksworth where I knocked about as a kid, graffiti was limited to variants of “Donna is a sl*g” or “Dave is a grass” scrawled in anger on a wall by some ne’er-do-well or other, or basic tagging. It was only when I left the city and travelled around different parts of Europe that I saw how street art can play a big part in urban cultural regeneration.

While I was off exploring different places, Kent-born graffiti artist Frank Styles came to the city to study at University - fell in love with the place (and a local girl) and now proudly calls it home, who has pushed this genre to the centre of our cultural life as football supporters.

Frank kindly answered a few questions for me last week to give me more insight into how he sees the connection between the club and the burgeoning art Sunderland scene.

He told me that at Uni he became a friend and collaborator with one of his street-art heroes, Mr Eyez, whose works on Portobello Lane in Roker many of us pass on the way to the match, and had come to his attention even before he arrived in the city through magazines.

A work by Eyez in Portobello Lane, Roker

But before coming north, Styles tells me that he was very much part of the underground roots of the street-art movement in the south east:

As a kid living in Kent I was inspired by graffiti artists who used to paint the walls around the train lines, people like Oker and Skore. We never met them, just saw their tags and pieces around. This inspired us to go round tagging and in the beginning I was awful and it took a very long time before I painted anything half decent. I got arrested a couple of times for criminal damage and trespassing, fell in with the wrong crowd who were up to worse stuff than graffiti.

I started at 3 different colleges before I managed to finish a course. So when I completed that course it was either move out the area and start a fresh or risk going to prison. So I looked on the map and Sunderland was the furthest University that did the course I wanted to do without leaving the country.

I asked him why he creates gable-end works, which for many of us in the UK are associated mainly with Northern Ireland, marking the territory of loyalist and nationalist paramilitaries and celebrating the “heroes” of that frozen civil war:

You can also find them in almost all European cities, Bristol (the street art Mecca of Europe), Manchester, London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam the list is endless, there are amazing artworks on gable ends all over the world.

I think it’s about expressing an identity and football is such a huge part of the fabric of this city. Growing up in Kent was totally different- people supported all sorts of teams, not really the local club. It struck me as soon as I came here that this was completely different and that everybody in the town was obsessed with the fortunes of the football team. Murals are just an expression of that identity.

For many of us, to witness street art emerge as a medium of true value in and around Sunderland over the last decade and a half, particularly associated with the football club, has been a revelation. It is part of a wider increase in appreciation for the skill and creativity that working with spraypaints and stencils represents:

The 10 years from 2003 saw the rise of Banksy and with it Street Art. During this time spray painting began to be seen more as an artform than vandalism. In 2013 I organised a street art festival in Sunderland and we had loads of artists paint around Sunniside from all over the country. There is space in Sunderland for more street art and I would love to see it happen, I think to some extent its definitely a lot more accepted now days.

One of his newest public works area, one that both Kathryn Robertson and I share an appreciation of, is the mural celebrating Demi Stokes that’s recently been completed in South Shields. She joins Carlos Edwards, Bobby Gurney, Raich Carter, and Jimmy Montgomery in Style’s very public portfolio of legends associated with Sunderland AFC.

The Shields-born Manchester City and England defender Stokes, who played for Sunderland between 2007 and 2011 before heading off to college in the USA, is will be lining up with the Lionesses at the European Championships this summer. Frank explained how it came about:

The Demi Stokes piece is actually a commission by for a large company. It’s part of a marketing campaign and will be featured in an advert. Its all hush-hush at the moment but that’ll be launched in a few weeks. One of the reasons I love this job is that I get to learn about people and places. For this wall, I had to paint Demi’s inspirations and her journey into professional football.

For girls kicking a ball around in Shields, Styles knows that they’ll walk past the Demi Stokes mural and see what’s possible for them to be:

To get to paint it on the estate where she grew up was amazing, to inspire kids that they can follow their dreams and if they work hard enough they can achieve greatness.

I grew up in and around Silksworth not really aware of the fact that I was kicking a ball around streets that had produced the club’s all-time record goalscorer.

Now with the Bobby Gurney mural that adorns the side of the Golden Fleece on Silksworth Road, kids in that area now know this story, they can be inspired by his example, they can be proud of where they’re from and the tradition that they, as they get on the bus to go to the match or to football training, are part of.

Inspiring the future, and being part of positive changes in society, is part of what it means to be an artist:

Womens football needs more publicity - recently I have been working on a commission for the Beacon of Light. It’s in their football barn at the top of the building, I recommend checking it out it's an amazing space, you can hire it to play football up there.

I have painted Steph Houghton, another local lass who now plays for Man City. Alongside Jordan Henderson, this mural is very almost finished and I’ll be sharing soon if you can’t get up there to see it.

Styles’ collection of works brings our rich history alive and connects the club, the city, and its people together. It tells our collective story - of FA Cup wins and League titles - of the international stars who’ve graduated from the talent production line in our corner of the north east of England. Through the medium of street art, we learn more about who we are.

Coming to the crux of this series of articles, I asked Frank why he thinks Sunderland supporters - or maybe football fans in general - respond so positively to your work and that of other contemporary artists? What is it that makes football and are work so well together?

It’s that expression of the understanding of our culture. It’s not a modern phenomenon, Italian fans were expressing themselves with Tifos in the late 1960’s. Murals are just a more permanent version.

It’s the memories that they invoke in fans that makes it work. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have come up to me telling me about the great memories they have when going past one of my pieces, particularly Kevin Phillips.

I even met one old boy who had seen Raich Carter score! It doesn’t matter how the team are doing, those great memories of days gone by will always remain.

Styles is also keen to recognise the fantastic support and patronage he’s received from the communities and businesses in our region who’ve provided him with the space and funding to develop his career:

I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported my work through crowdfunding or directly commissioning me, especially Steve from Times Inn, Craig from Donkin’s, Eddy and Gav from the Golden Fleece, and Alan from the Shipwrights, the list goes on... too many to mention here but I could not have gotten where I am today without the support from people buying my artwork.

BRITAIN-BREXIT-EU-POLITICS Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to the Sunderland players of yester-year Styles’ work harks back in a similar way to those cigarette cards and pin-up posters that influence Paine Proffitt’s pieces that I looked at in Part 1.

But they also have a truly modern edge to them born of Frank’s artistic origins - the subjects are iconic and timeless but they speak to the future with an air of confidence and pride. To me, they ask a question: “This is where you’re from, so where are you going?”.

So where is Styles going next? Alongside commercial commissions for corporates and the Foundation of Light, he’s seeking a return to his artistic roots on the streets of Kent:

My graffiti days have a big influence on my abstract work now. Recently I have been doing abstract paintings on wood panels and also straight onto the walls of clients homes.

I’m using old graffiti technique in an abstract way, I have been doing doing a bit of triathlon stuff with Christopher Nicholas from NXY and swimming with the Iceguys down at Roker and I am channeling this energy into my abstract paintings.

And I have artworks in Pigment and Toil gallery in the Bridges, along the artists Graham Hodgson and Michael Elliott.

A towering presence: The Gurney Mural on the side of The Golden Fleece in Silksworth

Art pointing to the future

I started this series by looking back at the traditions of depicting footballers, and how this influences the works we buy to put on our own walls, how it helps us to reminisce about the past and tell our personal stories.

But in many ways the art that goes up on the walls we can all see - on the sides of buildings and in workplaces and cafes - is more important.

Sunderland in 2022 is a very different place to the city I left in 2000 to go to University and never quite returned to for longer than a few months at a time, a different place to the one that Styles arrived in too.

Although the football has never again reached the high point of two decades ago, and despite the combined impacts of economic crisis, Tory cuts, an emboldened far-right, a devastating pandemic, and now grinding inflation - it’s a better place that still provides more of its citizens and visitors with an amazing quality of life.

We’ve always had art in the city - in the museum or in the galleries - but it’s never been public in the way it is now, and never so explicitly linked to the beautiful game.

But music has long been our most popular medium of creative expression, and it’s quite telling that it’s the Mackem music scene that generates a lot of the momentum that spills over into and provides opportunities for cutting-edge visual arts to be showcased.

Image courtesy of Katheryn Robertson

Katheryn Robertson and Frank Styles’ works are more than decorative adornments that brighten up an otherwise dull world, they provide Sunderland with an inclusive modern identity, telling our story as part of a burgeoning, exciting cultural scene in the city, and integrating it with that one big constant in our lives - Sunderland AFC.

And they’re there for everyone - on the architecture, on the season card, or on the internet - they are accessible and easy for you to view.

It’s making Sunderland a more attractive place, more self-confident, better able to tell its story and project itself to the rest of the world. We’re more than a Netflix documentary - to paraphrase what the Futureheads once sang (and is referenced in the lead art in the second piece of this series) when it comes to being both an inspiration and a canvass for modern art, the city - and the club - is here for you to use.

The final part of this series will look at perhaps the most important aspect of the art and design that makes up our football culture, that which we see and hear at the Stadium of Light - the statues, murals, flags, and football shirts that for part of our matchday rituals.

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