The street art craze sweeping Anfield

FeatureThe street art craze sweeping Anfield

Published 18th November 2021

No matter which direction you choose to approach Anfield from on a matchday, the chances are you’ll stumble across at least one of them.

They can be found in hotel courtyards, on the sides of pubs and on end terrace walls, from Sybil Road to Houlding Street, Wylva Road to Hawkesworth Street – to name just a few.

Some celebrate heroes and triumphs of the present, some memorialise icons of the past now sadly lost. Others shine a light on important charities and causes, or promote businesses, or simply aim to inspire local children that one day they might play at the iconic stadium nearby.

We’re talking, of course, about the murals that have recently been popping up in the streets around Anfield as frequently as Mohamed Salah scores for Liverpool’s first team (OK, not quite). It begs the question: how has an area where the odd piece of ‘LFC’ or ‘King Kenny’ graffiti was once the closest anyone ever came to street art suddenly wound up with as many public artworks per square foot as you would expect to find in London’s Shoreditch or the hipper districts of Berlin?

Fittingly, Trent Alexander-Arnold appears to have provided the ‘assist’ that set it all in motion. The three-storey-tall depiction of the Reds’ No.66 on Sybil Road, just round the corner from Anfield’s Main Stand – commissioned by The Anfield Wrap and created by French street artist Akse P19 in the wake of Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League win – kickstarted a movement of sorts, including two Scouse artists who not so long ago were working as a painter and decorator and a geologist respectively.

John Culshaw, the ex-painter and decorator, is the man responsible for the stunning new Steven Gerrard mural that covers an entire flank of The Sandon pub and hotel.

“I would say that’s my best one to date, especially with the size of it,” he tells Liverpoolfc.com. “And it’s been the best received project – by miles, to be honest. Ste Gerrard messaged me, which was just amazing.”

John also recently worked on a special commission at Liverpool’s AXA Training Centre that salutes some of the club’s greatest goalkeepers.

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It must be slightly surreal for him, then, to reflect that none of this would be happening if he hadn’t spotted a notice in the newsletter of a company he used to work for in Manchester, asking for design ideas to cover up some graffiti on a wall. After submitting the winning entry, word of mouth meant Culshaw was quickly inundated with work, but it was the success of Liverpool’s men’s team – and the charisma of their manager – that, in 2019, inspired him to move on to major, outdoor, LFC-themed projects for the first time.

“It was at the beginning of the season where we won the league,” the lifelong Red remembers. “Everyone just had this feeling that we were going to do it that year, so I thought, ‘I want to go and paint Jürgen Klopp somewhere.’ I got in touch with a few mates who are in Liverpool fan groups and said, ‘Can anyone get me a wall?’ One got back to me saying his friend had a little matchday hotel called Klopp’s Boot Room, right opposite The Sandon, and they said I could use it.

“I think they thought I was going to do a little something, but when I got there I said to him, ‘Do you mind if I board your windows up?’ And he went, ‘Why, how big is it going to be?’ I said, ‘As big as I can, basically!’ So I boarded the windows up and stuck a massive Klopp piece on the side. It was the first time I’d tried something more realistic, and it came out well. I could do better now, but at the time I was really, really happy with it.

“That wasn’t just the start of me doing Liverpool stuff – that was the start of my whole job. I didn’t stop working then, I just kept going and kept growing. I’ve never done any advertising, flyers or anything like that, the work took off so fast that I didn’t have time to go and get anything printed. I was still decorating in Manchester up until then, so that was the catalyst that started me off as a full-time artist.”

John’s eye-catching Klopp piece quickly led to him being commissioned by nearby pub The Park to add a huge Bill Shankly to their rear wall, and by The Sandon to splash one Shankly and one Kenny Dalglish onto their other side wall – on the opposite flank from the one Gerrard was eventually spray-painted onto in September this year.

The Gerrard mural – the winning entry from five of John’s designs pitted against each other in a public vote carried out by the app Sportening – captures the former Liverpool captain in his moment of delirium after scoring against Everton in January 2014, but it’s the beams of gold light surrounding the legend’s face and body that make it leap off the wall and lend an almost otherworldly, sci-fi atmosphere to the otherwise quietly unassuming Hawkesworth Street.

“I don’t like having a dark background, there’s a lot of murals out there with black backgrounds and it bores me a bit, and I’d been messing about with light effects in my painting as well, so I wanted to get some in there,” Culshaw explains. “I messed about with fire and light, and those beams of light really came across the best, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna have a go at that.’ I was made up with the finished product.”

In addition to the work done by John, Akse, Brazilian artist Liam Bononi and others, MurWalls have been particularly prolific in the streets around Anfield. The street art collective, run by CEO Marc Silver, produced the Ray Clemence mural on Wylva Street, the Jordan Henderson mural directly opposite Alexander-Arnold’s – in partnership with Redmen TV – and, also on Sybil Road, a shrine to Liverpool’s 1965 FA Cup win, which has gained added poignancy due to the passing of its two central figures, Ian St John and Roger Hunt, since its unveiling in 2020.

At the opposite end of the stadium, just past The Arkles pub on Anfield Road, a work can be found that is quite unlike any other in the vicinity. Completed in August this year, it is the only Anfield mural that depicts neither a player nor a manager. Instead, it is dedicated to Anne Williams, the inspirational Hillsborough campaigner who passed away in 2013. The piece was commissioned by Rupen Ganatra – friend of the Williams family and owner of the building in question – and painted by renowned Merseyside artist Paul Curtis.

“Rupen wanted something on the side of the building but didn’t want a footballer, he wanted it to stand out and be a little different,” Curtis tells Liverpoolfc.com. “He couldn’t decide, then he came back to me after about a year and said, ‘OK, I know what to do now.’

“He’s friends with Anne’s daughter, Sara, and he thought it would be nice to recognise her. With the footballer ones, they get a lot of recognition anyway, and Rupen thought it was important to recognise someone who’s not a megastar, who’s one of the people, but who did a lot of good and is important to Liverpool fans. It also coincides with an ITV drama about Anne that’s coming out next spring, and the actress Maxine Peake – who’s playing Anne – came down and got photos with the mural. So it’s good timing, and I think the mural is going to be used on the programme, maybe on the credits. I met Sara as well and she loved it. She was in tears, but in a good way.”

The aforementioned ex-geologist, it’s more or less impossible to spend any time in Liverpool without coming into contact with Curtis’ work. While his crowning achievement is surely ‘For All Liverpool’s Liver Birds’ – the set of wings on a Jamaica Street wall that have attracted a non-stop flow of tourists and Instagrammers ever since their 2017 unveiling – it’s just the tip of the iceberg in a portfolio that covers everyone from David Attenborough to The Beatles and stretches from the Baltic Triangle to Ainsdale and all three of the region’s major football stadiums: Prenton Park, Goodison Park and Anfield.

His Anfield-centric pieces include a mural celebrating the Reds’ Champions League triumph in Istanbul, located at Hotel Anfield, and another in honour of Alan Hansen and Henderson – title-winning captains old and new – on Old Barn Street.

As the person who has painted such a high proportion of them, Paul seems an apt person to ask: just why is it murals are suddenly so popular around here?

“It’s almost like it was waiting to happen,” suggests Liverpool City Region’s Artist of the Year 2020. “It’s a good way of celebrating teams and players, and a lot quicker and easier than statues! And the Anfield area lends itself to it, with all those end terraces. I always think the murals look really good on the old brick walls.

“Where I think it definitely feels different is on a matchday. It generates a bit of excitement, either subconsciously or consciously, because you see a lot of kids going and getting their photos taken by the murals, and it’s part of the day now. Subconsciously, as you walk towards Anfield, it builds excitement, and for visiting fans it adds to the aura of Anfield. You get towards the stadium and it sends a message out, in a way.”

For Culshaw, the murals have the ability to awaken new sensibilities in people that previously would have described themselves as lacking an artistic bone in their body.

“People don’t necessarily realise that they enjoy art, they don’t go to museums and art galleries, but with street art, they don’t realise that they’re going to see it until they do – and then they realise that they enjoyed it,” he says.

“When I’m in Anfield, I just knock on houses and ask if they’d be interested in having something on the wall, and most people say yeah. Everybody in that whole Anfield area loves football, and like I say they may not realise that they love art too, but they do.”

The life of a street artist is not all awards and messages from celebrity admirers, however. Securing permission to work on a particular wall can be a difficult process, and then there’s the instantaneous feedback you can get from random passers-by while halfway up a scaffolding (especially those of an Evertonian disposition), as well as those occasions when the composition of the image you’re using as a template isn’t quite right.

“The Henderson one was quite tricky,” adds Curtis. “Because I don’t know if you remember those photos of him with the Premier League trophy, but he held it sort of sideways, so I had to superimpose someone else’s hands in with the trophy, otherwise you’d just see the circle at the base. If I ever got to speak to him I’d say, ‘Next time, hold the trophy forward!’”

For the most part, though, the main problem for the likes of Curtis and Culshaw nowadays is finding enough time to produce all the work they’ve been commissioned to do, and finding a way to fit their everyday lives in around the margins.

“I’ve not been to a game for about two years, I’ve been promising my little lad that I’m going to take him, but work has been non-stop,” says John. “I’ve not really got much time to myself. When you work for yourself, you’re always scared the work is going to dry up, so when people asked me at first I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, but I don’t really need to be doing that now. I’m going to try to keep the weekend to myself and take my little boy to the football soon, because he’s not going to let me off with it too much longer!”

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Published 18th November 2021