Manchester’s resident ‘Bee Man’, street artist Russell Meehan – also known as Qubek – talks the rise of street art today
What’s the correct term: street art, or graffiti?
A lot of graffiti artists don’t like street art; they see it as a watered-down version of graffiti. According to the dictionary, graffiti is to make a mark illicitly so you’re doing it illegally. I come from a generation in the late 90s where street art wasn’t fully recognised and people were mainly doing it illegally. There were no real legal opportunities back then. It was still underground.
What was your journey into street art?
I’m not professionally or classically trained, and my work shows that – it’s a bit rough around the edges, but because I work on the street it’s more of a rough and ready way into the art world. When I was a teenager we just did it for the love of it. For the first few years, I was painting mainly on train tracks, the streets, the skate park in Stockport or abandoned warehouses. It was about being creative, being sneaky, and going against the grain of society. Then I got into trouble a few times and after that I just wanted to paint without the fear of getting in trouble. I started doing a night in Manchester called Sketch City with street artists, graffiti artists, DJs and performers all producing art together as a live showpiece. After that, I became a Community Art Worker so I was producing pieces with young people all around Manchester. Now, nearly all my work is commissioned. Creating my mural business and being known for that is bringing me more opportunities to go and paint out on the street. It’s the best thing ever – getting up in the morning and going to paint for a living.
Are perceptions of street art changing?
Definitely. Most people are saying that you can thank Banksy for that. He’s helped the mainstream understand what it’s all about. Seven years ago, if you went into the NQ and started painting something people would be like ‘What’s this guy doing!?’. Actually, a few times, I’d been painting a commission and someone phoned the police and they turned up. These days, most people would just accept it as someone doing street art. It’s become more of a fine art instead of just graffiti; most people go out and paint pieces on the street that you can look at and say ‘I get that’ rather than ‘Oh, what’s that? What does it say?’.
I don’t see street art, done legally and with permission, any differently to an artist working on a canvas. It’s just a different media and a different way of painting. The Banksy art that shredded itself after it was auctioned off is so interesting because that probably only took him five minutes and it’s worth a million pounds.
Why has Manchester embraced street art?
Nearly every city in Britain has embraced it in particular areas. It’s like an open-air gallery in the NQ now. You won’t really see it anywhere else unless you go to places like Hulme and Moss Side. NQ has always been seen as a bohemian area and a creative space and it’s quite old architecturally so I don’t think many people are bothered about the walls around there being painted. It’s becoming more popular, and why shouldn’t it? It’s crazy that we love just grey and white buildings!
Is there enough support for artists in Manchester?
A lot of people are being moved out of their studios at the moment. The studios are being taken over and people are being pushed out of the city centre as it’s being gentrified, so there’s less space and it costs more for people to be creative, especially in the NQ, and that’s what that area is built on.
What’s your favourite piece of artwork that you’ve created?
Obviously, the twenty-two bees in Manchester is one of my favourites because of what means to everyone. Everyone felt like they had to do something really positive at the time and my way of communicating is painting, so it was just a really automatic response. When I finished the twenty-second bee there was sixty, seventy people clapping. It was surreal. I think that’s the most meaningful and thought-provoking thing I’ve ever done. I really didn’t expect to get the kind of exposure that I got from the memorial pieces. I thought that I had to do something positive after that, so since then I’ve raised £17,000 painting pieces and giving them to charities.
What do you think the Manchester bee symbol means to people now?
It’s a symbol that shows solidarity, strength, love, and community. It’s amazing that one symbol can mean something so powerful to people. Nearly every building has a bee symbol on it now and some people could say that it’s being exploited – some people could say that I’m exploiting it, but before the Arena attack, I just wanted to paint bees everywhere as a little mission of mine. I am the ‘Bee Man’ here now, everyone knows me for that and if I wasn’t painting them beforehand then I don’t think I would paint them now.Find out more at @graffiti_russ, @mural_life, @beestrongmcr.