A Self Guided Manchester Street Art Walking Tour
As a hub of Manchester’s thriving cotton industry, The Northern Quarter was once all about work. Now this hipster friendly part of the city is all about creativity and play. It’s a paradise for drinkers and the bars and restaurants beckon you in to hang out, eat and dance. But I’m beguiled by something else. The street art can be found in unexpected places like under your feet and in the closed shutters of shops. You can discover it in a street art Manchester walking tour or you can explore it for yourself, like I did…
Manchester street art is an ever changing scene
Like any vibrant street art district the landscape in Manchester’s Northern Quarter can change as fast as the artists buy new sprays. The taggers alter it in seconds with a name scrawled on a wall. Some buildings are designated installations and artists are invited to repaint them every few weeks or months. But some of the most ambitious murals endure. You can find them all on a self-guided or guided street art Manchester walking tour.
Manchester is by no means the street art capital of the UK. Cities like Bristol and London are teaming with murals painted by internationally famous street artists and have more extensive permanent areas for street artists to paint. Bristol hosts the annual street art and graffiti festival Upfest and if you take a Where the Wall tour of the city the Banksy’s start to roll in within the first few minutes.
Accessible street art Manchester walking tour
But these cities are huge and require an investment of time to get around the artworks while Manchester has a compact area that can be accessed in a lunch hour or while you are waiting for a train at Piccadilly. You can join a guided group walk for under £10. And there are some unexpected and fun artistic touches related to the history of the city, like poetry in the pavements and music in the walls.
Go directly to the Northern Quarter
Many of Manchester’s signature murals are packed into the Northern Quarter, and you can play a great game of stumble-upon starting at Piccadilly Gardens and wandering around. My first brush with the culture of street art Manchester comes on a busy road when I am trying to navigate myself to my rented apartment for the weekend. I look up from GoogleMaps and straight into the eyes of a dark, shadowy woman’s face, forced into a smile by the hands of an unseen person. It’s arresting and a little unsettling, and matches the heavy Manchester sky.
‘Sisyphus’ was produced for Manchester’s Cities of Hope project, launched in the Northern Quarter in 2016. Each artist taking part explored a social issue. Axel Void looked at mental health and anxiety; his work inspired by Camus’ thoughts on an ancient Greek Myth concerning the punishment of Sisyphus by Zeus.
Cities of Hope street art
Cities of Hope effectively highlighted social injustices while raising money for Manchester charities; nine artists chose a social topic to highlight, matched with a local organization to help champion their work. Artist Case also explored mental health and worked with the charity “Back on Track” to paint a local who had made life changing steps. His portrait, on Cable Street, is a challenge to capture on my phone due to its size and positioning behind barriers. It takes me a while to capture and then another few minutes to process mentally. The Cities of Hope initiative is now being rolled out as a bi-annual project, with the Whitworth Gallery expected to showcase the work of a new generation of local artists mentored by established international street artists in 2020.
I could do the whole street art Manchester walking tour for free just wandering around by myself but in the afternoon some friends and I enlist some expert help. After a quick chat about our interests, Peter O’Grady of Manchester Guided Tours heads straight for the Northern Quarter, giving us the history of Ancoats as we go. He quickly takes me off in a direction I wasn’t expecting; poetry. Poetry underfoot to be exact, in a trail by one of Manchester’s most famous sons. “Here we’ve got the not very auspicious start to a poem that goes right the way up the street,” Peter tells us. “It’s by Lemn Sissay who has got great connections with Manchester, and is currently Chancellor of Manchester University. You’ll see some of the letters are missing,” he sighs. “They go to all this trouble of getting a poem made, getting the bricks designed and making sure they have the right number of spaces, and then they just let workmen come along dig them up and lose the tiles.” He tells us he recently got in touch with Tim Rushton, the local artist who designed the font. “He came on a Northern Quarter walk with me and I showed him the poem. He knows where the letters were made.” Peter says he is hopeful it can all be put back together again, if they can convince the council to invest time and energy in the project once more.
Soundbites art and music trail
Another art trail by Tim Rushton is more impossible to steal. Soundbites is a series of pictures implanted in the pavements in metal pates. It’s like a fun quiz where you have to work out what parts of the Manchester music scene each little graphic represents. We jump around the grids at Oldham Street and loudly shout out ‘Factory Records’ and ‘The Buzzcocks.’ Although if you go on bin day you might have to remove some refuse sacks to see all of them.
Could it be a Banksy?
I’m told Manchester has a Banksy, in Manchester Art Gallery. It’s also believed there’s a covered up Banksy mural in the city centre. And one day locals woke to a new painting on a substation at Tib Street they thought might be a Banksy. It turns out it wasn’t, but anyway, by the time I get to it, it had long been painted over. Instead a family is posing just near the site in front of a portrait of another Manchester great; the late Tony Wilson. Parisian Street Artist Akse, who specializes in street portraits in the city has painted a lifelike tribute to the Manchester music mogul, staring out from behind his glasses.
Sunday morning stroll of the street art in Manchester
After dancing the night away at the Northern Quarter jazz club Matt and Phred’s, I go out early the next morning to try and find more artworks. The Northern Quarter is still fast asleep after the Saturday night revelry. I start to photograph a series of shutters with art in bronze and gold that catch my eye. And then I move on to a portrait of a green woman.
“Beyoncé?” says a voice behind me. It’s coming from a white van. I cock my head and try and see the singer in the picture. If Beyoncé were green?
“Have you seen the Tony Wilson?” The driver asks. I peer through the window and tell him I have indeed come face to face with Tony.
“He loves to go around with his phone and take pictures of stuff.” he tell me. Tony Wilson? Isn’t he dead? This is getting weird. But the driver is talking about his friend, sitting next to him in the van. “You can follow him on Instagram,” he says, giving me his handle. “He’s got lots of this type of stuff on it.”
Reimaging the street furniture
You can find dramatic portraits in the most ordinary places like Tank Petrol’s Anthony Burgess at Brightwell Walk car park, and the Outhouse Project at Stephenson Square which are former public toilets that act as an outdoor gallery. Most famously the latter site hosted a startling portrait of David Bowie created by Akse after the pop star’s death. But that’s gone now. That’s the trouble with street art, you have to be quick to catch it. The Outhouse gets repainted every three months; perhaps the girl and the bee I see in front of me will soon be a memory and a photograph on white van man’s Instagram account.
Manchester symbols on the street
The bee is everywhere. In the architecture, on the walls in the murals, in posters stuck onto windows. Peter tells me it traditionally a symbol of the city’s work ethic. In 2117 a new mural appeared on the Koffee Pot building on Oldham Street in the Northern Quarter by artist Russ Meehan in tribute to the 22 people killed in the Manchester Arena attack.
Meanwhile other Manchester symbols line the brick walls in mural form at Affleck’s. There were different murals originally but when the building was sold they disappeared too. In Mark Kennedy’s new works, commissioned for the market’s 30th anniversary, you can pick out everything from Vimto and Dangermouse to the Suffragettes who used to speak nearby as well as the cast of Coronation Street.
International statement art
The Manchester Street Art isn’t all locally inspired; Dale Grimshaw took part in Cities of Hope as a special guest and created a tribal portrait on Spear Street dedicated to those people fighting for independence in West Papua, and Hyuro’s war children ‘war children’ at the car park on Brightwell Walk is a moving tribute to children who don’t have a childhood.
Taggers mark their territory
Many street artists begin by tagging – scrawling their name or crew in a basic, unartful way. It’s what most of us think of as graffiti. Norwegian street artist Martin Watson makes art of this by creating a man spraying leaves onto a tree in the form of tags, with the tags in multiple shades of green. Perhaps it’s only expected that this whole work of art should be scrawled over by a tag. Ruined? It depends what you consider to be art. Personally it makes me smile and reminds me that street art is a complicated eco system.
Works of Manchester street art big and small
The huge work of art on Church Street was painted by a collective of four artists called Subism. It’s best seen from some distance; in fact it’s so massive you can’t unsee it. On the micro level there are small artistic touches everywhere, like the pretty tiled street signs by Majolica Works that are also useful or navigating round the quarter; blue tiles with white send you east to west, with white tiles with blue writing on streets linking north to south.
We finish our walking tour at Manchester Craft and Design Centre which used to be the Smithfield market. There’s a little exhibition space and lots of art works to buy but it can’t match up to the prosaic works of art and their juxtaposition with real life out on the streets. Like the mural of a bus next to a bus stop with a real bus going nowhere. The giant dustpan and brush sculpture New Broom by George Wylie is made real by the bags of rubbish waiting to be collected as a road sweeper trundles past. That may not be everyone’s idea of art but it is Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Cultural but unpretentious. Raw but real.
More Manchester attractions for families
Looking for more places to go in Manchester? Take the kids to sports mecca – the National Football Museum. Or organise your own Manchester sporting weekend.