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Street art has gained more respect in Manchester, England, in the last decade, and so has artist Russ Meehan. He tells TeaTime-Mag how he got started and how he’s made a profession out of an art form that has not always been legal.
Text: Cat Allen
Country: England

n the last decade public appreciation for street art has exploded. TeaTime-Mag caught up with professional street artist Russ Meehan, also known as Qubek, who has been painting the walls of Manchester, England, for the last 18 years. We asked him about the difference between street art and graffiti, his motivations and how he feels about the possibility of never seeing a piece again.

TT: We’d love to hear how you started painting.

Russ: I started with spray paint 18 years ago and have worked professionally for the last 10. My first piece was in a skate park. I got really inspired seeing graffiti artists painting. My first proper piece was about a year after my fascination with graffiti started, in an abandoned warehouse.

TT: Would you be proud if you saw it now?

Russ: I think I would, yes. It was quite a pivotal point to where I am now. That warehouse was a playground for me and my friends. Every week we’d do another piece. There weren’t many places for us to paint; it’s not like now where people are open-armed to the art form.

TT: So a piece is considered street art if permission has been asked, and graffiti if it is illegal, have we got that right?

Russ: Right. Some street art is graffiti if it’s done illegally. Street art evolved from graffiti; without the early pioneers of graffiti the street art world wouldn’t be as aesthetically rich as it is today.

TT: How do you define yourself?

Russ: Coming from a graffiti background and having evolved into a street artist, I think of myself as half-graffiti, half-street artist.

TT: Do you ask for permission?

R: I’m usually approached with commissions; the job will have a design brief which I then bring to life. Occasionally a job allows me to do my own artwork. I did a piece in Leeds with an open brief. After researching the city I created a 100-foot-high mural of an elephant wearing armour.

TT: Do you still paint for fun?

R: Each week I’ll approach businesses, asking to paint their walls for fun. This started as my hobby. It’s now my job but it is my passion. For these personal murals, it’s important to understand which walls people actually want painted. Luckily many parts of Manchester welcome street art.

TT: How do you feel about asking permission?

Russ: Not asking is the roots of graffiti; it’s a bit lame asking permission all the time in my opinion. Graffiti is truly one of the only free art movements. Working in the street helps you feel free from boundaries and rules. It’s fun to break them and step away from the norm!

TT: What is your background?

Russ: I studied fine art at college. I’d paint canvases with watercolours and acrylics but I wasn’t great. After experimenting with spray paint, I didn’t do much with other traditional methods. I’ve always sketched, often smaller versions of what I am planning for a wall.

TT: Do you plan or paint freestyle?

Russ: Doing my own thing I’ll freestyle about 30% of the time. For a piece on the street I really want to be proud of, I’ll plan, usually a simple pencil sketch. I’ll think a lot about the subject matter, what it means and says. I then feel comfortable painting on the spot.

TT: Do you make mistakes?

Russ: That’s what’s great about spray paint—you can easily cover a mistake. It doesn’t matter if you go wrong. In fact you learn from your mistakes. Sometimes they work out really well! I always tell the kids I teach it’s the best way to learn.

TT: You teach?

Russ: I started working with youth groups about 12 years ago, lots of creative projects and community murals with kids, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.

TT: Speaking of community murals, we saw your bee pieces commemorating the Manchester bombing on May 2017. Tell us about those.

Russ: I’d started painting bees the year before. I wanted to put something on the streets with a positive feel anyone could relate to. [The bee is Manchester’s symbol, representing the city’s hardworking past during the Industrial Revolution.] That got me thinking about more traditional subjects, and I love the texture you get painting bees. I loved the idea of people walking around and seeing bees everywhere. The more I did the more I got known for them. The night of the attack I had the idea, a piece for the victims and the people involved. The local newspaper commissioned me to do a larger piece with 22 bees, representing each of the people who lost their lives.

I was so proud to be involved. I don’t mean to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I didn’t realise the meaning they’d have to people. The response was overwhelming. About 60 people watched me paint; it was a very poignant moment.

TT: Amazing! Do you feel there’s good appreciation for street art in Manchester?

R: Definitely! You always hear people talking about new murals. Adding art can take an area from being run down to a public art gallery.

TT: How is it, not always having creative control over your murals?

R: Lots of street artists ask me this. It can be quite nice painting something I wouldn’t naturally do. It can be challenging and it’s pushed me to learn a lot. Thanks to these jobs, my style’s become more realistic. Nowadays I paint things which a few years ago I never would have.

TT: How do you feel knowing a piece could get covered up any moment?

R: Street art is never meant to last forever. The graffiti I did was more guerrilla; people appreciated it because it was artistic but it wasn’t meant to be there. Nowadays I’m a bit more precious over some of my murals. If it’s a commission the owner decided to change, that’s just how it is.

TT: Do you feel bad covering someone else’s piece?

R: There are places where it’s legal to paint called “Graffiti Hall of Fame.” Strictly it’s not graffiti anymore, as you have permission. There I’d paint over someone’s piece; you paint something and the next week it’s not there. It’s part of the graffiti culture. I’d never cover a piece of commissioned art without permission. I think it’s quite disrespectful.

TT: Your feelings about tags?

R: I do get a bit annoyed if someone tags my work because it doesn’t show respect, although I can’t mind too much as I did it myself as a kid. People spend years perfecting their tag, and it’s calligraphy at the end of the day, if it’s done well, that is. That’s the problem with it being illegal. It encourages tags to be rushed and they can’t be as good if you don’t have the time.

Graffiti is about the aesthetics and style of the letters, more than what it says. Lots of artists use a word they like the look of. My tag “Qubek” developed as I liked the shape of the “Q” and how it is to paint. It flowed from there. My letters look quite futuristic and I felt the name sounded right and the letters looked good together.

TT: Do you think it’s natural to progress from graffiti to street art?

R: I think so, as you get older. Nowadays I haven’t got the time to run around at midnight tagging! My job is painting street art, sometimes using graffiti as my aesthetic.

TT: What’s your inspiration?

R: I don’t look at any one artist’s work in particular. My only real influence was a great graffiti artist called Mez. I’d watch him paint at the skate park. I learnt from his style. He was the one who inspired me to do this.

As a platform Instagram inspires me. Pretty much all graffiti and street art in the world gets uploaded. Every day I see new things and it helps to push myself harder, to paint bigger and to develop more original ideas.

TT: Do you always document your pieces?

R: Absolutely, I’ll take a photo and put it online within the first day of doing it. Photos last forever—your piece may not.

TT: Do you think it will ever be legalised?

R: In a way it is, by getting permission. It will never be completely free to paint wherever because people own walls. The thing is, if you get permission, and have more time, you’re only going to do good stuff, aren’t you?

TT: How do you feel about quicker methods, such as stencils?

R: I appreciate how good they are but I find them a bit soulless. I prefer painting using freehand fast fluid motion. I put music on and it’s like I’m running around dancing in front of the wall making loads of really nice marks. Personally I’d rather spend the time painting a 100-foot-high mural than cutting out stencils.

TT: Your thoughts on artists like Banksy?

R: It’s crazy—some of his work is worth £200,000! That stencil he’s used, it could be repeated a hundred times. Obviously he might only do one piece with it, but to me it doesn’t feel as original as a freehand piece.

TT: What does your family think of your job?

R: My wife is really proud! I’ve got a full-time business and earn quite good money doing commissions. I’ve earnt [thousands of pounds] for charities so I feel I’ve used this skill in a positive way. I like the fact it’s organically turned into something I can make a living from. At the end of the day it’s always been about going out and doing it for the fun of it and enjoying it for what it is. I feel lucky and blessed to have got to this point.

THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY.

Qubek Fact Box:

· Qubek, AKA Russ Meehan studied Fine Art at College.

· He lives in Manchester with his wife and young son.

· He has been commissioned by Samsung and Channel 4 amongst other large corporations.

· Russ Meehan is one of Manchester’s best known street artists, thanks to his productive painting career and his involvement in citywide community projects.

· Russ’s 5 words to describe Manchester: “Home. Expression. Family. Creativity. Opportunity.”




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The Street is His Canvas


Teatime-Mag interviewed Russ Meehan, a professional street artist from Manchester. His artist name is Qubek and he started working with spray paint 18 years ago.
He studied fine art at college, but felt more comfortable with spray paint than traditional methods. His first piece was in a skate park; he was inspired by seeing graffiti artists painting. His first proper piece was in an abandoned warehouse.

Russ explains the difference between street art and graffiti. If you have permission it is considered street art, if not, it's graffiti. But, he says, "street art evolved from graffiti; without the early pioneers of graffiti the street art world wouldn't be as aesthetically rich as it is today."

Russ considers himself a half-graffiti, half-street artist. Although he started with graffiti, nowadays he is usually approached with commissions. He was even commissioned to do work by Samsung and Channel 4, among other large corporations. But he also still paints for fun!

"Each week I'll approach businesses, asking to paint their walls for fun. This started as my hobby. It's now my job but it is my passion."

Russ is particularly
proud of his bee pieces commemorating the Manchester bombing on May 2017.

"I loved the idea of people walking around and seeing bees everywhere. The more I did the more I got known for them. The night of the attack I had the idea, a piece for the victims and the people involved."

 

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The Street is His Canvas

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