It all began with an angry comment on a story on the Creative Review website. I’d just written a piece about the new Walrus card, Liverpool’s equivalent to the London Oyster travelcard system, designed by Kenyonfraser. Following some Scouse-related needle in the comments, a person going by the name of Framedink suggested that CR “take their heads from up their pretentious London backsides and take a trip up to Liverpool and discover something other than Shoreditch. When was the last time CR sent a writer/photographer to Liverpool to meet the people involved in the current design/art/visual scene,” he asked?
Which is why, some three weeks later, I found myself on the platform at Liverpool Lime Street being welcomed by Framedink (aka artist and illustrator William Johnston) and photographer Adam Murray-Brown. In a series of emails setting up the trip, Johnston had explained that “We all know there are plenty of successful agencies in Liverpool who are well established.” Instead, Johnston wanted to show me what he promised was a vibrant independent community. “Hopefully CR’s visit will show that it is possible to survive outside of the corporate agency structure and that Liverpool creatives can generate their own circles to move in without upping sticks and leaving the city. What you will see are individuals and businesses working together or forming bonds and friendships to strengthen, support and make a sustainable, always-changing and adaptable creative scene.”
Our first stop was Lost Art, the skateboard shop run by former pro Dave Mackey. Some years ago, I co-wrote a book about the culture of skateboard graphics, so it was interesting to see that, in Liverpool, skateboarding was still a catalyst for visual artists. In an email, illustrator Kev Grey explained how Lost Art had helped him: “Mackey gave me one of my first big breaks about eight years ago when he asked me to design my first range of skateboards. I’ve always appreciated the fact that Lost Art gave me that initial exposure. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of other local artists have had the same experience with the shop and we all respect the fact that Mackey makes a conscious effort to encourage Liverpool’s artistic talent by using our artwork on T-shirts and skateboards.”
Lost Art is just off Bold Street. This is at the centre of Liverpool’s independent art and design scene in an area now being rebranded as ‘Ropewalks’ which, Johnston says, has “has always attracted a more alternative/underground creative crowd”. We stop for a quick drink at Bold Street Coffee, a café that opened 18 months ago and provides gallery space for many of those artists, illustrators and designers – it also employs some behind the bar, like Russ Longmire of SketchStance (who, emphasising the close-knit nature of this scene, also drew a logo for Lost Art).
Next up is The Well on Roscoe Street, part design studio, part screenprinting workshop, part bike recycling centre. There are empty buildings all over this part of the city, despite it being a stone’s throw from the glamorous new Liverpool One shopping centre and the redeveloped docks. Many are now home to artists and creative people thanks, in part, to The Arts Organisation. In 2001, Gregory Scott Gurner and Robert Howie Smith set up The Art Organisation with the idea of regenerating disused spaces for use as galleries and performance venues. Though their projects now encompass Nottingham, Leicester and London, it was in Liverpool that TAO had its first successes by convincing landlords that it was better to have their buildings used by artists than just to let them rot. The Well is one such project – it’s volunteer-run and pays a ‘peppercorn rent’ in return for being allowed to use the building.
Sinead Peacock showed us round. The Well, she explained, consists of a ground floor screenprinting workshop, four studio spaces and a yard where bikes that had been stolen and which have then been donated by the police are fixed up for resale. The Well pays all the bills and business rates. Like most of those I was to meet in Liverpool, it receives no outside funding. Instead, it pays its way by charging people to use the screenprinting equipment that was salvaged from John Moores University as well as running workshops. Upstairs are four rudimentary, rentable studio spaces: in one of these I meet designer and illustrator Horse (aka Gary McGarvey) who has just moved in. (Horse’s Screenadelica project features in our Monograph booklet this month.)
“Liverpool has always been a place where you get drawn to one side of town or the other,” he says later in an email. “On one hand you have the Mathew Street end which has all your footballer-esque bars and then you have the other end which looks to another side of Liverpool, something deeper, something that’s looking forward which has Bold Street as the epicentre. It has always been the creative end that makes Liverpool more than just another city. The creative hubs have changed over the years as the powers that be try to make everything into a high street, but two new hives always sprout up for every one that’s forced to close. When I came to Liverpool eight years ago, there were places like the Kif which was an independent venue/gallery/ creative space. The years since its closure have seen spaces such as The Well, The International Gallery, Arena House (now closed), Wolstenholme Creative Space and The Kazimier open their doors and embrace Liverpool’s desire and enthusiasm to create and explore, while cafes such as Mello Mello and Bold Street Coffee have become hubs for creatives to meet and exhibit work.”
Wolstenholme Creative Space is our next stop. Housed in the first Lord Mayor of Liverpool’s house, which was subsequently used as a warehouse and factory, this former squat now houses a multitude of artists on several dilapidated floors. Spaces can be rented for as little as £35 a month. In one of them we meet performance artist Tony Knox, aka Mothman. Knox has performed his wrestler-style Mothman character all over the world including recently in an Indian village. And now we’re going to get our own performance as he nips off to get into his costume for the benefit of Adam the photographer.
Upstairs we also meet illustrator Russell Reid of Wasted Heroes clothing who has recently taken one of the attic studios. Reid originally moved to Liverpool to study Graphic Arts at John Moores University. Since graduating he says he “hasn’t really considered relocating to pursue my career as the city has always felt like it has so much to offer. Being named the European Capital of Culture in 2008 was great for Liverpool and events like the Biennial and the Bold Street Festival have ensured that vibrant music and arts scenes are thriving. The city is quite compact so it’s easy to network and promote myself as a designer and there’s always been a close-knit creative community so you can be sure that at some stage yours and other creatives’ paths will cross.”
In this area of the city, that is literally true as, across the street from the WCS is The Kazimier. Formerly a be-chromed night club called The Continental, the building was taken over by five artists in 2009. They renovated the space initially to provide them with a venue for their series of club nights – a mixture of party, vaudeville and performance art. Now the space serves as a venue for bands providing enough revenue to support the five artists, who work under the same name as the venue, and help fund more ambitious projects.
By now, we have time for just one more stop – the Contemporary Urban Centre or CUC. In comparison to the WCS and The Well, this former warehouse is luxurious (it has heating for one thing). The CUC is home to a mix of bars, restaurants, galleries, a cinema and, upstairs, office and studio spaces. In one we meet Sophie Todd and Anna Cade, two recent John Moores graduates who, like Reid, decided to stay in the city and set up a clothing line, CadeandTodd.
And that was all we had time for. This was a whistle-stop tour, so impressions are inevitably surface ones, but even with such limited time it’s plain to see that Liverpool has a vibrant independent creative scene. It’s very close-knit, with a good deal of cross-pollination and collaboration. Johnston points out that this area has been the focus of such activity since the 60s and that those who today have inherited it “have a duty to keep the area’s spirit alive. It’s a social, collaborative, and collective community where people help each other out and care for each other.”
What really struck me was the absolute aversion to outside funding from all of those I met. Everyone was committed to doing it for themselves or not at all, partly out of a recognition that independence is always better and partly from having seen other projects wither when such funding was subsequently withdrawn. Another key factor is the free space made available through TAO and directly from landlords. With the economy the way it is, it looks likely that self-starting creative types up and down the country will be able to take advantage of this situation in the coming years. The 80s recession was notable for some great creativity brought forward from adversity: let’s hope that today’s economic mess has similarly positive outcomes.