Manchester’s Northern Quarter was once the centre of the city’s thriving nineteenth century cotton industry. Between the Second World War and the 1980s, the area became depressed and largely abandoned until a regeneration programme attracted independent businesses. These days the area is once again booming, this time as a popular destination for alternative bars, cafes, fashion and record shops. There is no shortage of creative inspiration amongst a network of narrow streets and alleys hosting constantly evolving street art, including spectacular large-scale murals created by internationally-renowned artists. Where the property developer’s wrecking balls have yet to swing, the area’s industrial heritage and architectural character can still be found. It is on these once-forgotten walls that street artists have created some of the most vibrant and evocative art in the UK. This is by no means the British capital of street art but nevertheless it is a constant, valuable, source of modern-day public art.
Take a walk through the Northern Quarter and you will be sure to come across the work of an artist who has generated a cult-following among urban art enthusiasts and who is responsible for some of Manchester’s most memorable and inspiring art. Akse (pronounced Axe), is a self-taught French artist of Vietnamese origins who made his home here in Manchester more than twenty years ago. His photo-realistic portraits of pop-culture icons consistently draw praise and attention from all quarters. He is probably best known for a tribute to David Bowie that sat in Stevenson Square, becoming a selfie hot-spot during 2016. His work isn’t limited to Manchester and his art has appeared in a number of UK, European cities and beyond.
I’ve been a fan of Akse’s work for many years; the first time I came across one of his paintings was in 2012. I had began to take iPhone photography seriously and I found myself taking an increasing amount of street and urban shots. Whilst photographing on the edge of town, near where the Mancunian Way passes through Hulme, I stumbled across a freshly painted portrait of actor Christopher Walkden. Being a fan of the Deer Hunter, True Romance and Seven Psychopaths star, I snapped away and thought no more of it. A short time afterwards I came across a painting of my all-time favourite actor Jack Nicholson, this time on Newton Street in the Northern Quarter. I was hooked, I had to find out more about the artist and see more of his work.
The two works turned out to be part of Akse’s evolving Movie Psychopaths Project that went on to include Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Spacey, Christian Bale amongst others and the prominent characters from the cult TV series Breaking Bad. A short-lived controversial portrait of the shows’ Heisenberg aka Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston was created on the side of the Out House Projects’ electricity sub-station on the corner of Tib Street and Thomas Street. The image, possibly one of the artists’ best, created to coincide with season five of the popular US crime-drama in 2013, instantly went viral on social media. Criticism that that the image glorified drug use in the area, led to its defacement as a protest. Subsequent character images suffered similar vandalisation.
Street art can change quickly; taggers will scrawl names and graffiti on new installations within days. In some locations, such as those run by Out House in Stevenson Square and Tib Street, artists are invited to repaint the walls with new creations on a regular basis. The rapid pace at which street art can be short-lived was evident in Akse’s recent mural of Donald Trump and Martin Luther King, painted at Talbot Mill in Castlefield. The piece, timed to coincide with the US President’s visit to the UK, entitled ‘Battle of the Birds’ shows several Twitter style birds emerging from the the President’s mouth during an angry rant, whilst a dove of peace appears above Dr King. The art lasted barely a month before the wall was demolished, I was gutted that I didn’t get a chance to visit. A video, made by Manchester film-maker Charlie Watts, documents the side of the wall featuring the President’s image being destroyed. The wall has since been demolished.
I introduce participants on my Northern Quarter Smartphone Workshops to the work of Akse and other artists. I encourage them to document the art before it is painted over or destroyed, we shouldn’t let street art fade away, take a photo to preserve the memory and message of these modern-day masterpieces!
Akse’s work features on tens of thousands of pictures social media posts by Mancunians and tourists alike. Without doubt, the David Bowie mural was one of Akse’s most famous and became a Northern Quarter landmark during 2016, disappointing many when it eventually was replaced. It was inspired by a photograph by Gavin Evans. “I’ve been in the street art world a long time and seen a lot of Bowie tributes” he told The Manchester Evening News, “I wanted to find a different visual.”
The prolific artist was back on the streets creating another tribute to music-legend who also passed away in the same year; Aske’s portrait of Prince was based on a photograph by Afshin Shahidi.
Painting larger-than-life portraits as the world watches over your shoulder, must takes guts, confidence and a unshaking belief in your own ability. I am in awe and envious of this man’s level of talent and creativity.
Another long-standing, popular piece was a wonderful portrait of Tony Wilson, known to many as 'Mr Manchester', who died in 2007. Akse created the stunning tribute to the founder of Factory Records and former manager of Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays on the same Tib Street sub-station that has repeatedly served him and others as a canvas. The response was incredible as Mancunians immediately took the image to their hearts.
Despite all of the acclaim, Akse remains very approachable and friendly, happy to answer questions and chat, he prefers to remain anonymous but is happy to be photographed. In addition to recreating the likeness of pop culture icons, he also takes inspiration from much closer to home. Portraits of his children have been appearing in numerous locations for some time. Another excellent movie from Charlie Watts shows the gentle, caring side to the spray-paint artist.
Currently, recently completed street art by Akse featuring Manchester’s own Liam Gallagher and Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark in the hit series Game of Thrones can be found in the city centre along with the artist’s latest mural of Eleven aka El from Netflix hit Stranger Things played by English actress Millie Bobby Brown. Be quick though - once they’re gone, they’re gone!
Adrian McGarry ARPS, presents a programme of inspirational lectures, demonstrations and workshops to camera clubs, photographic societies, exhibitions, trade shows and corporate events. More details of his Manchester, Northern Quarter smartphone workshops can be found here