Walter Kershaw: ‘Britain’s first graffiti artist’

Written on September 12, 2012 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

His ‘house tattoos’ brought explosions of colour to northern streets in the 1970s. He was rewarded with tea and butties

A while ago, a friend of mine from Lancashire asked if I knew where Alvin Stardust was born. She had a vague childhood memory of seeing a huge mural of the 70s star, the size of a whole house, on the end of a terrace in Bury. I checked and found out that Stardust – whose real name was Bernard Jewry – was born in London and grew up in Nottingham; we decided the mural, if she hadn’t dreamed the whole thing, was most likely a painting of Elvis that had gone awry.

Radio 4 programme on Thursday proves that my friend wasn’t hallucinating. The Alvin mural was the work of Walter Kershaw, a Rochdale-born artist who has been hailed as Britain’s first graffiti artist, and is celebrated in the documentary by writer and fellow Rochdale resident Mark Hodkinson.

In the 70s, Kershaw’s work was dotted all around Lancashire mill towns – there was the “inside-out house” in his home town of Rochdale, which Hodkinson remembers very clearly. “It just seemed normal to me. When you’re a kid, you don’t deconstruct these things. But when you’re older, you realise it wasn’t normal at all.”

Another work was a condor over the Andes on a terrace awaiting demolition in Oldham. “The weather up here battered them,” says Hodkinson. “They were gone in a few years. He knew the work was ephemeral but it didn’t bother him.”

Kershaw studied fine art at Durham and, while his star may have dimmed, he was a fairly regular presence on TV and radio in the 70s and 80s, interviewed by Russell Harty, Sue MacGregor and Janet Street-Porter. He has had murals commissioned in Sao Paulo, Mexico, Sarajevo and Los Angeles, but it’s unlikely any of these could have had the shock value of his technicolour guerilla work on red-brick Lancashire back streets.

He tended to start work early, at 5am in the summer, and travelled with a friend on a motorbike just in case someone objected vehemently. Hodkinson marvels “about the guts it took – these were quite rough neighbourhoods. But people were really encouraging. They used to bring tea and butties out for him and his assistants. It was like having your house tattooed. He had a queue of people asking him to do their house next.” Local councils were less keen, and Kershaw received a string of cease and desist letters, though no one ever pursued charges.

None of the mill town murals survive – most were painted on slum clearance properties, which was part of their intended ephemeral nature. Kershaw still lives in Rochdale and still gets regular commissions, the most recent being the Coach House in nearby Littleborough.

“He loves to put little jokes in his work. The coach house mural is about the history of transport, but next to this upstanding Victorian gentleman sitting on a train he’s painted Fernando Torres,” says Hodkinson.

The question remains as to why he chose to sprinkle a little Alvin Stardust on a house in Bury. Apparently, Kershaw planned to paint Elvis, but didn’t have a picture to hand on the morning he set out. He was off on his bike before the residents noticed.

As published in The Guardian


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