Christian would love this...
A massive bird painted on an urban wall. What the hell’s that? What’s it here for?
It’s not graffiti. It’s street art. It's making a point.
Mark Anthony’s paintings caught my eye on Twitter (you can see why!). His artist's statement: "My paintings are a celebration of birds, a reminder of what species once lived here and could again with more consideration and improved habitat." I was intrigued so I investigated. And I’m so glad I did because there are many stories hidden behind these arresting images...
I speak to Mark, aka ATM Street Art, on the phone. He lives in London.
He tells me about the street art he made, after moving away from the illegal stuff. His first bird was a snipe, painted in 2013 (see below), to brighten a blank wall within the ‘grim’ South Acton Estate in south London. The council asked a group of artists to come up with ideas and Mark’s bird won their approval. Not only would the bird bring colour to the concrete jungle, but the snipe harked back to a time when the Bollo Brook flowed in the area, meandering through a patchwork of water meadows and small farms, in which habitat the snipe thrived. The brook, now covered with concrete and tarmac, and snipe unheard of.
“People had no idea what the bird was,” explains Mark. “Occasionally they would ask why I was painting it, but most just said how nice it was. How it cheered them up. One Somalian father remarked there was no way his son would ever get into trouble if he was standing next to the snipe - it gave the brutalist cityscape a touch of humanity: after all, a person’s environment affects their behaviour.”
How did Mark come to be painting birds? “Well,” he tells me, “I was obsessed with birds as a kid and I would draw them all the time.” He grew up in north west Rochdale, north of Manchester, an area covered in contrasting open moorland and steep wooded valleys with derelict water mills to explore (relics of the Industrial Revolution). Birds were everywhere. But when he went to art college his love for birds was ’knocked out’ of him as bird painting wasn’t taken seriously. Birds were no more… until 2013 when his passion returned.
Birds then adorned his canvases, but they never appeared as street art because, ‘[I] assumed it would take weeks to paint birds on such a large-scale, but outside you don’t have that luxury of time because of the weather and the logistics. There is an urgency. But I learnt, with the snipe, that it was possible.”
Mark went on to paint a grey partridge and a barn owl on the South Acton Estate. Why these particular birds? “I wanted to educate people. They are a symbol of the whole depressing decline of British farmland birds (70%-90% in the last 30/40 years), and the associated decimation of insects and wild flowers in the food chain. It’s so important to me that things change - I just can’t believe that most people don’t even know these creatures exist, and certainly don’t realise they are in serious decline.
“I’m often in a state of despair that we are destroying habitats blindly and people don’t seen to care about it - they only concentrate on social and political issues. But ultimately we depend on the environment and we’re going towards crisis point. Our disconnection from Nature, thinking we’re somehow separate from it, and our lack of respect for other living things is the key issue - we kill everything that impacts negatively on our food production or lifestyle.”
Take hen harriers. They are persecuted by gamekeepers because they hunt grouse. Mark’s artist colleague, Ben Oakley, found him a hen harrier-related painting site on an isolated spot in Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey. This area is directly under the migratory flightpath of hen harriers on their way to nesting grounds on the moorlands of northern England. The vibrant painting (see below), of a male hen harrier, contrasts starkly with its concrete wall home and can be seen from passing boats.
Mark also takes his street art on tour and created a turtle dove installation at Glastonbury Festival. “Again, most people don’t know the bird even exists, let alone its place in British history, literature and folklore."
Since his work at South Acton, Mark has been asked my multiple conservation organisations and councils to create bespoke street art. For example, he varied his subject for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, by painting a hedgehog in Ipswich as part of their Hedgehog Project (see below). “The Trust was looking for new ways to engage the next generation and street art works. With my paintings I want to portray the birds, and animals, accurately and inspire a love for the animal at a grassroots level - on the drab city streets where they come as a surprise to people. Art shouldn’t be in a gallery; it should be part of the everyday environment. Nature paintings should be in the middle of shopping centres.”
When not painting, Mark spreads his message in other ways. He gave an impassioned TEDx talk at Imperial College about re-naturing/re-wilding cities, to show people they had overwhelming power to help Nature by doing small, empowering actions: stopping their use of garden weedkillers, planting wild flower meadows, constructing insect hotels and guerrilla gardening.
He also works with Ealing Council, running a Summer Arts College at Brent Lodge Park, where children with criminal records, at risk of reoffending, get involved with creative ecology activities, such as mosaic making. The idea that Nature can nurture kids is gaining ground.
As for the future, Mark’s next painting projects include a common tern on Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park’s visitor centre and a (as yet undetermined) marine animal for National Marine Week for the Wildlife Trust in Portsmouth. His work is in demand - a sure sign that the future of public engagement with Nature will need to harness the creative powers of the artistic community.
After our phone call, it suddenly occurs to me that I hadn’t asked Mark why his passion for painting birds returned after a long hiatus. His answer, by email, was lengthier than expected - as always the untold story lurking in the background is often the real eye-opener. And in his case, Mark, like myself, really has been nurtured by Nature. I’ve slightly edited his response and reproduce this with Mark’s permission. He told me: “It’s the first time I've spoken about my physical/mental health in relation to what I do. Previously the focus has been on the birds and why I paint them."
“In the late '90s I was working doing public and community art, but eventually found that this was taking up all my time and I had no space for painting. So I decided to go to Berlin where I could get a big, cheap studio in a very stimulating environment, to try to resurrect my painting life. I went through a lot of different styles and subject matter, trying to find my voice. I had some good exhibitions in so-called 'off' galleries - ones which were set up by individuals just because of their love of art and not run on a commercial basis. I didn't get taken up by any of the commercial galleries I came into contact with.
Then after two harsh winters in a very cold, draughty, damp, concrete studio (it was an old factory), I got really ill. So much so that I couldn't function there and had to come back to London. I got some kind of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME and fibromyalgia.
That was ten years ago. For a few years I did almost nothing, I even thought I was dying I felt so weak and ill. I've still got these conditions and sometimes they affect me really badly, at others times I can function to a certain degree, but need lots of rest and recuperation.
Anyway, it was while I was ill lying in my bed thinking about my life, that I started to remember what my passion as a child truly was. It was then that I realised how much that was still in me and I started doing some little bird paintings again. It was also that I didn't give a damn any more about what the art world saw as serious art. My attempts at being taken seriously by the art world and being a successful artist on their terms had failed, so I was more inclined just to follow my own instincts. Then a couple of years later I got the chance to paint on a wall and did the snipe, all pared down and simplified. Since when I really feel I've found my voice. Maybe it's ironic, but had I not got ill, I might never have found this way of painting.
I still often work feeling really ill with lots of pains, and then get really burnt out, and that is why I absolutely need the recuperation time out in nature. When I went to the New Forest recently I literally just sat there staring at trees for hours, listening to the song of birds, absorbing that energy and movement, calming my brain down.
So in a nutshell, that's my story of the last few years.”
I suspect there are many people reading this, myself included, who will take strength from Mark’s words. In my own life, when the search for my missing brother brought me to my knees (mentally & physically), it was only then that I returned to my childhood love of Nature and found some stability… and awe, wonder and purpose.
Thank you to Mark for being so open.
Nurtured by Nature: Connect / Explore / Flourish / Disperse.