John Byrne is a man of many accolades, not least being one of the country’s original street artists after painting the entire gable end of a Glasgow tenement block more than 40 years ago.
Now the celebrated painter and writer is to launch Nuart Aberdeen 2019, an international street art festival which alleviates the empty walls and blank spaces of the Granite City with colour, message and form.
Byrne, 79, will kick off the festival by taking part in a Q&A about his wide-ranging career that has woven his work through theatre, television, album covers and gallery spaces around the world.
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Byrne, who wrote cult television series Tutti Frutti and The Slab Boys trilogy of plays, said Nuart was an “amazing” festival that had the power to get people feeling differently about the streets around them.
He added: “Most paintings are unseen by the general public but street art just gives a shot in the arm to those walking about the city.
“Street artists are wonderfully clever and Aberdeen is a great canvas for them.
“Most of the general public never go into a commercial gallery. They don’t think they are allowed in so this brings art to the public rather than the public going to art within a building.
“Street art takes it a step further and puts the art directly on the wall.
“So more than 40 years on since I did the mural I’m looking forward to seeing what the artists are up to in Aberdeen. When it comes to street art people should expect the unexpected.”
Byrne’s mural was painted as part of a project run by writer Tom McGrath, founder of The Third Eye contemporary arts centre in Sauchiehall Street, which later became the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA).
Byrne added: “Back in the late 1960’s and 70s the street artists of New York caught my eye. I loved the idea of finding a derelict building and using it as a canvas for my art.
At the time, there were few large scale works appearing in the UK urban landscape when Byrne strapped himself into a hoist and raised himself up the side of the gable end in Crawford Street with a spray gun and set of brushes to create Boy on Dog.
He said: “The guy that owned the entire block said ‘aye, go ahead and do it’.
“It was quite scary, going up in a hoist about 70 ft in the air - and I have no head for heights.
“You could see it when you drove into Glasgow on the Clydeside Expressway but they knocked it all down. They tried to keep it at first and put scaffolding up to keep the wall in place but it went it the end. It was there for two or three years.
“One day I glanced round to my left, and it was gone.”
Byrne said there was a ‘great reaction’ to his piece with Glasgow gang members and the Orange Order among those having their say on the mural.
One morning, a gang member left the message: “Painter put your brush away, the Tiny Partick are here to stay.”
Byrne added: “I was also asked by the Orange Lodge to come and paint a giant King Billy for them. I would have done it but as a Catholic I thought ‘no’.
“To be honest I would have been happy to do it as a gesture of human beings going their own way, but I actually never got round to doing it.”
Byrne will take part in an ‘In Conversation’ interview hosted by BBC’s Fiona Stalker at the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen to open this years’ NuartPlus series of artist talks, lectures, debates and film screenings.
The festival is one of a number of large scale cultural events the city has attracted in a bid to help reposition its image beyond the oil and gas industry.
The artist and screenwriter is currently enjoying watching his own classic television series, Tutti Frutti, starring Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thomson, which is back on the screen for the first time in almost 30 years.
He said: “It pleases me no end to see it back. It was first on 30 years ago and it was never shown again until now.
“I have no idea why it has taken so long. They used the excuse that the couldn’t get clearance on all the songs. There were a lot of negotiations with Little Richard, I am told.
“I am really enjoying seeing it again....but it is strange, I was watching one episode and I had a different picture in my mind of it.
“What I saw did not quite square with the actuality of it. It was like watching someone else’s show.”
Byrne, a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy since 2007 and an Honorary Fellow of Glasgow School of Art, is currently working on a play to be staged in his home town of Paisley in 2020.
Called Underwood Lane, it tells the story of two men, a Protestant and a Catholic, who live in the same street but whose lives have barely crossed.
He said: “Although they live cheek to jowl in Underwood Lane, they hardly know each other. I can’t say much more as there is a twist in the tale that is very surprising.”
“It is partly based on my own experience and partly imagined. I am enjoying doing it. If I can entertain myself then there is a chance that some one else can be entertained too.”
- Nuart Aberdeen is taking place from April 18 to 21.
-John Byrne will be in conversation at the Belmont Filmhouse on April 18. Booking essential.