Sunderland artist Frank Styles on his spray paint revolution
As a 14-year-old spraying graffiti under bridges in the South East, it never occurred to Frank Styles that one day he'd be painting legally on giant walls across the North East.
And he certainly didn’t think that his teenage talents – then dubbed vandalism – would in later years be commissioned by local authorities, colleges and big business.
“It was fun. I liked doing it and it seemed exciting at the time,” recalls Frank, now 35.
“But it didn’t go through my mind that this was what I’d be doing with my life.”
The University of Sunderland Fine Art graduate is today leading the way in spray paint art. His work is more than evident on buildings, walls, and street corners across the region.
Not bad considering up until 10 years ago, this type of art was not widely accepted as ‘art’ at all.
And that’s a bit of a sticking point for Frank, who believes more needs to be done to encourage and support those hoping to make a career through spray painting.
“There’s still this elitism that at art school you should be all high brow and immerse yourself in this field of contemporary art,” he said.
“I never bought into that. I suppose I don’t fit the mould, I bypassed all of that and went commercial because it allows me to do what I love doing. I suppose that’s not very art world.”
It might not be very “art world” but it’s done the trick. Frank’s work is now much sought after. He has undertaken commissions for business and councils across Tyne and Wear and his work has captured the hearts of the public.
Looking back, Frank has come a long way since graduating from the university in 2007.
To make money, he initially worked in now defunct pubs and nightclubs across the city producing photo-keyrings of clubbers looking a little the worse for wear.
Coming off a Fine Art degree, Frank returned to the field that “was in my blood”, spray painting.
“We started doing workshops for the kids at The Bunker in Stockton Road,” said Frank. “They were there learning music and I was there teaching them spray painting.”
It was then drips and drabs of work would start to come in as word of mouth spread about Frank.
Then came a break. Sunderland City Council got in touch with Frank and commissioned him to create a butterfly mural on High Street West. It provided him with a huge canvas – and a huge opportunity.
“The business development team were great and this was an important step in getting started and getting going,” said Frank.
More commissions followed and his work began to spring up on walls, buildings and sites across the city.
Now living in Hendon, Sunderland, the Grafters Gables series of works followed; essentially bringing together large scale street art murals with creative writing to tell stories from the history of the area.
All seven murals are within walking distance of Villette Road, running right through the heart of Hendon. Accompanying the murals is a story that takes in centuries of Hendon’s colourful history, written by local author, James Whitman.
Through his work on Grafters Gables – and his residency in Hendon – Frank got to know the people of the area and they got to know his unique type of artistry.
In fact, Frank became an important part of Sunderland’s Culture 2021 bid, even decorating the corner of Little Villiers Street in Sunderland with his take on the campaign’s logo to help spread the word.
Fast-forward to the arrival of the Tall Ships this month and Frank revisited the history of shipbuilding on the Wear with his work. It was art which connected with the working class community.
“I would get people stopping their cars and saying how they were connected to the ships I was drawing. They would tell me stories about how someone they knew had fitted part of the ship. Then they’d wind their window up and drive off,” he said.
“Generally the reaction I get is incredibly positive. People recognise what I’m doing and connect to it.”
Frank says he enjoyed his time at the University of Sunderland and was offered good support there.
“I would encourage all art schools to embrace spray painting to help students who want to go down that avenue,” he adds.