Luke Passey; Gifts for the Northern Quarter

Luke’s street art has become prolific in Manchester – most commonly in the Northern Quarter, although Luke will paint, and has painted, anywhere he goes.

By Manchester's Finest | 27 December 2019

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“As soon as I finished my degree all I wanted to do was anything but graphic design. Although I tried freelance graphic design for a while, as everybody knows it’s very up and down, and that led me to create for self-satisfaction, as opposed to having to conform to other people’s visual requirements.”

Luke creates abstract works, using various traditional printing techniques as well as painting, using a brush and more obscure tools, such as trowels and kitchen utensils.

Luke explains that he went on to secure a small studio space in Islington Mill, Salford, where he could pursue ‘anything but graphic design’; a place where he still works when not painting elsewhere.

“It’s a good creative community here and so I’ve absorbed influences from photographers, printmakers and painters. All of which have helped me develop as an artist.

I experiment with all sorts of practices. I think that it’s important to do many different things. My style will translate into almost everything I do. When my friend Danny Satchell moved in to the studio, he painted on canvas and so I tried that and still do.

We’re given the freedom to do what we like. We make a mess here. As you can see, we paint on the walls… thankfully Bill and Murray who own Islington Mill don’t mind what you do with the space, as long as you leave it presentable when you leave.”

Luke began to paint outdoors about eighteen months ago. Luke’s street art has become prolific in Manchester – most commonly in the Northern Quarter, although Luke will paint, and has painted, anywhere he goes.

Luke’s interest in street painting has grown from a natural love for graffiti and the letterform. Luke began painting graffiti with his friends at the age of eighteen and still does occasionally, alongside his more socially accepted art pieces.

Later, Luke began to talk about art in New York and its legendary graffiti scene that grew out of the city’s street culture in the 80s.

The dissertation for the graphic design course Luke completed at Salford was called, ‘How does the commodification of street art devalue it?’ He said that a section of the dissertation was about taking street art and putting it in galleries.

“But that’s taking away the whole purpose of somebody painting it in a street – putting it in a gallery and then selling it. That’s putting it in another light than it would be outdoors. I don’t get paid for the stuff I do outside. It’s more of a gift for the viewer.

People don’t tend to visit galleries so much. If you paint in the street, then people don’t have the choice to go and see art. It’s just there. They can decide whether to like it or not like it. Treating it as another art form takes away the original value and meaning of it. It commodifies it.”

I questioned Luke a little more about how he got away with painting walls and shop shutters without invitation. “Nobody’s ever kicked off about me doing it. I was painting a shutter opposite Soup Kitchen recently and the owner came out, asked me what I was doing. There was some shit graffiti, so I was painting over it. The owner said, ‘I love it.’

Some people ask what I’m doing, but as long as I respond with respect there’s never an issue. I’m aware that people might not want me to do them – which is why I work so fast. I just do it and try to look like I’m not hiding away. I’ve never had to leave something half finished!”

He tells me about a recent piece of his street art, completed as always in a very short time. “A girl on her lunch break watched me do it, saying it was really nice.”

A pioneer of the New York art scene, Keith Haring, wrote in 1978, ‘I am becoming much more aware of movement. The importance of movement is intensified when a painting becomes a performance. The performance becomes as important as the resulting painting.’ Haring often completed tens of art works in a day… and ultimately his work began to be transferred to major art galleries. ‘Commodifying’ it.

So my theory is that Luke’s street art gives him pleasure in the act of ‘performing,’ as much as the pleasure of having made it. Just as it did for Keith Haring. And then walking away having made a gift to people who pass by for as long as the work remains there.

Luke doesn’t want, he says, his work treated like an untouchable art form. “That takes away its original value and meaning. People can draw all over it if they want to.”

Luke works instinctively on his street art, without pre-planning. “I was on Bold Street in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago, saw a spot, waited for the paint shop to open and bought the spray paint.
I work very quickly, masking off the shape and spraying and because of the masking, the piece becomes hard edged which makes a difference to people’s perceptions. The hard edges around the work make it almost like a framed piece of art work.

It’s a shame that there’s such a fine line between street art and graffiti. There’s hate towards one, total acceptance towards the other. Street art has all come from graffiti.”

Luke showed me a large, unfinished canvas on the wall. “My friends Sam and Madi (@donkwear) are fashion designers. When it’s finished they’re going to make a jacket out of it. That’s really cool isn’t it?”

He then moved a few things from on top of his Risograph printer – a traditional piece of printing equipment I’ve not seen for many years. It’s now used mainly for its almost unpredictable and abstract results, printing using heat and thermal plates wrapped around a large drum. One drum for each colour, all overlaid. Luke uses all of the techniques as composites, often combining printing and painting.

“I’ll always do gallery stuff, working on canvas. Or make prints. There are some digital elements to my prints. Although if I do a poster, for example, instead of making complete digital imagery I’ll make it by hand and then digitise it. I’ll swerve using a computer as much as possible. Even adding type using very old fashioned rub-down Letraset at times. It’s a new form of punk I guess! But that’s how posters were made before computers.”