Interviewed by Lucy A.Edwards on behalf of The Moniker Foundation
Last month Moniker had the pleasure of being invited up to the North-Western county of Cumbria, UK to attend the opening party of The Northern Paint Fest, arranged by Blank Wall Assassins - a not for profit organisation whose vision is to inspire people through world class public art in Carlisle. It was an enjoyable day of observing a number of artists in their natural habitats, soundtracked by a set of DJs and musicians from a variety of genres.
To learn a bit more about the festival, and it’s organisers, Moniker sat down with co-founder Ben Heslop to ask him a few more questions.
Hello there, Ben! Now, first things first… why do you look so familiar?
Hi Lucy, well I was lucky enough to be showing with my gallery Landmark Street Art at the last two London Moniker Art Fairs at the Truman Brewery and Chelsea Sorting Office in 2018/19 - it really gave us a boost and allowed me to make links with some amazing artists, some of which are painting here today - so, full circle!
Ahhhhh, that'll be it then! Tell us more about your past experience with Moniker and what you took from being part of the fair as a participant in the ‘Young Galleries’ programme in 2018 and 2019 - we can already see you’ve come a long way since then!
It was amazing, our gallery is now totally online post covid, and to be fair has taken a back seat for a while but is still very much alive @landmarkstreetart. We showed at Moniker with Ben Eine, Tymon De Laat, Tabby and Ame72 who we all work with closely still. Having that shop front at Moniker really gave us a boost and allowed us to forge new and exciting links with other galleries and artists. There is no real scene up here for street art, or at least there wasn't then, so being able to be part of something bigger and share our vision was amazing for us. I would say that Blank Wall Assassins birth is a direct link from my time at Moniker and the trajectory it sent me on as a gallery owner and curator of art.
So you're still operating Landmark Street Art as a gallery?
Heslop in front of a Ben Eine mural he project-managed back in 2020
I am! We have morphed into a different beast as a lot of galleries have over the past few years. Our main client base was in America and Europe and those markets have both changed massively. Not doing Moniker (SAD FACE!) as that show changed also meant we had to re think our offering. The good news is that we became known for commissioning pieces by our artists others could not get. We stayed small and without exception all of our core artists are also friends, if we can't have a beer and a chat with them it probably won't work well for us! So we really got into offering that special service between client and artist and making that purchase experience personal and unique. That goes for all our new artists as well, and to be fair both the client and the artist love working this way. We may not be busy on our socials or in volume (partly because the festival was so much work!!) but behind the scenes we are having lots of conversations and organising pieces for collectors still, so get in touch if you need anything! We always try make the whole process personal and fun, that's what we enjoy, thats what is really special to be part of, like the street work.
So, Landmark Street Art Gallery to Blank Wall Assassins Organisation - let’s hear all about The Northern Paint Festival and the Blank Wall Assassins: Who are you? What are you about? Why should people be visiting the festival?
Artist L7 making his mark at this year's Northern Paint Festival
It is a direct offshoot from Landmark, It became untenable to me that I was lucky enough to travel a lot with my work meeting clients and artists and seeing the positive power public art could have. I was a regular at Pow Wow Rotterdam, Nuart Aberdeen, Upfest etc yet my own
city had no art! It was travelling back from America after painting in Washington and New York with Tabby and Ame72 for a client (and on the streets!) that I hatched the plan. We got a wall and Tabby flew over and we did it in the dead of night and just thought, let's see what the reaction is! The city went mad and was like 'Has Banksy been to Carlisle?!' It was really funny that they saw a stencil artist and assumed there was only one protagonist! The public response was amazing but it showed me that they had no real reference points for the rich world of talent and culture that was out there, so I just didn't stop! My friend Anna who is from an events background saw what I was doing and also saw the weaknesses in my game (I am allergic to too much planning and paperwork!) and we formed Blank Wall Assassins to separate my commercial gallery from this public art project. There were about 14 pieces in the city by then and we quickly progressed it into an online QR code tour (see www.blankwallassassins.com) and added more artists to the city streets.
In 2021 two of our pieces, painted by Tymon and Smug, got voted by Street Art Cities @streetartcities as 2nd and 3rd best in the world for the months they were created and this again upped our exposure and made us dream of bigger things for the city, then the festival plan was born. I always knew this was the end result and with Anna's help now felt like the time to go for it and we did. What we
are about is showing an area that sometimes lacks cultural ambition the power and place making ability of public art, making people stop and take a moment to engage with something they were not expecting to see, taking the art outside of the gallery and engaging those who didn't even know they were looking for it. It is not a new concept by any means but very powerful and important when used in a place that has not seen this before.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this interview, Moniker came to support you at the festival - thanks so much for having us - tell us more about this year, the planning, the organisation, the set-up, the funding, the struggles, the wins, which artists did you choose and why? Tell us EVERYTHING
Anyone who has done anything like this knows that 'everything' is a lot of things when it comes to something like this! There is so much work that goes on for months before planning all the details and program. We were lucky enough to get some funding from Cumbria County Council on the back of the huge success of the street art tour as well as some private backers also who wanted to support more culture in the city. Once this was secured it was down to me and Anna to use our skill sets to make it happen. For me that looked like curating a crew of international talent that I knew would add to the tapestry and scene, organising the venue and all the infrastructure. Obviously I have project managed all the other pieces in the city, I just had to pitch it up a bit and effectively 10 x this into all the artists being here at one time! The struggles were many and varied, funding unlocks so much but it doesn't stop planning woes, material costs rising, artists dropping out, national travel strikes while the event was running (it was easier to get Nuno from Portugal than Woskerski from London!) the weather etc the list is endless, but hey I am not complaining I am a veteran of a lot of campaigns now so am used to rolling with the punches! What made it much better this time was having a partner in crime like Anna, she always describes herself as the boring invisible one (it is not my fault she doesn't like photos!) but it is amazing to be able to lean on someone to do all the behind the scenes admin and planning. Artists accommodation, travel, costings, festival programs liaising with local suppliers and budget work, yes it is not sexy but it sure as hell all needs doing and she is awesome at it. It was a long road but by the time you get to the festival, if you have planned it right, it is already worth it and the magic just seems to appear naturally and effortlessly.
As for who I chose, well, I see that my job is to curate a rich and broad outdoor gallery of culture and art within the city, I am fierce in the desire to put Carlisle on the map and never want our walls to have 'average' artists come paint so I stand behind every one 100%. I looked at who we already had in the city and what their style was and then just tried to turn the dial and show everyone something different. I like to keep local people guessing as to what is next and showing them that this rich and wonderfully varied world of street and public art is never ending and there really is so much talent out there. I also wanted to inject local talent into the program, as I have done with the tour (check out @Martin.Evans.art - the first local to paint outside on the tour!) so had two local artists painting on the line up also. Their work is brilliant despite it being their first outdoor pieces and to share in that journey and see their work sit, rightfully and unapologetically, with some of the best in the world is just awesome.
Favourite artist from this year’s paint?
Impossible question! Like picking a favourite child! Everyone always asks me this about the tour as well, it is always the piece you are working on at the time as you are so emotionally invested in making it happen but then as soon as the next plan comes along that takes over! I can not help but sit back and look at the whole scene as one thing now, it is my baby and each one has so many memories, struggles, victories and stories attached I literally could not pick!
What’s the participating artists feedback been from the event?
This was the first time I had worked with some artists I had not met before but we all knew someone who knew someone, it is a small world and when you have worked with as many as we have it is easy to find trusted people. But that cuts both ways and our reputation for how we treat all our artists who have come in the past is very important to us and shines out in what they tell others. We make it very much a family affair, we eat together every night in different local places, we bring them into the community and let them see how much people benefit from what they bring. They have all given us some amazing feedback and lovely comments, it really matters to us as much as what the city feels about what we do that the artists get it and invest in it also, they are the glue that sticks all this together, without them and their abilities and belief in us there is nothing. I am lucky that each and everyone who has painted here is a friend now even if they were not before, it is about walking the walk and doing it right on all levels for me.
The official festival dates were June 22-26, but are the murals still on show to the public? If so, tell us where they can locate them
A couple of young enthusiasts marvel at the work of Nuno Viegas
We made sure we got planning permission for three years for the walls so the art is very much still there for all to enjoy! It is situated at Tribe Container Village - @tribecarlisle - in Bitts Park Carlisle. Tribe have been amazingly supportive in allowing us the space to create (and have kick ass bar and food vendors onsite) so anyone who wants to can go and enjoy all nine pieces from the festival and then take the tour around the city and see the other artworks too. We have free printed maps (available in local shops and the tourist information in town) and the online tour where every piece has a board and a QR code telling you about the creation, showing videos and linking you to the next piece. We have had people travel from Germany, Brighton, London and even California to document some of the art we now have, it is amazing to hear about how people view what we do, but the local interaction is the real buzz for me. Seeing school groups do projects on what we do or charities engage their participants through the art is so humbling. It is great to turn a corner on my daily wanderings and find people pouring over the map and looking at the art, that is why I do it and that is what it truly is about, making people look up.
What’s the plan for the future of Blank Wall Assassins?
Has to be Northern Paint Fest 2 right!? You saw the response! Anna and I best get busy!