Painting the town’s boxes: how a volunteer scheme took over Leeds

Street art, graffiti, tagging – whatever you want to call it – it’s everywhere. It’s on every street corner, and I even have a nice view of a large wall full of tags right outside of my bedroom window.

A wall covered in graffiti tags on a busy street in Hyde Park
A wall covered in graffiti tags on a busy street in Hyde Park

First appearing in the 1960s, modern street art has a well-documented history within the Bronx, New York – further evolving as artists tackled current political and social issues within the city.

Although street art is still a taboo, with graffiti being associated with vandalism and public disorder by both Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Police Force, organisations have formed in response, allowing people to express themselves on a vertical surface.

Established in June of 2020, Meanwood Street Art is a volunteer run programme, drawing in artists from all across Leeds to participate in painting old, unused, and under-decorated broadband boxes.

New beginnings

Leah Clarke, co-organiser of the scheme, got involved after seeing Becci Erbillur-Grey’s Facebook post pitching forward her idea about painting the boxes to the community – Becci also co-runs the scheme in her free time.

For Leah, the scheme held a lot of personal significance, “My mum, who passed away in May 2019, was an artist and that was one of the reasons why I was keen to get involved, to do something creative within our community.”

The pair do everything voluntarily for the project, when asked to elaborate Leah said, “We’ve both worked really hard to get a lot of boxes painted in what has been quite a short period of time.

“Within our roles we speak to artists, residents and the local councillors, we’ve fundraised for the majority of the boxes painted and we’re in regular contact with members of Meanwood Valley Partnership, other community groups and local businesses.”

A blank broadband box in an overgrown hedge
A blank broadband box in an overgrown hedge

When finding artists Becci managed to use her contacts through her job in Leeds City Management; her role specifically helps to run large projects involving street art. Leah also knew a few artists herself, having lived in Meanwood for a long time.

Despite the first artists being people they knew personally, Leah said that “Once it started, we were inundated with people asking if they could paint boxes. We had a big flurry of activity via Instagram and Facebook messaging.

“I think a lot of artists know each other, so they actually recommended a few other artists, most were friends of friends. Mostly people have come to us, which has been nice. We had a lot of contact with people last year – something along the lines of around 40 or 50 artists wishing to participate.

“It was really amazing how much interest people had in Meanwood Street Art, how many people were really enthusiastic about it, how the artists were really keen to get involved, and actually what a wealth of talent we’ve got in Meanwood. There’s just so many people behind us, it’s brilliant!”

Since its creation, hundreds of boxes have been revamped and painted all across Leeds – in areas such as Meanwood, Morley, Bramley, Seacroft, Chapel Allerton, Kirkstall, Alwoodley, Headingley, City Centre and more!

Not everything has been idyllic however, with powers making it difficult to paint in public places.

Issues with street art

A wall full of graffiti tags
A wall full of graffiti tags

The ‘Graffiti Strategy’, launched by Leeds City Council, released in 2020 states that: “Research shows that areas affected by low level anti-social behaviours such as graffiti and other signal crimes are more likely to attract serious crime. By reducing the number of incidents of graffiti we can reduce the likelihood and fear of more serious crime happening.”

Whilst working alongside the West Yorkshire Police and the British Transport Police they plan to use both the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and the Highways Act 1980 in order to combat any form of street art or graffiti.

Leeds City Council building - Looking up at one of the golden owls
Leeds City Council building – Looking up at one of the golden owls

Artist from Meanwood Street Art, Jamie Steward, has had issues with the West Yorkshire Police Force before. He told me, “I’ve done graffiti art since I was in school really, I got in a lot of trouble for it, so I just started doing it properly since then.

“I’ve had lots of issues with the police and my painting though. I was sentenced to 8 months in jail for painting graffiti in 2011.

“The first box I painted in Meanwood I was asked by the police if I had permission and they didn’t believe me so arrested me and tried to confiscate my paint. Eventually they managed to contact the organiser from the council and had to ‘unarrest’ me and let me finish.”

Over time, as the organisation grew in notoriety, it has gained recognition as a genuine group. However, the fact that artists such as Jamie have had these issues is a big concern.

Furthermore, the group has given taggers the opportunity to create their own large-scale art on these boxes. Even more, it has given a lot of people opportunities and encouragement that they otherwise may not have had with their art.

Leah said, “For some artists it’s been really helpful and has spring-boarded them into other things. We had one artist who had a lot of anxiety issues and it has been great for her. It’s been really cathartic for her to go out and paint because it helped her to push past some of her own anxieties, which I think was a really positive outcome.”

About the artists

Each artist from the Meanwood Street Art Group has their own story to tell, their own creative ideas and ambitions for the project. Four artists have spoken about their participation in the scheme, and what led them to getting involved.

Belinda Schofield

Belinda begun street art when doing work with other artists in the past, contributing some live art at Deer Shed Festival where she drew all over cars. This aided her love of being outdoors and having only moved to Meanwood earlier this year she found that the painted broadband boxes stood out to her straight away – making the choice to get involved shortly after.

Belinda Schofield - Artist from Meanwood Street Art
Belinda Schofield – Artist from Meanwood Street Art

She told me, “I got in touch with Leah Clarke, sent her over some of my designs and she really liked them! I think it’s great, these boxes are pretty hideous normally so it’s really nice to put something decorative on them and make a bit of a statement. Giving something to the community.

“It’s also really freeing to be outside, and not have anybody standing over you to direct you in one way or another. Having done it all freehand it helped a lot also to be left to my own devices.”

Outside of the scheme, Belinda does a lot of digital art as part of a collective with the aims to creative a piece of artwork in one night and raise money for charity, “I think doing art in whatever setting is really good.”

Jenny Rose Barber

Jenny has painted two boxes so far – one of which being the pink cactus box in the centre of Meanwood. When painting this box she also decided to plant a lot of succulents around the base of it. Saying, “I wanted to create a little oasis, so that’s why I did cactuses on a really hot pink box with a load of succulents planted around it in what was originally just a bit of wasteland.”

“A lot of my stuff is quite bright, quite vibrant and I think with street art there’s always a worry that people are gonna hate it; especially because mine was done quite early on in the project. But actually it went done really well!”

Jenny also works for social services and has been a key worker during the recent lockdowns, saying: “It’s kind of been like having two jobs. But also, being a key worker as well, and seeing how hard that has been gave me another incentive to get involved.

“For me it was really cathartic: still being able to do something whilst for people when they’re having a really hard time. But also as well, putting yourself out there and producing something that is so public, as an artist, it is a real challenge but also, it’s been really well received.”

Jamie Steward

Jamie is a local tattoo artist who first heard about the project through Leah and Becci. Having done a few projects in Chapel Allerton Spaces he wanted to follow a similar idea.

When asked his thoughts on the project, he said, “I love it. I’m local as well so I wanted to help them out, it just brightens up the area and there seems to be a lot of good artists around, so it’s been nice to see lots of other people’s work.

“It’s great that the community like it as well, I keep getting some good feedback. There are lots of different styles too so not everyone likes them, but I think there’s something for everyone really.”

One of Jamie’s boxes, the hummingbird box on Church Lane in Meanwood, was done in memory of a local resident – with the top of the box reading ‘in memory of Rachel’.
Jamie said, “Rachel was a friend of the family, her sister and her mum live just around the corner, so we wanted to do something in memory of them. When I got asked to do this one, I jumped at it really because they get to see it every day – I’ve had good feedback on it so far so I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

The hummingbird box, painted by Jamie in memory of Rachel
The hummingbird box, painted by Jamie in memory of Rachel

Ekaterina Sheath

Ekaterina works as an artist/illustrator and is currently attending Leeds Art University. Painting is something that she has always done, throughout school it became her favourite subject and after studying art at A-Level she knew that it was what she wanted to pursue as a career.

Street art itself wasn’t something that she actually began until around a year ago, like Jamie, she also got started with Chapel Allerton Spaces painting two pieces for them inspired by music and sports. After this, she was sponsored by Jazz Leeds to do another box for them before discovering Meanwood Street Art.

She said, “It was exciting to be hired by them because it was much bigger than what I had done previously, and that was entirely inspired by the local area, so all of the patterns and symbols were actually taken from houses and gates nearby.

“I like to look at them in detail, taking inspiration from them which created the really abstract shapes and patterns that are featured on my boxes. From that, all of the people were drawn on site, they’re all Leeds based people.”

What’s next?

With a few things coming up for Meanwood Street Art, most of which Leah was unfortunately unable to disclose, they have recently released a Meanwood Street Art trail; documenting and mapping the locations of each of the boxes for locals and families to follow.

A painted box with 'Meanwood' written on it, found on the corner of Woodlea Park in Meanwood, Leeds
A painted box with ‘Meanwood’ written on it, found on the corner of Woodlea Park in Meanwood, Leeds

Leah said, “In the future we want to do something more interactive, but for now it’s really nice to get something out there. Leeds Printing Company have very kindly given us 200 printed copies of map for free, which is lovely for those who don’t have access to a printer. They’re available at the Wildcraft Cafe on Green Road and the Meanwood Communit Centre on Stainbeck Avenue.

“Going forward, we plan to do more street art, including bigger street art such as murals and banners – watch this space!

“Obviously, we also plan to do a lot more boxes too! There is one we’re going to paint next to Wheatfields Hospice. It’s one that I have always wanted to paint because my mum was actually in Wheatfields hospice when she died. I’ve always felt that it would be really nice to paint that box because it’s always covered in tagging and looks awful.

“We’ve also been lucky enough to be selected to take part in the Take a Seat scheme, run by Leeds Civic Trust, as one of 15 groups within the Leeds area that will be painting benches. We’re going to do a talking bench (artist Cassy Oliphant will be painting it), with the idea behind it that people can sit and have a chat on it, to combat how isolated people have been during the past year.”

A blank bench - ready to be painted by Meanwood Street Art
A blank bench – ready to be painted by Meanwood Street Art