‘Petri dish’ culture: infamous Covid-19 graffiti preserved for Manchester

Frankie Stocks, the teenager behind headline-grabbing lockdown message recreates work for posterity on chunk of demolished wall

Somewhere deep in Manchester City Council’s storage is a new and unusual piece of modern art.

Weighing one tonne, the chunk of concrete and mangled iron, which previously belonged to a notoriously unpopular partition wall in central Manchester, is expected to make its gallery debut in the new year.

The work will be somewhat familiar to many people, not only in Manchester but across the UK, due to the crudely daubed message in red paint, which reads: “The north is not a petri dish”.

It is a recreation of the graffiti that made headlines in October when it appeared overnight thanks to the efforts of a mystery vandal.

At the time when Frankie Stocks, the 19-year-old formerly anonymous perpetrator sprayed the message on the wall at Piccadilly Gardens, the pandemic was at a peak in Manchester, and the city’s mayor, Andy Burnham, had locked horns with prime minister Boris Johnson over desperately needed help for hospitality businesses in the worst-affected areas.

On 14 October Stocks, a social policy student at Salford University, had watched the BBC’s coverage on Newsnight with a friend, and felt inspired to send a very public message.

Donning a homemade grim reaper costume, replete with a top hat, cane and ad-hoc face paint, he headed for the wall in Piccadilly Gardens. However, his first attempt in acrylic paint did not have the desired effect as it washed away before anyone could see it.

It is not often someone returns to the scene of a crime to have another go, especially when that place is one of the most public spots in the city and covered by five CCTV cameras. Yet the next night, in a different outfit and with industrial-strength spray paint, he tried again – although this time there was another problem.

The original message on the wall in Piccadilly Gardens with 'The north is not a petri dish' daubed in red paint.
The original message on the wall in Piccadilly Gardens. Photograph: Kerry Elsworth/Alamy Stock Photo

“I hadn’t actually figured that I didn’t know how to work a spray paint can,” he said.

By the time he had worked it out it was 5.30am and he was worried about getting caught. But as a 170cm (5ft 7in) trans man, he thought police or passers-by would mistake him for a woman and be less likely to stop him. “I was using my disadvantage to my advantage,” he said.

This time he was successful and the phrase “The north is not a petri dish” became a powerful, resonating symbol for many in the north of England.

“I was very taken with it,” said Manchester councillor Pat Karney, who promised the message would stay until the wall came down, which had already been scheduled for the start of December as part of a £1.8m transformation of the area. And for many Mancunians, the demolition of the wall could not come soon enough.

Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the brutalist structure was built two decades ago as part of the city’s regeneration following the 1996 IRA bombing. But, assaulted by pollution and the Manchester weather, it became a grimy eyesore and a hotspot of public urination and drug dealing.

“I’ve hated it for 10 years. It was like Christmas Day when it came down,” said Cllr Karney. “We should have pulled it down years ago.”

Chunks of the wall were taken away as souvenirs and Cllr Karney earmarked one block for Stocks to re-write his message – after first promising he would not be arrested. The councillor is hoping it will be exhibited in Manchester Art Gallery in the new year.

“I want people to remember what we went through,” Cllr Karney said.

Stocks felt the same way. He said: “When I met the guy from the art gallery he asked me what the meaning was behind it. I think it’s that Manchester has always been an experiment ground.

“But that doesn’t mean it should be. Right down from the Harrying of the North to now, the north has always been a political afterthought. It’s always been seen as a national liability. It’s been a scapegoat.”

Stocks is no stranger to talking publicly about politics. At the age of 16 he made a passionate speech about education at the 2017 Labour conference, for which he received a standing ovation.

A fierce critic of Michael Gove’s controversial education reforms, he says Generation Z has been forced to be more political than previous generations.

“A generation is waking up to an idea that capitalism is no longer a palatable economic system because they’ve seen it seep into inappropriate structures, such as their education system and the mental health system,” he said.

But he has no desire for a career as a politician or an artist. “Ironically enough, I just want to be a teacher,” he said.

“I feel like this might just be a story to tell out of nowhere when I’m old.”


Robyn Vinter

The GuardianTramp

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