‘It was sacrilegious’: why the destruction of Manchester’s Ian Curtis mural struck a nerve

The public outcry – and outpouring of affection – after the mural was defaced shows just how deeply rooted a piece of public art can become in a community

This week, the wall of Manchester’s 75 Port Street, a canvas for street artists, cycled through three different designs in the space of one day – the last a plain black background, with no trace of what had been there before.

On Tuesday afternoon, the wall was still exhibiting a fixture of the city: a mural of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis based on a Philippe Carly photo taken a year before his suicide. Painted by street artist Akse in October 2020, it was opened to mark World Mental Health Day and support Manchester Mind, Help Musicians and promote the 24/7 wellbeing text service Shout. In just under two years, it became part of the city’s identity, and led to a second Curtis mural in Macclesfield.

But on Wednesday morning, the city woke to the mural having been repainted with an advert for Manchester rapper Aitch’s new album, Close to Home. The title was printed above a call-to-action to “listen to the album on Amazon Music”.

Akse broke the news on social media. “So my mural of Ian Curtis based on the original photograph by @philippecarly has been painted over to promote the release of a new album,” he wrote on Instagram. “It had become a cultural landmark and meant so much to people from Manchester and beyond. It doesn’t take much common sense to understand that this mural should have remained for what it represented and stood for.”

Street artist Akse, in front of his mural of Ian Curtis in 2020.
Street artist Akse, in front of his mural of Ian Curtis in 2020. Photograph: Kenny Brown/Alamy

He had no prior warning, he tells the Guardian: “I was tagged in a story of the wall being repainted on Instagram. That’s how I found out. Having a temporary ad covering it made it worse.”

Outcry soon followed from locals, musicians and fellow street artists. Curtis’s ex-bandmate Peter Hook responded to the post with a swearing emoji, Peaky Blinders director Anthony Byrne called for it to be “reinstated and left there permanently” and local group Manchester Music Forever shared that they were “absolutely disgusted”. Soon after, “Money Will Tear Us Apart” – a reference to Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart – was scrawled across the advert in red paint.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was also shocked. “Seriously, the idea of anybody getting a tin of paint and a paintbrush …” he tells the Guardian. “Who vaguely connected to Greater Manchester could think that it was possibly a good idea? It was sacrilegious, wasn’t it? It was awful.”

Aitch was rapid to respond to the outrage, taking to social media to apologise for the replacement. “This is the first time I’ve heard of this,” he tweeted. “Me and my team are getting this fixed pronto,” he continued. “No way on Earth would I want to disrespect a local hero like Ian,” he continued, promising it would be repainted.

The outpouring of anger highlights the cultural value that music murals hold, especially those that depict a beloved artist with ties to the local area. Burnham proudly talks about a mural of Buzzcocks’ frontman Pete Shelley in his old constituency: “It’s actually phenomenal – right in the middle of Leigh!”

Rapper Aitch.
Rapper Aitch. Photograph: Kelvin Jones

Painting over a mural of this kind is an irreversible action; while it can be recreated, the original is lost forever and can become a cause for collective mourning. Many other murals have faced a similar reaction after their erasure. In 2013, a Joe Strummer mural in New York’s East Village was destroyed after 10 years, leading to local condemnation and a repainting. Two years ago, Taylor Swift’s likeness was replaced by Brad Paisley in a Nashville mural portraying a range of artists, leading to anger from her fans.

Last month, a mural of David Bowie in Sheffield, which admittedly received ridicule when it was originally unveiled, was stripped by construction workers, leaving just bare brick behind. More recently, a tribute to Young Dolph – the Memphis rapper fatally shot last year – was defaced just days before its unveiling. The original artist received death threats, too, highlighting the political potency a music mural can convey.

Street art is often not publicly condoned or cordoned off, leaving it vulnerable to vandalism or contracted repainting. Many music murals are commissioned as temporary installations, destined from the start to be replaced.

Akse also makes a living from hand-painted advertisements – he recently worked with an agency that hired a wall on the other side of 75 Port Street who “decided not to go over the Ian Curtis wall as they knew it meant a lot to people”, he says. He doesn’t believe that anyone from Aitch’s team had bad intentions, and credits the rapper for “reaching out personally to get things fixed”.

“I was saddened, of course, but not surprised or outraged,” says Philippe Carly, who knew the mural would have a limited lifespan. “I secretly hoped it would stay longer because of its impact. [It represented] Ian’s tragic fate, the importance and significance of mental issues and the paramount need to diagnose them and adequately address them.”

Burnham agrees: “You get the same connection with Ian and the issues he was writing about from listening to his music, but also the mural in public in some ways is a help to people who might be going through [something] similar.”

‘It makes us all wake up to the value of what we’ve got’ … the now blank wall on the side 75 Port Street.
‘It makes us all wake up to the value of what we’ve got’ … the now blank wall on the side of 75 Port Street. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

The photograph, at least, endures decades after it was taken in Brussels in 1979. “This photo of Ian has a sort of supernatural impact,” says Carly. “Not that I give myself any credit for that. It has changed my life entirely and seems to affect viewers deeply.”

A few days on, the wall remains vacant. Despite hasty efforts to erase the advert, the faded outline of “Tear Us Apart” is still visible. And the outrage has turned to optimism, uniting the people of Manchester through their previously unspoken appreciation for a piece of public art.

Burnham is due to talk to city councillors Bev Craig and Pat Karney about the more general importance of preserving the city’s landmarks. “In a strange way, I think this will have a beneficial impact,” he says. “It makes us all wake up to the value of what we’ve got and prevents any repeat [incidents].”

While no date has been set, Burnham confirms that the mural will be back for good. “The outcry means that it’ll be there for ever. We’re going to have to protect it … it’s going to go up and it’s going to be there for time in memoriam.”

That said, it may not be on Port Street. “The main obstacle will probably be being able to find a suitable [long-term] wall,” says Akse. “Let’s see what happens.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

Contributor

Kyle MacNeill

The GuardianTramp

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