The unveiling of a giant mural of Stan Laurel in Bishop Auckland has attracted international attention, but what’s the story behind the artwork – and where might it lead next? PETER BARRON finds out

STREET artist Dan Walls peers up with justifiable pride at the giant mural of Stan Laurel, matches the comedy legend’s smile, and says: “This is just the start.”

Walls. There could hardly be a more appropriate name for someone on a mission to cover brickwork with artistic creations, but that really is Dan’s surname.

Along with fellow street artists Michael Clarke and Raven Nelson Flower, Dan, 37, spent three days on the Stan Laurel mural in Railway Street, Bishop Auckland.

And now he’s at the heart of a North-East movement to persuade people that graffiti isn’t just another fine mess, but can help give a place an identity.

“The reaction’s been amazing,” says Dan. “People are just so happy to see something they can identify with, and it’s created an appetite for more street art in the town.”

Stan Laurel lived in Princes Street, in one of the poorest parts of Bishop Auckland, and famously attended the local King James I Grammar School.

“He’s such a recognisable figure, and his story is so inspirational – he’s a symbol of hope,” adds Dan, who was born in Bishop Auckland General Hospital.

His dad, Ken, worked as a driver with Durham Police, and mum, Pam, was a teacher, but Dan struggled at school, and was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was eight.

“You never want to be singled out as the dumb kid at school, but that’s hard when you’re the one needing learning support. Art was my saving grace – the one thing I excelled at,” he recalls.

Encouraged by Tony Middleton, his art teacher at Woodham Comprehensive, he went on to study fine art at Bishop Auckland College, and then at university in Leeds.

“I was either going to join The Army or become an artist – then I realised you could get shot in The Army, so I chose art,” he laughs.

After university, he worked hand to mouth, washing dishes in hotels, and labouring on building sites, but art was always there in the background. He eventually started teaching art at his old college, and became involved in the Bishop Auckland underground punk scene, designing tattoos and posters.

Then, a friend asked if he could do murals for children’s bedrooms. That question led to his first paid job as an artist – painting a room shared by two boys in Evenwood. Eddie, the mascot from heavy metal band, Iron Maiden, was the subject, along with Ben 10, a Nickleodeon cartoon character.

That was followed by a commission to paint a mural of Venice on the wall of a Darlington restaurant called Fofanos.

He was encouraged enough to apply for a start-up grant from the Prince’s Trust, and he also took a course in how to handle tax affairs. In 2013, he launched his own business – Illumination Wall Art – and hasn’t stopped painting since.

Contracts have included a residency at The Devonshire Arms Hotel, in Skipton, where he painted The Duke of Devonshire’s late mother, Dowager Duchess Deborah Mitford. At the other end of the cultural scale, he commemorated five Sunderland captains at The Stadium of Light: Raich Carter, Charlie Hurley, Kevin Ball, Bobby Kerr, and Gary Bennett.

He’s also recently finished documenting the journey of Clara, the 17th century rhinoceros, at Bowes Museum.

“Graffiti has a negative image but there’s an increasing recognition of its value,” says Dan. “Bishop has lots of bare walls and derelict buildings, so we wanted to clean it up, and give artists a platform.

“Bishop Auckland is divided between the cultural side, with Auckland Castle, and the industrial side that we call 'Bish Vegas'. But art galleries and museums don't always gel, and art should be for everyone – we’ve been scribbling on walls since we were cavemen.”

Dan is speaking in The Smoke House, an American barbecue restaurant that’s become a hub for street artists in Bish Vegas. It’s owned by Dave Stephenson, who also co-owns the building that became the canvas for Stan.

Graham Cleland, 41, is another of the street artists to be found in The Smoke House. Graham runs the “Real Graffiti Company” and also works as a Youth Missionary for the Church of England, based at St Anne’s, in the Market Square.

Graham, too, is “canny badly dyslexic” but also flourished through art. Like Dan, he's seen an increase in business due to Covid-19 – notably from gyms and restaurants.

“People have had time to think about things, and that artistic, edgy side has come out – there’s a world of opportunity to make places better through street art,” he says.

“A lot of young people have also suffered with mental health, so we want to engage with the Covid generation and get them using their creativity and respecting their communities.”

Liam Austin, 18, from Shildon, started doing street art earlier this year, inevitably influenced by the mysterious Banksy.

Liam, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and also suffers from other mental health issues, says: “Street art is a hobby that relieves my stress and anxiety but maybe it’ll turn into a livelihood one day.”

So where does Bishop Auckland's street art hub go after Stan Laurel? The next project involves a well-known heavy metal band. It’s at the planning stage but remains “hush-hush” for now. Discussions have also begun about an initiative, working with autistic people.

“We’re still deciding where to take it, but something has definitely started here, and we’d love to form a legal graffiti collective,” says Dan.

“Ultimately, the vision is for Bishop Auckland to become a painted town. We just need people to open up their minds – or, better still, donate paint or walls to the cause.”

As he looks down on Railway Street, Stan Laurel might even be tipping his hat in approval.

  •  To find out more, search for “Bish Vegas Legal Graff” on Facebook.

THE passing of Peter Ratcliffe, from Covid-19, has inspired a flood of richly deserved tributes.

Peter had a habit of popping up whenever a good cause required support in Darlington, yet he was always content to stay out of the spotlight.

I first encountered Peter's qualities when we served together as governors of Hurworth Primary School.

He was also a great support during The Northern Echo's campaign to erect a bronze statue at Teesside Airport in memory of World War Two hero Andrew Mynarski.

Peter also had a cheeky sense of humour. When he worked at Davies Transport, he kept a bottle of dummy tablets in his drawer. Labelled Whingeing Tablets, they were handed out to any driver who dared to complain without good reason.

Rest in peace, Peter.

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