A radical new mural in the Calton in Glasgow is a striking tribute to working class culture and a concrete medium for raising awareness about centuries of struggle in the city. Artist Mack Colours and organiser Claire Peden speak to the editor about its story and significance.
What is featured in the mural as an artwork, a symbol, and a statement?
Mack: The mural features, from right to left: a strike, silhouetted in the Unite colours, with six strikers in the foreground representing the six Calton weavers who lost their lives in 1787 to military gunshots during a major industrial dispute. Next to it is a weaver using a vertical loom. Then the logo of Unite for a Workers’ Economy. And William Morris’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ pattern, with the message, ‘Support the Strikes’.
Claire: It represents the strikes, and gives a nod to Glasgow’s rich history, and to that of workers fighting back to demand better jobs, pay and conditions. We hope that people look at it and feel inspired to stand with those in struggle or, at least, to find out more about the history of Calton and the weavers.
Why is the mural here, and what makes its location significant?
Mack: The Calton weavers’ strike has a significant place in Glasgow’s history. Calton (or the Calton) was once known as Blackfauld, possibly named due to the residue left over from surface mining. Even with gentrification, the Calton area is known for being a working class community.
Claire: The key message we wanted to get across was ‘support the strikes’. We wanted to connect past struggles with the struggles of today, and honour the first recorded strike in Scottish history. The William Morris pattern is fitting, given our partnership with Fabric Bazaar, who kindly let us use their wall space for the mural. Whatever the thieves represent, it is one of Fabric Bazaar’s most popular fabrics.
How did the ideas develop and how was it finally installed?
Mack: The ideas for the design emerged from conversations with local workers in the area and also local residents. During these chats we learned a great deal about the history of the area, what Unite’s message meant to them, and their ideas as to what could be incorporated into the mural. I took inspiration from all of the people I interacted with, and began researching the Calton Weavers and William Morris. I found out a great deal about how the American revolution that started in 1765 (with the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’) stirred the thoughts of working class Glaswegians with ‘radical’ ideas of equality and democracy. William Morris himself was a fantastic designer and poet with a love for Iceland that led him to travel to Scotland regularly en route to his destination. Later he toured Scotland, giving socialist talks in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, in venues like the Waterloo Rooms in the city centre and the Temperance Institute on James Street. It is said that Scotland brought out the best and the worst from him. He loved the enthusiasm of the Scottish people but found the slow progression of socialism frustrating.
The installation of the mural took four days with acrylic spray paint. I was given a great amount of support from passers-by, with many of them expressing solidarity with the strikes. I myself have been painting for twenty years, with the last five years dedicated to painting murals and artwork in a public environment.
What is the political significance of artwork like this?
Claire: I work with a campaign called Unite for a Workers’ Economy which aims to drive change and shape politics from the workplace to the community. It’s about encouraging workers to engage in local community campaigns and to hold politicians to account when they fail us. To do this effectively we use different methods and tactics to engage with communities and talk about what really matters to them, through graffiti art, music, book launches and community-based activities.
This mural is our second in the city. Both have very important messages that tie in with our campaign aims: Higher wages, Freedom from food poverty, Affordable energy, Adequate pensions, Protection for our NHS. The other mural at People’s Pantry Govanhill declares: ‘Food is not a luxury’.
Mack: Radical art to me is like graffiti with a message. Graffiti itself is used to break down society’s illusions of control and restriction. Campaigns in the past have labelled graffiti as ‘a danger to the public’. In actuality, radical graffiti art is only dangerous to those in power. Using public art as a medium to spread awareness, solidarity and instil confidence in those who need it most right now is crucial.
I do not think of myself as a political artist. I feel that modern politics is so divisive, and my artwork is meant to be the opposite of divisive. I want it to create joy, confidence, and wonderment. Supporting the strikes to me is not political. It’s supporting my friends, my neighbours and my community. The work Unite does in Glasgow and in other parts of the UK is so important, and I could not say no to collaborating with them to create artwork for the public. Any time I have a meeting or even just a conversation with Claire, or with Joe, her fellow organiser, I am always left feeling upbeat, confident and proud to be working alongside truly amazing individuals like them.
What did it take to get the project off the ground, and how do you build from here?
Claire: The mural is part of a project backed by Unite and our General Secretary, Sharon Graham. We have to win people over for projects like this, including our own members. They have high expectations, and so do we, as we continue challenging the profiteers making excessive profits off the backs of workers, and running campaigns in target areas. Working with Mack Colours, Fabric Bazaar, Calton Books, and the whole community have been invaluable to making this project happen, and as with any project I love to see the final piece. I’m proud of it. I think we need to keep building brick by brick. Build on our political education, talk about the past, and let that shape the journey forward. We fight together, shoulder to shoulder for a fairer society for working class people, for higher wages, for suitable and affordable housing, for fairer education. And maybe we find a way to take down the Tories. Now we’re talking.
Glasgow born mural artist Mack Colours is @MackColours on social media. Clare Peden works for Unite the Union on the Campaign ‘Unite for a Workers’ Economy’.