Canal path mural

17th February 2021

Neighbourhoods not dumps

Ask people who live around the alleyways in town about litter and flytipping. They'll most likely tell you the ongoing battle to keep these areas clean. We regularly litter pick along the canal path. There are several alleyways along this route which are used as a dumping ground for all sorts of waste. To give you an idea, we have recently seen washing machines, sofas, clothes, doors, windows, and televisions. Who thinks this is okay? With much of it turning up in the early hours whilst there are few people around, perhaps no-one. So why is this happening and what can we do? There are many reasons this occurs: A lack of appropriate waste facilitation, time constraints, affordability, a lack of respect for the environment / other residents, laziness, normalisation...

Flytipping in the alleyway at the back of a house.  Includes a door and windows.  Broken glass covers the ground.

We're working to deal with these issues in various ways. The following describes one of those ways:

Care to act

I met Mary whilst litter picking along the canal path one day. We talked about various problems that her family were having such as litter. She took me to meet her Mum, Rose. They both care deeply about the area and the state of the environment describing growing up in an area where there was mutual respect within communities and care for the environment. They are responsible and do their bit to support reuse and recycling, supporting local organisations such as the highly revered Prospect Hospice. Such care harks from old, cherished values which need to be restored, imbued.

Another brick in the wall

How times have changed! Free market economics has been at the heart of social and environmental disease, promoting selfishness and competition as part of a fear agenda to divide and conquer. Litter / pollution, divided communities, addiction and so much more are symptoms of the obscene levels of inequality driven by this oppressive, unequal, unfair system. I digress, although it needs to be said, understood, challenged.

Blights on everyday life

Rose and Mary told me of the endless stream of litter and flytipping that plagues their lives. They regularly call the parish and borough councils to deal with flytipping. Flytipping was apparent from our meetings, as dumped washing machines mysteriously appeared in the night. For those that do this, please understand that you are bringing our neighbourhoods down, and causing dismay and a lot of work for people to clean up your mess. It is antisocial and disrespectful. Please show some respect for others in your community.

Rose and Mary also spoke about the problems of drink and drugs in the area: smashed glass, stolen items, anti-social behaviour, drug dealing, break-ins... Lastly, at least for this blog, Rose and Mary told us about their efforts to keep the wall at the back and side of their house free from tagging. Many people complain to us about tagging saying that they don't understand it and that it looks ugly.

Plight to change

With consideration, we decided that a mural might be a good way to go to help address all of these issues. The rationale:

  • Like attracts like. Places that look like rubbish are more likely to be treated like rubbish. Conversely, places that look nice are more likely to be treated with respect.
  • Inequality increases isolation and drug abuse. Community projects can restore connections and bring the local community together to deal with such issues.
  • Murals are often respected and left alone by taggers.

Hippie green

I met artist / muralist Peter Cowdy on the My Town My World project, which we collaborated on with Artsite. You may know some of his excellent work from around town. The bus station is a good example. Working with Peter on such a project is great, as we have an affinity regarding environmental, social, and political matters. Discussions are deep and I learn much. His consideration and care for the environment and for local communities are a great fit for this project. After meeting with Rose and Mary, the decision is made to go ahead.

After surveying the wall and location, Peter creates an awesome draft design which incorporates a clever 3D perspective. It fits the project and campaign well, and I'm excited. Unless you are close to me or the Plastic Free Swindon campaign, you will not know the slog it has taken get to this point. Murals were an aspiration since we first ran with Keep Swindon Tidy. A positive but extremely trying year and a half later and it was finally happening! I'm delighted that we are able to help fund such projects!!

Love the process

Day 1

The wall has to be rubbed down of loose paint, moss and the like before being primed with a couple of coats of masonry paint. The design takes into account a spot where water has seeped into the wall, as it will get marked again in time. I know from spending time with Peter that there are a lot of considerations that go into painting walls.

Day 2

It becomes apparent whilst Peter paints the mural how many people care about where they live. So many stop and chat, make positive comments, tell us of their experiences... This is one of the joys of community work; making beautiful connections, giving without expectation, sharing, communication, love... This is the good life!

We are kindly offered tea and coffee by Mary's daughter. A rare treat for me, 2 vegan chocolate bars. It's nice to be considered. A Brazilian friend of Peter's arrives with her son. She is also an artist and muralist, with a dedication to feminism. She tells me of her work for an amazing feminist organisation in London and shows me a couple of her amazingly vibrant murals in Brazil. Her son is around 8 years old. Like many Brazilians, he is excellent at football, showing Peter and me some excellent skills including some tricksy feigning that would make Pele gawp. After outrunning me, he teaches me vowels and accents in Brazilian Portuguese. These are just a few interactions which I hope conveys the essence of the day.

Spray paint can in Hippie green colour

Peter maintains focus and paints through the colourful tapestry of people, conversations, and activities. Meditation indeed. We talk throughout the day about subjects close to our hearts. The environment and well-being of people and communities is central to most conversations. We laugh as Peter shows me that he's painting in Hippie green! Far out man...

Peter defends taggers making their mark depending on the situation, explaining that tagging can begin a process towards painting full murals and the vitality of freedom of expression. He asks why businesses are able to display public murals in the form of advertising whilst the rest of us are often impeded from doing so. As the Horace Andy song goes, "Money, money, money is the root of all evil". The mural comes together well. It takes around 8 hours for Peter to paint and is finished as the light fades. The mural reads, "Our energy spreads and is shared across our landscape." How true that is and how apt for this project and our campaign.

Over the course of 2 days, it has become apparent to me what a beautiful thing mural painting can be. Rose and Mary express delight at the mural, as do many of the local community to them. There is gratitude all around for a positive collaboration that has made this project a reality. Many thanks to all who made this possible. One love!!

A section of painted cutaway bricks in the mural reads, 'Commissioned by Plastic Free Swindon' and is signed by Peter Cowdy 2022

This project was jointly funded by Mary and Rose's family and Plastic Free Swindon.

Blog by Ben Bell