Beating sexism, homophobia and mansplaining: meet the badass women behind the UK’s tallest street art mural

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Amy Swales
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To give you an idea of how high up 46 metres is, it’s as tall as this giant iceberg off the coast of Canada. In London bus terms (the gold standard of size comparison), we’re talking 10 double-deckers stacked on top of each other. Oh, and it’s the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Artist duo Nomad Clan – aka Joy Gilleard and Hayley Garner – spent seven months planning their ‘Athena Rising’ mural in Leeds and a month executing it. The top of the painting is a staggering 46.8 metres from ground level. The scale is perhaps still hard to grasp until you see the shots of Gilleard and Garner hanging off the side of a 12-storey high-rise in a cradle at the mercy of buffeting winds.

Adorning the Platform building in Leeds, the owl-based design was a huge undertaking by anyone’s standards, but this particular one can lay claim to being the tallest street art mural in the whole of the UK – one that will be seen by thousands of people passing through Leeds train station every day.

There’s not much bigger as a street artist, in every sense. It takes eight hours a day, 600 cans of spray paint and a willingness to abandon all known comfort zones (Gilleard and Garner describe the cradle experience as “seasickness, death noises and swaying”). But getting to this level as gay, female artists in an extremely male-dominated industry? It takes even more than that.

As well as the sheer graft involved in the large-scale, often photo-realistic projects they’ve become known for, Gilleard and Garner, both 34, have spent years sofa-surfing and working for free or frankly insulting sums to be able to leave behind their previous jobs – youth worker and designer, respectively – and make a living as professional street artists.

And there’s been pushback at every turn from people both within and without the industry, unwilling to accept that two women could achieve such success.

“I never really set out to become a professional street artist, I didn’t realise it was a thing!” admits Garner, speaking exclusively to “It was a hobby in my 20s, until I opened a spray paint shop in Manchester. I was struggling to find work as a designer, so took things into my own hands.”

Garner was working under the name Aylo when she and Gilleard, who live together in Manchester, met in 2014 and collaborated on a project in the city’s Gay Village.

“When I met Hayley, I’d class that as the start of my proper career,” says Gilleard, who also works under the name CBloxx. “I was always creative but couldn’t find my way with art in an academic sense so ended up in youth work.

“I had some short-lived successes with art while in that job, but I eventually realised I had to leave it to pursue it and once I did, I didn’t look back, even though it meant I was totally broke for a long time.

“Bit by bit, opportunities came in, but then I met Hayley and we realised collaboration was the way forward.”

The Manchester-based duo are internationally acclaimed and have been named in ‘Top female street artists’ lists, both together and separately as Aylo and Cbloxx. Their combined career successes make for intimidating reading, with projects as diverse as collaborations with Vans and Coors, exhibiting in West Yorkshire Sculpture Park, designing can artwork for a craft beer brewery and making history by creating a piece in the middle of St Paul’s Cathedral – a politically charged comment on the refugee crisis that went on to become the cathedral’s official Christmas card.

Yet they have endless examples of the sexism – and occasionally, homophobia – they’ve come across on their way up.

“Alarmingly, despite our experience, we find that we repeatedly have to reaffirm our capabilities to male employers, sometimes over the most basic logistics. It feels like mansplaining is a very real thing at times,” says Gilleard.

As well as helpfully being told how to paint faces (think they’ve cracked it, lads) and even once how to roller a wall (Garner told him he was welcome to do it for her), Gilleard says ridiculous questions are par for the course.

“We had, ‘Do you know the size of the wall?’ Well, we had planned and designed it for six months so yeah, we had a good idea. Another good one was, ‘Do you realise what people see of the artwork from pavement level? Maybe this is something you want to consider when designing.’ Along with an attached picture he’d taken on his phone.

“I pure woman-splained if that's a thing – I went on Google Earth and screenshot it from loads of angles and sent him a tonne of pictures. He didn’t say much after that.”

Garner adds: “We once had a guy come in the shop and tell us he needed extra-large spray cans because he was going to paint a massive piece. We know these are specifically designed for doing big tags, not murals, and explained that normal cans were fine. He kept saying we couldn't understand because he was painting something a whole three metres square. Eventually we just whipped out a picture of the seven-storey we’d just done.”

Additionally, many people simply assume the couple are men before they meet in person – and occasionally, even afterwards.

“Years ago at an event I had a guy argue with me till he was blue in the face that I wasn't Aylo,” recalls Garner. “Because Aylo was a dude to him. I was apparently ripping this guy Aylo’s work off. He even said they were mates! It was incredible.”

It’s likely that the people making sexist statements and assumptions are also the ones who get upset about female-only paint jams, such as Femme Fierce, and Gilleard agrees that’s it’s a frustrating state of affairs: “We get told we are ‘good for girls’ like it’s a separate arena, but when women-centric jams and exhibitions take place so that women feel at ease, we are accused of ‘using’ our gender for recognition and excluding men!

“Sometimes it seems you can’t win. We try to distance ourselves from getting hung up on it as it’s like a snake eating its own tail.”

Diversity is getting better in street art – in the 10 years since the pair got involved with the scene, more and more women, both solo and in crews, are becoming known.

But according to some, if it’s not their gender they’re exploiting, it’s their sexual orientation, as if it’s suddenly trendy to token-hire LGBTQ street artists regardless of talent.

“Recently someone accused us of using our sexuality to further our careers, which is baffling,” says Gilleard.

“I believe this is in part because, to my knowledge, we are the only lesbian couple painting together as a duo. It’s shocking people could think all our success rides on that and not the fact we have worked our hands to the bone to get here.

“I like to think our skills speak for themselves but it certainly says something when in this day and age some put our success down to our sexuality being a ‘fad’.”

That’s not to say of course that representing LGBTQ women in an industry populated largely by straight men isn’t significant – as Gilleard points out, their mere presence at the top end of the scale is a statement in itself.

“It improves our visibility as a community in society which is valuable in itself – particularly for young queers. I hope that them having peers and successful role models in all walks of life sends the message that whatever your background, gender or sexuality you can make a successful go at anything,” Gilleard explains.

“I have at times in my life felt it necessary to hide who I am and most definitely struggled to feel comfortable in my own skin. In earlier years I felt completely alien. It’s not a nice place to be but street art gave me my voice and helped me with self-acceptance.

“It’s especially affecting when our art moves people. The day we finished Athena Rising we were bombarded with heartfelt messages about what it means to people in Leeds, which to me is the most satisfying part.

“That’s not a piece dealing with LGBTQ issues, but us simply being who we are is probably our most direct statement – we are a queer female couple and we’re visible.”

Plenty of Gilleard and Garner’s work features strong female figures, and creating pieces for charity and for the queer community means a lot to them – their first project together was a huge mural of LGBTQ icons on the side of The Molly House in Manchester.

“Molly’s was great because it was a ‘We’re here, we’re queer’ moment celebrating the queer history of Manchester – but also, if we hadn’t done that project together Nomad Clan wouldn’t even exist,” Gilleard tells us. “It was a voluntary project too, we didn’t get paid but we wanted to see an LGBTQ mural go up and we loved every minute of it. We learned a lot from that job about large-scale painting.

“We have just done a collaboration with Pride and Ebay too, which will be revealed in full shortly. It’s a feel-good project that will get auctioned off after the London Pride parade and the money goes to charities working with homeless LGBTQ young people.”

Street art as a whole has come a long way, not just in its burgeoning diversity or how it’s broken into the mainstream as an acceptable art form, but in how artists are embracing social media to promote their work.

Gilleard says Instagram has “almost become an extension to painting a piece. In no way does it replace getting your pieces up in as many places as you can, but it certainly grows your audience and it’s brought us work.

“While you can’t rely on that solely and a lot of the most-established names just don’t need it, we appreciate it as a tool that can make a real difference if you’re clever about how you use it and keep it as real as possible.”

The public nature of street art and graffiti means it’s accessible to all, and it makes a difference in various ways. Recently, painted bees sprang up around Manchester in the wake of the arena bombing as a sign of solidarity, of hope, of community.

As Nomad Clan, Gilleard and Garner – who recently painted for Urban Nation’s One Wall project in Berlin – hope to always represent the mural’s locale in each piece.

“We always try to paint things that are connected to the local community – it means more to the area,” Gilleard tells us. “We want our murals to have a story that people know, read into or relate to.

“When that story is painted on a huge wall it somehow becomes a memorial or a site of remembrance, whether it’s for an industry that’s dying out, a moment in time that shouldn’t be forgotten or a celebration of the people who lived in the area. Street art should never lose its message or meaning.”

And now in Leeds, thousands of commuters will see Athena Rising, painted as part of the A City Less Grey project from East Street Arts and funded by LeedsBID. Gilleard in particular is pleased to have made a mark in a city close to her hometown of Huddersfield and where she lived for years.

“People seem to be blown away by it, this is a first for Leeds so I think it means a lot more to people than it would elsewhere. There are no giant murals elsewhere in the city and little street art generally; the fact it’s the biggest in the UK is just the icing on the cake,” Gilleard says.

“The owl is on the city’s coat of arms and historically signifies knowledge, wealth and transition, and is sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena. The gold symbols are loosely inspired by the study of mathematics in nature, and the main themes are connected to the building, which is a networking, co-working space – connectivity, creativity and innovation.

“To give something to the community on such a scale is a great honour and a privilege. I used to work in the Subway round the corner in my old life and never would have imagined doing this in a million years! I know as a younger artist living in the city, back then it would have given me hope seeing something of that scale go up in a city with very few murals.” 

Upcoming projects include collaborating with brands such as Harvey Nichols and the Co-op, then they’ll headline street art festivals around the world before some much-missed studio time preparing for exhibitions (and spending quality time with their cats and Netflix).

Garner says: “We are being booked in for next year already and even 2020. The launch of Urban Nation’s new street art museum in Berlin in September will be pretty much the closest thing to a holiday we’ll have.

“But we love it. This year everything has come together in a brilliant way. We were doing all the right things and working like crazy, hoping it was just a matter of time and perseverance before it would start to take off, and it has.

“There are no shortcuts to success – we’d advise anyone interested to be aware of your ego and always strive to better your skills. You can do it if you want it enough.”

Gilleard sums it up: “It can be exhausting and there are times when you feel hopeless, penniless, creatively blocked, but neither of us want it to end; ideally we will be nanas still painting because we can’t imagine doing anything else. Plus it’s the only thing we are good at!”

Follow Nomad Clan on Facebook and Instagram here.

Find out more about A City Less Grey here.


Main image courtesy of Street Art Atlas / @streetartatlas


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.