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Artist Frank Styles, Sunderland Software Centre Manager Berni Whitaker and Deputy Leader of Sunderland City Council

Artist paints a bright future for city’s tech sector

A SUNDERLAND artist, whose work has transformed grey gable ends into iconic street corners, has added a creative new canvas to his portfolio of work.

Frank Styles, the street artist behind some of the city’s best known ‘graffiti’ art, including a mural of Sunderland AFC icon Raich Carter, has added his unique brand of art to Sunderland’s tech incubator, Sunderland Software Centre. 

The giant mural adorns the walls and ceiling of the atrium of the centre, which opened its doors in 2013 and has become a hotspot for high-tech businesses, with scores of tenants ranging from games development companies to web developers and video production specialists.

The artwork, which Styles dubs an 'anamorphic digital rainbow' shines a light on the city’s evolution from a shipbuilding and glassmaking powerhouse to an emerging hub of digital technologies.  It features a bird, a giant floppy disk and humanoid figures, charting man’s journey into the digital age. 

Speaking about the inspiration behind the design, Styles said: “I wanted this mural to reflect how we have moved from the natural world to the digital age, a story that is relevant to the Software Centre which is home to businesses that are using some of the most cutting edge technology day-in and day-out. 

“The rose is a symbol of balance. Held by a robot hand, it suggests a balance between man and machine.  The bird symbolises freedom; they can walk on the earth and swim in water as humans do, but they also have the ability to soar into the sky.  Through digital media, we have the freedom to travel anywhere in the world through the many lifetimes of knowledge at our finger tips.

“As the rainbow advances, a floppy disk floats in front of a pixelated orange cloud.  This reminds us how far digital technology has come.  Sitting in front of an abstracted cloud, it is there to signify the online 'cloud' we use every day.  And the humanoid figures are referenced from an artwork called 'Entity III' by Dr Joanne Mitchell.  Dr Mitchell invented a technique in Sunderland that uses Computer Numerical Control (CNC) high pressure water jets to cut glass.  The glass is then fused together and the figures are bubbles caught forever in the fused glass.  They show how digital techniques are combined with Sunderland's historical expertise in glass production to create something new and beautiful."

Styles has also painted a second, smaller mural dubbed “DNA Connections” adjacent to the centre’s reception.  He said: “Connectivity and data encoded into DNA are the basis for this freehand spray paint mural.

“The image also features abstracted shapes and colours taken from my recent work in the studio.

DNA data storage is set to become a viable option for long term data storage.  This mural design also considers the relationship between connective networks and the humans using them.”

To complete the 42 ft artwork, Frank had to use a cherry picker to rise him up to the ceiling of the building, and paint much of the work from beneath.  He used more than 120 tins of spray paint to complete the mural, and it took him around 135 hours in total.

Frank added: “It was challenging to complete, but I’m really happy with the finished product and it’s been great seeing the centre’s tenants’ and visitors’ reaction to it too.”

One such tenant is Adam Hill, chief executive of software specialists Consult & Design, who said: “The walls of the Software Centre were effectively a blank canvas and the energy and creativity that Frank has injected into our workspace is really welcome.

“Bringing together technology, people and the natural world is fundamental to how software is developed so it is fitting that this is reflected on the walls of the building. It has been fascinating to see it develop over the last few weeks, wondering what comes next.

“The final result is a fantastic piece of art that gives this space for innovation new colour and personality fitting with the range of businesses that call it home.”

Sunderland City Council worked with the University of Sunderland fine art graduate to agree the design, after previously partnering to produce murals to mark the arrival of the Tall Ships last year.

Styles now has over 20 pieces of art on display across the city including a giant butterfly painting on Villiers Street, a shipbuilding mural on Panns Bank and the Tall Ships artwork which stretches from the Port of Sunderland to the city centre.

Cllr Michael Mordey, Deputy Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “Over the past six years the Software Centre has played a pivotal role in establishing Sunderland as a tech hotspot and the mural produced by Frank is a fantastic reflection of the city’s digital transformation.

“We have some incredible businesses in the centre, many of whom are at the creative end of the digital industry, so ensuring the environment they work out of is one they can be proud of – and that fits with their own image - is really important. 

“Frank has managed to create a piece of art that perfectly complements the space we have in the centre, creating a show-stopping welcome that will inspire people who visit.  And as a local artist, it’s great to be able to showcase his talent in a place that is right at the heart of Sunderland’s economic transformation.”

Styles has also captured the process of creating his colourful work on camera, producing a time-lapse video of the entire process from start to finish.

For more information about Sunderland as a place for software and technology companies, visit www.makeitsunderland.com, call +44(0)191 561 1194, or email info@makeitsunderland.com.  Or follow @MAKEitSund on Twitter for updates from the city.