One year on… And the bees still buzz

  • Amy-Lea Wright explores how England’s 'second city' came together through art, after the tragic events of 22nd May 2017.

I’d toyed with the idea of getting inked ever since it became legal for me to but I couldn’t quite decide on a symbol meaningful enough to have permanently etched onto my skin. Even after I’d eagerly handed in my fifty quid for the victims’ fund and Samantha Beedie had started scratching away at my inner arm, three days after the arena attack, I couldn’t help but think: “shit, I’m going to regret this.”

Now, almost a year later, I still proudly push my sleeve up to reveal my stripy little six-legged companion at any given opportunity. So much so, that, “wait ‘til she gets her bee out,” is now my boyfriend’s favourite quip when we meet someone new.

It seems the humble worker bee is hard to avoid in Manchester. Adopted as a motif during the industrial revolution, it originally represented Mancunians’ hard work in the textile mills which were often described as being ‘hives of activity.’ Now, it has a whole new meaning – as a public symbol of unity after last year’s attack. I refuse to call it a ‘terror’ attack because terror was not created.

“I was actually painting loads of bees in a bar called ‘The Brink’ the night it happened,” artist Russ Meehan told me.

“I’d been painting bees for a few years before the attack so I’d already got quite a name for myself for doing them. That bar commissioned me to paint a swarm of bees going down the stairs. I’d just finished it, left the building and got onto Deansgate, and I could see loads of people walking down and one girl didn’t have her shoes on. I thought it was a bit strange but assumed she was just really drunk or something. Then two undercover police cars came past at a hundred miles an hour and I thought that can’t just be a fight. It was only when I got back home I saw what had happened.”

Russ, who creates his artwork under the name Qubek, is the man behind the mural on Oldham Street which depicts 22 bees in tribute to the 22 people who were killed in the attack.

“I wanted to do a memorial piece but I knew it’d have to be a really good wall to paint where a lot of people would see it.” Russ continued. “I did have the idea myself but I thought I probably haven’t got the sway to make this happen. That’s why I did those two smaller pieces in Stevenson Square first, with the hands and the love heart, because I just wanted to give something back to everyone that had done so much to help out on the night and the following days after.

“It was my way of showing how I felt about the whole thing. I saw everyone doing positive things like giving hugs to strangers in the street. I think, as human beings, we do react quite quickly but without thinking too much about it – that was where I was. I had it in my head that I wanted to do those pieces and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It became a bit of an obsession.

“The Manchester Evening News got in touch with me because they wanted to do a big memorial piece too, so I left it with them and they went out and tried to find a suitable wall. They paid for the paint and the cherry picker and everything – they made it happen really.

“I didn’t think it would go as viral as it did. I do use social media but I’ve never really been involved – apart from when I painted over David Bowie with Sloth from The Goonies and everyone went crazy. That was the first time I realised how powerful social media can be if you do something that means something to people.

“A lot of people have heard about me through this so I wanted to do something positive with it. I’ve raised about £16,000 for charity from those paintings as well as a load of bee canvases which I gave to people to auction off. I’m not planning to do any more memorials because I don’t want it to look like I’m trying to make money or gain any attention from what happened.

“When I did those few pieces at the time I think it was the perfect response and it was something that was automatic for me. I have got plans to carry on putting my bees around but they won’t specifically be linked to the attack. I started doing this for the fun of it, a few years ago, and I want to carry on.”

Chris Greenhalgh is the brains behind the ‘I Love MCR’ logo which, much like the worker bee, has become an emblem of the city’s refusal to bow down to hatred and division in the wake of last year’s attack.

“My Mrs and I were taking a break (from each other) and as I was in bed at my parents’ house, I received a panicking text from her asking where I was and if I was safe,” Chris told me.

“It actually brought us back together. We needed to be together and realised the world is cruel enough.”

Whether an expatriate, honorary, or born and bred Mancunian, everyone came together in a remarkable way. At the end of the minute of silence for the victims in St Ann’s Square, one woman started to sing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger,’ before the crowd picked it up and hundreds could be heard joining in. 10,000 people got worker bee tattoos, raising over half a million pounds for the victims and emergency services in the process. Even football rivalries couldn’t keep people apart – with Manchester City fans cheering on their Manchester United opponents ‘for one night only.’

“I’ve got to say, my favourite moments had to be the vigil, seeing the flower memorial at St Ann’s Square and, of course, the One Love concert,” Chris continued, “I drove to Spain later in the summer and listened to that concert on Spotify with a tear in my eye.”

Chris, a graphic designer and now CEO of the thriving I Love MCR organisation, made the logo in reaction to the infamous Manchester and Salford riots back in 2011. An antidote to anti-social behaviour – with an aim to show the world that the people of Manchester are proud of their city.

Originally inspired by the ‘I Love NY’ logo, there were no issues regarding copyright, Chris told me, “I don’t believe consumers would readily see it as indicating ‘I Love Manchester’ in the way they would see ‘I Love NY’ as indicating ‘I Love New York.’ That’s New York’s known abbreviation whereas it took a lot of bold work to install ‘MCR’ as Manchester’s recognised unofficial abbreviation.”

I couldn’t resist asking Chris if he knew what else ‘MCR’ stood for. “Yes, tongue in cheek, My Chemical Romance were mentioned a lot,” he said, “But that abbreviation was definitely an important factor for the symbol. The method of good graphic design is to get the message across in as few words as possible.

“To see that sign reverberated all over the city after the arena attack was magnificent. All the PR and marketing behind I Love MCR for the past seven years resulted in the logo being used to help the city come back to some sort of normality.

“We’ve raised about £100,000 through selling various merchandise which features the logo over the past nine months. Now, we’re launching a membership app to give something back to our followers via our relationships with various vendors all over Manchester. We have invested in new media throughout the city, including outdoor digital screens and radio stations and we aim to be the biggest platform in Manchester with the strongest integrity.

“The way Manchester reacts to anything is different to anywhere on earth. The civic pride is unrivalled and we are the friendliest people on the planet. We try to express our passion and pride through original music, art and poems but we express it best through one another.”

I always thought I was biased in believing Manchester is the greatest city in the world. I mean, it’s the place where I found my first love. Where I went to my first rave. Where I christened my first crock-pot. Where I simply learned to live on my own – after eighteen years of being wrapped up in cotton wool in a small town on the north-east coast. Of course, it was always going to be the greatest city in the world.

Yet, after seeing the way in which the Manchester community united after the events of 22nd May last year, I know that it really is the greatest city in the world. No doubt about it.