Oi Polloi

Interview — Mark Kennedy, Mosaic Mastermind

Published: Wed Jan 29 2014

Unless you walk around Manchester with your eyes closed, you’ve probably seen the handiwork of Mark Kennedy. He’s the man responsible for those mosaics on the side of Affleck’s Palace, a fair few gems up at Salford Quays and countless other tiled-wonders in the region. He also did those mighty-fine Stan Smith heads for us that are dotted around the Northern Quarter. Seeing as we’ve been seeing him a fair bit lately it was only right that we picked his brain/pecked his head on a few things.

Here’s some context for you… the location is the beer garden in The Castle on Oldham Road — Mark’s got a pint of Guinness, I’ve got a cold, refreshing cola and Steve has opted for a cool glass of lemonade. Being the cultured bunch that we are, the subject is Gaudi…

Mark: He got run over by a tram in Barcelona. His body was in the morgue for a week ‘cause no one knew who he was. He was in his working clothes so he looked like a tramp. They were like, “Who the fuck’s this?” It was the man who’d designed these beautiful churches and they thought he was a tramp. I love the fact he collected all these plates and used them. It was very unpretentious work. He wasn’t trying to be great, he was just decorating things.

Sam: Was he someone who influenced you then?

Mark: He was. My influences were in Spain. I went living in Madrid.

Sam: How long ago is this?

Mark: This must have been 1990.

Sam: I’m not prying, but how old would you have been then?

Mark: In 1990? I’m 49 so I must have been about 25. I’d met a girl in Leeds. A Spanish girl who was on an exchange and as I wasn’t at university or anything I ended up going over there. There was this old Moroccan fella sat outside a café, giving it all that, sticking things on walls. He’d have a drink, a spliff and stick a tile on, and I thought, “What a fucking job that is.”

Sam: So that’s what set it off then?

Mark: Yeah, undoubtedly. Then I came back to Manchester and a pal of mine said he was going to the Holy Island off the Isle of Arran. So I went over there and ended up becoming a monk, as there’s fuck all else to do, and I got into looking at iconography then — Buddhist iconography. And then I come back to Manchester and there’s all this Spanish crap everywhere. Bars like Via Vita, as if Manchester was on the continent — we were losing our identity.

So I’ve got the Moroccan man sticking bits on the wall, the Buddhist iconography and then Manchester and my identity and I started thinking about things that we’ve got and changing things into tiles. I realised these can exist outside on walls, and because of the weather, they’re self-cleaning.

Sam: At this point were you just making them for yourself?

Mark: The first one was for the Temple of Convenience as I’d got a job knocking the toilets out. So I made some mosaics in there, but they were shit. After that I did six pieces in The Coliseum — George Best, Lowry, Boddingtons and three others that I can’t remember. I walked out of there and Affleck’s had been firebombed and they’d bricked up all the windows. I looked at them and thought, “What great canvases.” So I went over to see Elaine and asked if there was any chance of me doing work on there.

Sam: When did you realise you could do it as a job?

Mark: When I sold one. The first one I ever sold was Quentin Crisp. As I was making it he died in Manchester, which was dead weird.

Sam: You always choose fairly off-centre people for your mosaics, like Billy Casper or Travis Bickle. Why’s this?

Mark: Well, Billy Casper relates back to being about fifteen or sixteen. The first time you watch Kes is a real moment — an epiphany. I went to the same kind of school as him and it was fucking horrible. I was bullied all the time and that turns you into a bully. I was at an all-boys school where no one was learning fuck all. I really identified with Casper.

The George Best one, even though I’m a City fan, he was a folk hero really. He was just super-cool wasn’t he? It was never that Beatles sort of George Best, because I was a bit too young for that, it was always the one with the hair — the semi-alcoholic footballer.

But I still retain that interest in off-kilter stuff, left-field people… Mark E. Smith, Captain Beefheart, that sort of thing. Even though my work is semi-commercial, I stay away from it looking like a photograph. Photo-realism for me doesn’t cut it. I like things that you’ve got to look at it a bit. Is it ugly or beautiful? I’m not quite sure.

Sam: How do you go about doing them? How do you make a mosaic?

Mark: A few years ago I would have said that was my business, but now I don’t feel like that. I had no benchmark when I started; it all came out of my mind. The first one I did was the Dalai Lama. Then I did a companion piece of Chairman Mao as all my teachers were Tibetans. They were telling me about their struggles, leaving Tibet and being shot at. Then from that I became interested in doing ones on things like Joy Division and The Fall.

Sam: The icons thing goes back to Buddhism. What were you learning at the monastery? What were they teaching you?

Mark: They were trying to teach us very basic things. Get up early, get a shovel, do some digging, do the pots, peel onions, it was like the army, it wasn’t like this love and peace thing. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t like that. Zen Buddhism isn’t like that. You’re scrubbing tiles for the first four years before you even get to say hello to the Roshi. It’s a very Presbyterian kind of work ethic. I didn’t have a work ethic then, and I’ve only got half a one now.

Sam: They helped to hammer something in then?

Mark: When I told Lama Yeshe I wanted to go back to Manchester he said, “Okay, do that, but you’ve got to be the best.” Now you might think, “Wait a minute? Best? That’s ego,” but it wasn’t like that. Being the best meant that whatever you do, commit yourself to it, and that stuck with me for a long time. I’m losing it now, but…

Sam: Have you ever done other things like painting, or has it always been mosaics?

Mark: Yeah, I’ve done other things, I’ve done album covers for The Fall, and I’ve made films, but they’ve always got fucked up right at the end. I’ve had a lot of bad luck with movies.

Sam: Which Fall covers did you do?

Mark: I did Your Future Our Clutter, I did Reformation Post TLC, and what was the other one I did? I can’t remember the third one, but I’ve done three of them.

Sam: Do you feel they’re coming from a similar sort of place with things?

Mark: I think they’ve educated me actually, especially my friendship with Mark. He used to always say to me, “Stay underground — always stay underground. You’ll get a career out of underground; you won’t get that out of the over-ground. You’ll end up going in the Big Brother house.” He says that people are always asking him to go on I’m a Celebrity and things like that, but he knows that as soon as he touches that, then he’s fucked. He’s gone — like John Lydon selling butter. Instead of making records, he sells butter, you know what I mean?

Sam: Before the mosaics and the Buddhism and all that, what were you doing?

Mark: I was cleaning toilets, I was skinning chickens. My dad tried to get me to be a hairdresser. I turned up at the hairdressers and they said who’s cut your hair? I said I had. They said, “I’m sorry son, you’re not going to get a job here with a haircut like that.” It was either music or sport — that was your get-out clause from industrial Manchester.

Sam: So you always wanted to do something creative?

Mark: Yep. Always. That’s the way my brain works. I’ve no idea about money or mathematics or anything like that. I don’t know how it works, one side of my brain is full of maggots, and the other one’s full of gold. I couldn’t be an electrician.

Sam: Have you got any favourites?

Mark: No, not at all, I don’t have any favourites. Once I’ve done something it’s done. It’s out there. It’s gone. I quite like dogs. I love dogs. And that dog on Affleck’s is a favourite of mine. It’s a beautiful image of a Patterdale Terrier. When people’s dogs die I’d like to put their ashes in a mosaic so they can look at it on their wall and think, “My dog’s in that.” The yanks love dogs. I was in New York and I saw this woman pushing a pram, and it wasn’t a baby in it, it was a dog. I thought, “This is my kind of place.” I like New York; I’d like to work there.

Sam: What would you do over there? Would you take Manchester things over there?

Mark: Nah, it’d be One Direction and Led Zeppelin. It’d be whatever’s on the mugs and the fridge magnets. That’s the way it’ll have to go. I’m alright with that. I just want paying.

Sam: Do you see a difference between your own stuff and the commissions you get?

Mark: No. I work for anybody. I’ll do anything. There’s some things that’d be hard. I’d find it hard to get out of bed to do a Mick Hucknall mosaic.

Sam: I don’t know, I think it would have a certain something about it.

Mark: Well, I’d do it. When I did Bernard Manning I put his ashes in the mosaic on the front of the embassy club. I find Bernard hilarious. I was watching him the other night on Youtube, the man’s hilarious. I’ve got the ashes of Chris Sievey — Frank Sidebottom. I quite like the death mosaics ‘cause that kind of goes back to the Buddhism thing in a way, ‘cause Buddhism is about death.

Sam: How are you going to do Chris’s one?

Mark: There’s a good story about him. He went to New York to play a gig in a comedy store. When he was going through customs the yanks said, “So how long are you staying for?” and he just said “I’m coming back in about three hours. I’m just going to do a gig then I’m going back home.” No one does that so they were very suspicious of him. They said, “What have you got in his bag?” and he replied, “I’ve just got a head.” He opens his bag and he’s got Frank’s head in there.

I quite like the idea of taking a picture of Chris, putting his ashes in it, taking it to New York, leaving it there, and coming back.

I think if you create art, it has to be off-the-wall; it has to be crazy, there has to be madness in it.

Sam: It’s got to have something, otherwise it’s just weak.

Mark: If it doesn’t make someone either laugh, smile or be sick, then it’s not worth doing.

Steve: Or maybe all three at once.

Sam: What else have you got in the pipeline?

Mark: The Beatles in Liverpool — which is a massive thing for me. Iconographically, The Beatles are god, in the music world. Not in my world, I don’t particularly like The Beatles. I loved it when they were young playing skiffle music — I could watch them all day then — but when they were playing on top of buildings with beards, I can’t be doing with that.

Lennon telling us about being a working class hero, that doesn’t wash with me. Smith telling me about being a working class hero, after his teeth have just fallen in his pint, yeah, I can handle that.

Sam: I think I’ve ran out of questions here, you got any words of wisdom for us?

Mark: Here it is, keep the space small, but keep it beautiful.

See more of Mark’s stuff here

Photos by Mike Sallabank