Street art icon Akse on heroes, guerilla graffiti in Paris and supporting mental health at the Manchester Art Fair

The artists will be releasing one of his most recognisable works as a print at the fair this year

By Ben Arnold | 27 October 2023

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If you live in Manchester, you’ve seen Akse’s work. You just have.

The artist, who prefers to keep his identity under wraps, has created some of the most arresting pieces of street art in the city, from his famous mural of Marcus Rashford in Withington to the boyish Ian Curtis looking towards the light in the Northern Quarter, a rendering of the famous picture taken by photographer Philippe Carly.

It’s thanks to his work – and the work of a burgeoning scene of ludicrously talented street artists – that Manchester is increasingly seen as a destination for the at-times controversial style of contemporary art.

Akse Manchester Art Fair

Born in France to Vietnamese parents, Akse has been a resident of Manchester since the late 90s, but cut his teeth on the streets of his hometown of Paris.

“I mean I’ve been drawing since I’m a kid, really,” he says. “In the late 80s, early 90s, I got interested by the hip hop culture, and that’s when graffiti naturally appealed to me, and that’s when I started doodling and at some point, just got hold of some spray cans and tried on walls.”

It was in the ‘grey areas’ of the suburbs of Paris, the backstreets where he and like-minded friends could paint without – too much – fear of being collared that he honed his skills with the aerosol.

Akse Manchester Art Fair

“There were some isolated spots, where we could go and nobody would bother [us],” he says. “So they weren’t legal, but they weren’t illegal either. So that’s when we could practice and come up with large scale murals.”

Back then, his style was rather more rudimentary – b-boys and anime influenced him heavily – but he was always interested in the idea of photorealism, something that now dominates his work.

“It’s only when I moved to Manchester that that’s really the style that I thought I would focus on,” he goes on.

Akse Manchester Art Fair

His Nina Simone and Ray Charles in the Blues Kitchen, Curtis, of course, the late Denise Johnson, Mark E. Smith festooned in cigarette smoke on the side of a chippy in Prestwich, Emmeline Pankhurst, Tony Wilson, James Brown – all of these works are jarringly realistic.

They’re also people he regards as ‘heroes’. “They’re heroes to me, something I admire,” he says of his choice of subjects. “Whether it’s an actor, or a musician or someone who has done great things.”

This year for the Manchester Art Fair, Akse will be offering up his famous Ian Curtis mural – recently repainted after it was accidentally painted over last year – to buy as a print, for the very first time.

The mural originally went up in October 2020 to mark World Mental Health Day. And so each of the prints sold will be raising money for a great cause.

Akse Manchester Art Fair

“Because the original mural was painted for Shout, the mental health text servicing charity, that’s why we thought it was the right charity to support in this instance,” he says.  Hear hear.

You’ll be able to pick up the prints at the Manchester Art Fair, which kicks off on November 17.

You can buy tickets online here…