Street Artist Steve McCracken talks about Sid the Seagull, bringing colour to Exeter's streets, and how the lockdown has enhanced his creativity

It was a lockdown Tuesday, and I had taken a walk into town with my daughter to take photos (proper homeschooling) - she's interested in art, animals, colours and crystals. We walked down Gandy Street taking pictures when she spotted a brightly coloured bird painted onto the wall, she smiled up at me and said; "It's beautiful Mummy, is it from the Amazon?" 

Great British Life: Sid and Friends.Sid and Friends. (Image: Steve McCracken)

After that, we saw striking, colourful birds all over the city, and I saw them all over my social media feeds as parents and children shared their joy. The man behind the birds is unassuming artist Steve McCracken, a sweet and gentle soul who likes to work under the radar. Steve's street birds started appearing in Exeter in 2019, they really came into their own during the first lockdown in 2020. 

Originally from Sidmouth, Steve headed to the bright lights of London in his twenties with his band, immersing himself in the music scene and later, the street art scene, as he explains: "I'm a keen surfer, and when I was in London, I couldn't keep coming back to Devon to surf, I needed something to do to replace that, so I got into street art."

Great British Life: Steve McCracken painting in Exeter.Steve McCracken painting in Exeter. (Image: Mike Gillan)

Making a name for himself on the art scene in London, Steve speaks of his work passionately and poetically; he explains that the birds' wings naturally represented water and the ocean - his slice of Devon in London. "When I painted through London I got the buzz of doing street art, it was like I was surfing through the city, it was like my ocean, my place to call home.”

Steve and his wife moved back to Devon after their daughter was born and settled in Exeter; "I love Exeter as a city, and I couldn't believe there was no street art". He tells me that he began painting the birds to "bring a bit of love to the city." He explains that he wants to brighten people's days with his birds, starting conversations and creating a magical world for the children.

Great British Life: Sid, give us a chip by Steve McCracken.Sid, give us a chip by Steve McCracken. (Image: Steve McCracken)

He adds: “People are walking much more during the lockdown, and they started noticing these little birds. I placed a lot of them low down on the walls so that children would find them and adults might not so that the children feel like they are living in this kind of really cool imaginary world - it just adds some magic."

On his return to his home county, Steve's birds transformed with the landscape; "The pigeons turned into seagulls, and that was when Sid (his Seagull character) came around. In Exeter, people both hate them and love them, but they are part of our landscape down here, and I thought maybe people would like Sid."

Great British Life: Steve has his own studio in the Guildhall, Exeter.Steve has his own studio in the Guildhall, Exeter. (Image: Steve McCracken)

Steve has a studio space in Guildhall Shopping Centre, where he exhibits his work and that of other local artists. He adds; "I have met some really cool artists doing this and I think that it's important to show other artists together. I's good to have other eyes so that there's enough contrast in the art on display".

Steve's work can be seen across the city from the Quay to Gandy Street, on buildings, shop fronts and even people's garden walls - on request. He has been working mostly for free in his efforts to "brighten up the city". He paints in secret using washable paint on surfaces where he hasn't had prior permission and sticking pre-painted smaller birds that are easily removed.

Great British Life: Love In Chaotic Times by Steve McCracken.Love In Chaotic Times by Steve McCracken. (Image: Steve McCracken)

"It's temporary. Street art isn't supposed to last forever, it's supposed to be moving forward, and that's what I love about it. It's a way for me to paint continuously and get my fix and hopefully, it makes people smile.

I ask Steve what the future holds; he tells me that he plans to keep painting as much as possible in the street. The Studio in Guildhall will reopen post-lockdown, and he will put on a one-off event; "I want to do a show of limited edition prints of my paintings, for one night only where everyone can come and dress up and have a really nice night."

He is a busy guy, collaborating with an artist in Detroit on a project but he would really love to paint a massive piece on a multi-storey building in Exeter - I say bring it on!

Great British Life: Just Passing Through by Steve McCracken.Just Passing Through by Steve McCracken. (Image: Steve McCracken)