You have seen his street art across the city, now meet the man behind it - award winning artist Paul Curtis

Liverpool artist Paul Curtis has impressed royalty, been headhunted by film director Danny Boyle and now speaks to LiverpoolWorld about his unexpected rise to the spotlight.

Paul Curtis with his Strength, Hope and Recovery piece at The Atkinson. Image: Paul Curtis Artwork

“It’s a secret. If the wall ever gets knocked down then I might reveal what it means,” says artist Paul Curtis, creator of the iconic Liver Bird wings artwork on a wall in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle.

He’s talking about a white crown in the middle of the wings that almost magically floats above your head if you happen to be the right size to stand underneath it.

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“Not many people notice it and I’ve only told one or two friends the meaning behind it.”

The small white crown hovers between the Liver Bird wings. Image: Paul Curtis Artwork

Curtis began to emerge as a star in 2017 after creating For All Liverpool’s Liver Birds, which he painted in a day: “I knew I needed to do something to make an impact, it just came to me after I was looking through Instagram and I realised I had to create something people in Liverpool could be part of.

“The wings were going to be white, but then I thought it was important to base it on the Liver Birds so it could be a symbol of the city. I asked permission to paint the wings, but found out later the person who gave me permission wasn’t actually the owner – fortunately the owner was pleased.”

Several famous faces have been pictured in front of the wings including the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, who visited the artwork while accompanying Prince Charles on trip to Liverpool in 2019 to celebrate the Albert Dock gaining royal status.

Woolton-born Curtis, who was named Liverpool City Region Artist of the Year 2020, says: “Someone at Clarence House thought it was a good idea to have a photo with the wings. I thought a friend was winding me up when they called about it, but then it became real when I had to have background checks. I met Camilla and we had a good laugh.

“She said something like, ‘So you’re the rascal who painted this.’ The trip was supposed to be about Charles, but it ended up being about Camilla.” The Duchess of Cornwall’s picture appeared across the news and Curtis’ work started to get national recognition.

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Incredibly, Curtis, a geologist by profession who worked in the oil industry, has only been painting for four years and didn’t have ambitions to become an artist.

He says: “I did art at school to GCSE level, I enjoyed drawing, but that was it. When I was working as a geologist in 2014, there was a crash in the market and I lost my job.

“I was working in London and thought I would sit it out as things normally pick up.

“I was applying for jobs for a long time but without success and started feeling myself going into a black hole.”

He moved back to Liverpool in 2016 and said it was during this time his sister asked him to paint his niece’s nursery: “It was Bambi and some of the Disney characters, I don’t think she slept in there once, but I ended up putting it on Facebook. Friends thought I was good and that I had something, but I didn’t know where to start.

“I suppose with art there’s no huge initial outlay, but it was a new business and I was unknown.”

Away Days at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park.

Curtis found it difficult to get business and says looking back he feels embarrassed that he went cold calling to bars and restaurants: “I did a few pieces in my own flat to have something to show them. I used to go into bars and sneakily take pictures, then photoshop my work into the photos so the owners could see what the place might look like if they commissioned me.

“It worked a few times, but it was a lot of labour for not much return.” It was at this point he knew he needed to “grab attention” and decided to create the Liver Birds wings.

Not long after painting the wings, Curtis did a 40-metre wide mural for Liverpool Shopping Park in Edge Lane and the ‘wind ups’ continued - but this time it was Hollywood calling.

A film crew was driving into Liverpool when they spotted the mural in the retail car park. The crew were working with director Danny Boyle on Yesterday, a film about a struggling musician who realises he’s the only person on earth who can remember The Beatles and becomes famous after taking credit for their songs.

Paul Curtis and Danny Boyle worked together on Yesterday. Image: Paul Curtis Artwork

“Someone from Danny Boyle’s team called and I thought it was a wind up again but it was a conference call and he was there,” Curtis explains.

They asked Curtis, who didn’t have a studio, to paint a huge mural for the film.

“About 99% of the time my work is on site, I live in a flat and didn’t have a place to work so I did it in my sister’s garage and driveway.

“I hired a van and drove at midnight to the film set at Lime Street Station to help put it up.

“I’m a massive fan of Danny Boyle so it was hugely exciting for me.”

The commissions then started rolling in and Curtis was hired by Everton Football Club to create two murals around Goodison Park.

He also decided that he was going to do a piece of work for himself every year and had an idea for a giant Michael Jackson mural of the late singer while he was dancing different phases of his infamous moonwalk. He started painting the mural on the corner of Colquitt Street and Seel Street in Liverpool’s city centre, but the work didn’t go quite according to plan.

Curtis says: “Someone called the police as I was doing it and six officers turned up. I had asked the council if they owned the building and they told me it was BT and BT said it was the council. I basically asked if anyone had objections and they all said no.

“I ended up trying to find an email saying it was alright to do the mural so I could show the police. It worked out in the end and the police actually really liked it themselves.”

Curtis has created almost 200 pieces of art to date. He says he has noticed a pattern where he is asked to do something in areas due to get investment because his murals are seen as a ‘quick win’ and a way of having a massive impact.

A collage of some of Paul’s work. Image: Paul Curtis Artwork

New Ferry, Wirral, an area which was in decline, was devastated in 2017 by the largest explosion in Merseyside since WWII.

Local furniture shop owner Pascal Blasio was found guilty and jailed in 2019 for deliberately causing the ‘apocalyptic’ gas explosion which injured 81 people, as part of a botched insurance scam.

Curtis was asked by leaders in the community to start a project there.

“There was pushback initially, but then it got support,” he says. Last summer Curtis transformed five shops, which included a deli painted with five black saddleback piglets and a butchers decorated with two highland cows. During the second part of the project in spring this year he painted a further 12 murals, which took ten weeks to complete.

Wirral Council announced in May that it was looking for a development partner to deliver ‘an exciting and comprehensive regeneration’ scheme in New Ferry.

Curtis explains: “I’m not saying this happened because of my work, but sometimes it feels as though it is a catalyst.”

He was recently commissioned by Sefton Council to do a 15-metre high mural in Southport of iconic racehorse Red Rum who was trained in the area.

He says it was supposed to coincide with the 2020 Grand National which was ultimately postponed due to the pandemic.

The mural of Red Rum at Aintree. Image: Paul Curtis Artwork

The Atkinson in Southport is also featuring Curtis’ work and one of his colourful murals is central to a Red Rum exhibition on at the gallery until the end of October this year. Another piece of work, Strength, Hope and Recovery, has been on display in the foyer of The Atkinson and portrays a nurse kneeling in front of the Liver Bird wings. It is due to tour around Merseyside galleries and will be auctioned in aid of Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust next year.

In August, Curtis created a tribute to campaigner Anne Williams who lost her son in the Hillsborough football disaster and spent two decades fighting for justice. Curtis’ mural, which was commissioned by a family friend of Williams, is a poignant image of the campaigner holding her fist aloft celebrating the conclusions of the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012, which quashed the initial inquest verdicts.

Curtis says he felt connected to Williams, who died in 2013, when he was painting the mural in Anfield, and believes the way she lived her life is a lesson in perseverance and standing up for what is right against the odds.

Curtis says he sometimes gets criticism about his work before it is completed, but that it doesn’t overly concern him because he is now at a stage where he is confident about producing the finished pieces.

There has been a lot of discussion recently in Ainsdale, Merseyside, about Curtis’ latest project, another commission from Sefton Council, to paint the outside of the derelict Toad Hall nightclub. The area of the building being painted is so vast the finished mural will be one of the biggest in the UK.

There was talk of toads on the building, but Curtis did not feel the colour and shape of the amphibians were a good fit for the mural and decided on sand lizards.

The sand lizard wraps around the length of the building.

He says: “They are slender, fit along the building and will be green with bright yellows, I wanted the mural to stand out but not dominate the landscape.

“People do like to give their opinion before a project is finished. A few years ago it might have affected me, but now it just makes me laugh. You wouldn’t go to a building site and say something about a house that isn’t finished. You can criticise me all you want afterwards, but not partway through.”

Apart from art, Curtis enjoys to run. He has taken part in 15 marathons and completed his latest race last month in Riga, Latvia. He is also an official ambassador for Liverpool at the World Gymnastics Championships which will be held in the city in 2022 and joins Olympians Beth Tweddle and Max Whitlock who are also supporting the event.

Curtis says he now has just a passing interest in geology but jokes: “In the oil world they used to say all geologists do is colour in maps. But as a friend once said to me, I suppose they were quite beautiful maps.”