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Big Interview: Jon Reid is passionate about Nuart and turning Aberdeen into an international canvas

Neil Drysdale
Jon Reid is among those who have made Nuart an international success.
Jon Reid is among those who have made Nuart an international success.

It all started with pieces of graffiti, a few names here, a few letters there, and gradually developed into a passion for Aberdeen street artist Jon Reid.

And now, more than 20 years later, he is one of the people who have been pivotal in the success of Nuart; the festival which has not only piqued local interest and attracted tens of thousands of international creatives and tourists to the Granite City, but is the focus of a new hour-long documentary Tog do Shuil – Painted City – on BBC Alba next week.

Jon, born and brought up in Mastrick, Aberdeen, didn’t believe he was a natural candidate for art school or further education, but as he told me: “On the streets, anyone could put up work, and I soon found out that an old school friend, Nicky, had been making his own wheat paste and quietly putting up posters and stickers around the city.”

Jon Reid with the graffiti artist KMG.

Sadly, his pal was taken away too soon, but it sparked something in him, a freedom of expression and a desire to bring energy and effervescence to an often sterile locale, which has gradually manifested itself into one of the north-east’s most popular events.

He said: “The extent of his work came to light after his passing which had a deep impact on me.

“Losing a friend at a young age was traumatic, but discovering his street art galvanised me into action. I kept putting up his work and making my own.

“I felt like I was able to stay connected to my friend through these actions and interventions.

“I also liked the idea of leaving these marks behind, so that, even if a piece of art only lasted a few days, at least people would know that he’d been there and some of his stickers are still out there in the wild today along with a few of my early stencils.”

Jon is one of life’s natural enthusiasts and his immersion in the project is obvious as he introduces visitors from every corner of the globe to the often refulgent and resplendent works which festoon Aberdeen whenever Nuart is in full swing.

The new programme demonstrates that even if you don’t regard yourself as an artist, there is a place for you in an environment where the message is: express yourself.

The wow factor is certainly strong with this event.

One moment, people are turning a corner, the next, their jaws are dropping at the sight of terrific pieces of civic culture, often on a large scale and produced by individuals with powerful imaginations.

And it doesn’t happen on this scale anywhere else in Scotland.

Jon Reid talks about Nuart to renowned American photojournalist Marhha Cooper.

Jon said: “Nuart is very much a collective effort with a small team spread across Aberdeen, the UK and Stavanger [in Norway].

“There’s a lot of planning that happens behind the scenes with the team at Aberdeen Inspired and I spend a fair bit of time walking around looking for potential walls and locations for art works.

“Along with that, I help with some of the festival coordination, sorting out paint and materials, sorting out access for cherry pickers, site health and safety and, of course, speaking to the public when they come to see an artist at work.

Everybody is pulling together

“Everyone from the core team to the wonderful local volunteers helps to make the festival happen and we try to make sure that everyone is valued for their contribution, whether it’s delivering lunches to a wall or an artist painting their mural on a gable end.

“The skills that Nuart has built up over the last five years have been important too, from investing in myself, so that I can jump between lots of roles from mural production to helping launch the festival on our social media, but also sharing production skills with our volunteers and local crew – many of them artists and art students themselves.

Nuart was a huge success in Aberdeen in 2022. Picture by Wullie Marr/DC Thomson.

“There’s a culture of support and sharing that runs through Nuart, but also the street art world which is really cool to see, even simple things such as sharing ladders.

“I’m always up for helping folk wherever I can and it has led to a new project on some walls at our art studios, Arkade, located in the city centre where we have hosted a spray paint workshop for Nuart, along with creating space for local artists to come and learn to paint at a bigger scale away from the busy legal walls.

“We’ve donated T-shirts and spray paint to local social work projects working with kids to address anti-social behaviour and using street art as a positive tool and we are looking at how we can support more [initiatives] across the city.”

slim safont nuart aberdeen
Nuart Aberdeen artist Slim Safont. Photo by Wullie Marr.

The documentary, presented by Mairi Rodgers – who is offered an opportunity to create her own lasting legacy on a city underpass – reflects a confidence which isn’t always evident in the region.

Yet Jon is among those with the heartfelt conviction that Nuart has the power and potency to lift people’s spirits in an often storm-tossed world.

He said: “We’ve been really lucky in Aberdeen to have great festivals and initiatives like Painted Doors and Throwup Gallery, which have also made an impact on the city.

I love telling how it came to life

“Nuart is special because, when the artists have finished their work, whether it’s murals on walls or posters pasted around the town, the artworks get to take on their own life.

“Of course, the street art tours are a great way to learn about them and I love to share the stories of their creation.

“I think giving people that information is empowering and they can decide what’s good, what’s not so good and maybe they’ll see something they like in a shape or a colour or a bit of history that inspired the works.

Jon Reid with artist Helen Bur at the Nuart festival.

“Although the Nuart artists come from across the world, they all look to Aberdeen for some inspiration from the city’s history.

“[There was] Carrie Reichardt and her Gallus Quines, which was inspired by famous Aberdeen women, or Phlegm who took inspiration from Rubislaw Quarry.

“And it can be fun too with Glasgow’s Ciaran Globel & Conzo Throb’s mural on the Country Ways wall featuring a giant toy seagull and the tag line: ‘He’s awa wi your chips’, or Aberdeen’s own Gray’s School of Art alumni KMG whose giant ‘Ken’ character can be found at Union Square and the St Nicholas rooftop.

The best of YOUR photos from this year’s Nuart festival in Aberdeen

The good news is that Jon and his colleagues are already determined to maintain the exalted standards they have set when the festival returns this summer.

As he said: “We’re still in the planning and organising stages, but there will be lots of exciting artists coming to Aberdeen and doing what Nuart does best.

“The festival will be coming back in June, so be sure to follow the Nuart Aberdeen social media for details of events, talks, walking tours and more.

Jon Reid is spreading the message about Nuart’s appeal.

“We’re maybe not so good at talking ourselves up as a city, but Nuart shouts about it, and every artist has left saying how special their time has been in Aberdeen, so we must be doing something right.”

Further information on the 2023 programme will be available here.

The documentary Tog do Shuil (Painted City) will be shown on BBC ALBA at 9pm on Wednesday January 11.

There were many striking works at Nuart in 2022.


What book are you reading?

I’m currently reading some Star Wars novels after discovering there’s a whole other set of stories set after the original films.

Who’s your hero/heroine?

Mick Lynch, the RMT boss, is my hero of 2022 for standing up for everyday people and standing up to the UK government.

Do you speak any foreign languages?

I can speak a little French, a throwback to my school days, but I really wish I’d studied more.

What’s your favourite music or band?

I enjoy lots of different types of music from all genres but my all-time favourite is Radiohead.

What’s your most treasured possession?

I have a small painting of a dove that my partner Mary Butterworth gave me when we first started dating. It’s quite special and sits in my studio.