Mik Artistik knows the Holbeck area of Leeds well. It was where his family moved to when they first came over from Ireland and where he spent weekends dodging Stink Bomb Alley on his way to the public baths via the corner shop for a packet of Jammy Dodgers.
It’s been a few years since the baths closed and longer since Mik, who is now best known as the artist who draws portraits on the back of brown paper bags, lived round these parts. However, as an exhibition of his work opens in a Holbeck piano shop he’s clearly glad to be home.
“This is where I grew up, it’s where I feel comfortable,” he says, stood in the showroom of Besbrode Pianos, which for the next month will be home to a collection of his acrylic paintings featuring what he calls the Magic People of Leeds. “I have co-opted every single one of them to be part of my family whether they like it or not.
“There’s Louis, a musician who turns up to open mic nights at the Grove, that one there is Gino, a great hulk of a guy with a voice to match and over on that wall is Steve, whose a poet and John who plays in a rockabilly band.
“These might not be famous faces, but to me these are the people who really make this city tick. They are its beating heart and when I walked into the showroom for the first time after the paintings had been hung I was unexpectedly taken aback. It just feels like a really warm space.”
Mik was approached to stage the exhibition by the showroom’s owner Melvin Besbrode partly as a way of showing another, more positive side to this corner of Leeds. The area has been much in the news in recent months over the decision to turn it into Britain’s first managed red light area where police effectively turn a blind eye to prostitution between the hours of 7am and 7pm.
The argument from the authorities was that the zero tolerance approach wasn’t working, but when 21-year-old prostitute Daria Pionko was killed on the streets of Holbeck last December it again raised questions about the long-term future of such zones.
“We’ve got the wall space and so really it was a question of why not,” says Melvin. “I’ve known Mik for a while and when I first approached him about an exhibition I fully imagined we’d have walls full of a couple of hundred of his paper bag portraits.”
Mik, however, had something more ambitious in mind and began completing his collection oil paintings in earnest.
“I’m quite old school when it comes to portrait painting. I don’t do sketches or work from photographs,” he says. “Each one comes for a live sitting. It’s the only way you can really capture someone’s character.
“When I was growing up here, Holbeck was a working class corner of the city, which didn’t really have much in the way of artistic ambition. It was a place where families worked hard and where their biggest dream was owning their own car.
“There was nothing like this place. I am a great admirer of Melvin and can’t think of a better place to show my work.”
For Melvin too the move into art exhibitions is just another chapter in the rich history of the firm, which has sold pianos to the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Noel Gallagher and which counts China now as its biggest market.
“There are still a few people surprised to find us here, but when I was first starting the business 35 years ago it was cheaper than renting somewhere in the city centre,” adds Melvin. “The pianos we have here range from £1,000 to £200,000 and we sell the bulk of older to pianos to China, primarily because many of their instruments were destroyed under the Maoist regime.
“We have customers all over the world, but Mik’s exhibition is about doing something for the people right on our doorstep.”
Mik Artistik’s Magic People of Leeds, Besbrode Pianos, Holbeck Leeds, to June 4. besbrodepianos.co.uk