Walking north up Lochee High Street, it’s impossible not to notice the shock of hot pink that draws your eye down the lane to Aimer Square.
Walking south, a giant hummingbird welcomes you to the lane, its slender beak providing a signpost to the same location.
In giant lettering, “HERE I AM” adds to the intrigue, until your arrival in the square is greeted by the benevolent gaze of Michael Marra, 9m wide by 4.5m high.
The artwork by Michael Corr is the central piece of a new street art mural project instigated by Love Lochee, a community group started by three local women and which has been organising free events for local people for three years.
With an eye on the work done by OpenClose in Stobswell, Love Lochee chairperson Heather Henry approached Russell Pepper of the organisation.
It has been working with artists to brighten up doorways and lanes for several years, so Heather was keen to see what could be done for disused spaces in Lochee.
Initially, last summer, they were able to work with Laura Darling, who created “Efter A Hard Day’s Graft”, a 40m mural on Methven Street that pays tribute to woman who spent their days among the jute at Camperdown Works.
“When there was a chance to do more, we had a map of the area around the High Street and earmarked locations. Russell guided us towards what would look good in particular spaces,” says Heather.
“From the beginning, though, I always thought Michael Marra should be on one of our walls.”
The Lochee Regeneration Forum was happy to fund the project, but Love Lochee had to take on delivery of the project, which has now delivered a trail of multi-coloured treasures.
As one door closes, a wall opens
Michael Corr had already worked with OpenClose, painting a mural of Ethel Muirhead in Stobswell.
Russell Pepper told artists that there was wall space becoming available in Lochee, and they would love to see Michael Marra there.
“I was intrigued because my partner Nikki and I lived in Dundee for a long time, but we didn’t really know much about him,” says Michael Corr.
“So we looked at what he did and said ‘my God, how did we miss him’.”
After looking at the wall in Aimer Square, Michael submitted his proposal. It was subsequently chosen by the community, something that was important to Love Lochee.
When it came to the choice of image, Michael says it took time and care to choose what would complement the space, but also represent the man.
“Ultimately it had to be this one, a powerful straight-on image. It’s been so interesting that so many people that have said they saw the eyes from across the street. They knew him from that.”
My partner Nikki and I lived in Dundee for a long time, but we didn’t really know much about him. So we looked at what he did and said ‘my God, how did we miss him’.”
‘The eyes get you’
When Michael’s brother Nicky Marra visited the site, he told Michael how his brother would lock eyes when he was in conversation with anyone.
Matthew Marra, Michael’s son says, “The eyes really get you. It’s also the perfect location. It’s part of that whole area up to High Street, but it can be seen from the bypass. The eyes draw you in straight away.”
Michael chose to reference a song called Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar, with the lyric “Here I am” and the hummingbird, something referenced in Frida’s paintings and a symbol of hope. It’s also mentioned in Michael’s song Thomas Fraser.
The scale meant that scaffolding was considered, but in the end Michael decided to work up a ladder, something that he says has certainly cured him of his vertigo.
Michael’s partner is Nikki McWilliams, well known for her own designs for homewares and jewellery, most famously the Tunnock’s teacake cushion.
“Nikki helped from start to finish. She runs multiple other businesses so couldn’t always be with me but I know that the days when she couldn’t, she really wanted to be here.”
Now living in Alloa, they drove back and forward to Dundee on most days, unless the weather was too difficult to work at that height.
“It was a team effort all the way – and to have Nikki’s trusted eye is invaluable. When you’re working so close, and at that height on a ladder, you need that distance.”
Away from Aimer Square, the mural at the underpass was designed by artist Zoe Gibson, with input from the local history group and schoolchildren from Ancrum Road and St Mary’s primary schools. It’s a representation of trips to “the berries”, and the place that holds in so many local people’s hearts.
“There was a history in this area of going to the berries,” adds Heather Henry.
“The schools really got on board with it. They would tell stories about their mums or their granny’s experiences of going to the berries.
“The children were involved in the painting and you can see the pride when they point out the strawberry that they painted. It’s theirs. They’ll always remember being involved in something like this.”
The Sophie Morrison mural is her first and takes inspiration from the industrial architecture of the Lochee area.
You can see abstract shapes that reveal themselves as Cox’s stack and Camperdown Works. There are references to the local nightlife and even Lochee United.
What unites the murals is a bold and spectacular use of colour, something that brightened up a rainy Wednesday morning.
“Colour was so important,” adds Michael Corr.
“I tried to create a sunburst from behind, but what I just realised on the final day, and it was a complete fluke, was that half of Michael’s face is actually bathed in a scarlet light. Anyone who knows the song will realise how amazing that is.”
Matthew Marra was bowled over by the scale of the mural and had more reason that most to feel emotional in front of it.
“The artwork tributes have been getting steadily bigger,” he points out.
“There’s the portrait in Lochee Library by Donald Smart, then there was Calum Colvin’s portrait for The McManus, and now this.
“Michael has been interrupted by so many visits by family and friends. He’s always taken time to talk to people and explain what it’s all about. Everyone has been brilliant. Love Lochee, OpenClose, and Dundee City Council.”
When he finished on Wednesday, Michael and Nikki could step back and take a well-deserved sigh.
“It’s such a relief to know that there’s been such a positive response from the community, from the family, from Michael’s friends, and people who admire him,” he says.
“It’s felt like a big responsibility. There’s a lot of emotion behind the work like this.”