Birmingham mural honours legacy of poet giant Benjamin Zephaniah | Benjamin Zephaniah

Birmingham mural honours legacy of poet giant Benjamin Zephaniah | Benjamin Zephaniah

The late Benjamin Zephaniah, one of Birmingham’s leading cultural figures, is to take his rightful place watching over the city when a new, official mural honouring the life of the poet and campaigner is unveiled at a ceremony in Handsworth Park on 14 April.

Despite the threats posed by the bankrupt city council’s recent cut to all arts funding, the public artwork will arrive at a relative high point for Birmingham’s wider cultural reputation, as the popular television drama This Town continues to chronicle the 80s boom in Ska and 2 Tone music in the Midlands. The BBC show is written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, a writer who, like Zephaniah, has been instrumental in rebuilding the confidence of a city often unfairly lampooned for its modernist urban infrastructure and supposed lack of sophistication.

“There’s definitely a bigger sense of pride growing in Birmingham now,” said Bunny Bread, the DJ and graffiti portraitist behind the new mural. And, for him, Zephaniah, who also appeared in Peaky Blinders, was a big part of that. “He was one of those figures who represented a lot to so many of us, even though we never met him in the flesh,” said Bread, 56, a Londoner who has lived in Birmingham for 11 years. “I was adamant I wanted to do this artwork, because people like him, poets and activists, champions of the people, so generous with their time, are few and far between. When I was growing up in London as a young black man, I looked to him for inspiration.”

Poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah died in December at the age of 65. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Zephaniah died in December at the age of 65 , eight weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. He was an energetic advocate for literature and art in the city, and across Britain. He also regularly campaigned in support of libraries, an issue that has prompted protests in recent weeks across Birmingham, including library sites at Acocks Green, Kings Heath and Yardley Wood, which are now in jeopardy due to cuts.

This weekend Bread, of the art group Create Not Destroy, is putting the finishing touches to the mural, rain permitting, ahead of its public unveiling next Sunday. “The mural is made up of portraits of him, something I specialise in, and it is done with spray paint,” said Bread. “It took me about 10 days, working with the cartoonist Hunt Emerson, who has put in the lyrics of a song and a poem by Zephaniah.”

After leaving school, Bread studied design and worked as an apprentice at the Forbidden Planet publishing house, developing comic drawing and print production skills. By the mid 80s, he was a pioneer of the London graffiti movement, working under the tag name State of Art. His latest Birmingham project was commissioned by the Black Heritage Walks Network, but the graffiti artist then also asked for approval from the late poet’s family. The chosen site is a wall of the Sons of Rest building in the park, close to Zephaniah’s Handsworth birthplace.

Benjamin Zephaniah captured in the mural at Hockley underpass, now destroyed. Photograph: Benjamin Zephaniah Family Legacy Group

On Friday Kier, a Birmingham city public works contractor, apologised for the accidental removal of another, unauthorised Zephaniah tribute portrait on the wall of a Hockley subway. Nearby concrete artworks by the sculptor William Mitchell are legally preserved by a city protection order, but the Zephaniah graffiti on an outer wall was not covered.

“What happened in the subway was a tragedy,” said Bread this weekend, “but it was just someone doing their job. It happened to my work once, but luckily some people working opposite came out to stop them white-washing it and I was able to salvage something. I do feel there’s hypocrisy about the kind of art that people protect. If it’s by Banksy, the council will put Perspex up over it. Art is art, so take it all down or let it stay there.”

By way of compensation, the city will now have two large artworks celebrating Zephaniah, as easyJet revealed another mural of the poet at Birmingham Airport earlier this month. “A lot of Brummies know who he was,” said Bread, “but I wanted to make my mural for people that don’t yet. They might come by, look at it and then check him out. I want it to be a lasting legacy, so people will find out who he was.”

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