Dead Bod a simple drawing of an upturned bird, feet to the sky and drawn onto a sheet of rusting corrugated iron more than 50 years ago is an unlikely folk hero in Hull.
Visiting the city as part of its three day Freedom Festival it was striking, Dead Bod is everywhere, people have it on t-shirts, it has it’s own beer and we even spotted a burger van named after it. It’s quite a transformation for the odd bit of graffiti originally painted on the side of some dockers sheds in the city’s Alexandra Docks when Dead Bod would greet the fisherman navigating the waters of the Humber as they came back home.
Painted sometime in the early 60’s the simple white bird became such a landmark that when the site it was on was due to be knocked down for the development of a new Siemens factory, it found itself at the centre of a campaign to save it.
Of course in their wildest dreams the pranksters, responsible for what would become one of the symbols of Hull itself, could never have imagined that it would have taken on such a cult status in the hearts of many in the city. They could certainly not have known that Dead Bod would eventually become one of the oldest known pieces of contemporary graffiti in the UK.
Len Rood, a trawlerman, who went by the name of Pongo and his mate Gordon Mason, an engineer, were responsible. Armed with a pot of white paint and more than likely having downed a few ales they went to the side of the shed which overlooked the Humber Estuary and painted the Bod which is of course the Hull vernacular for Bird.
The piece actually says ‘A Dead Bod’ and god knows what in joke the two rascals were playing but it stood the test of time. Invisible to most except those fisherman who would see it from the estuary and to whom it became one of those familiar sights which symbolised home. It was this special meaning attached to the image which meant that it’s status was secured.
Associated British Ports, the company who owned the site of the redevelopment announced that Dead Bod was to be saved and the rusting sheeting which the Bod was painted onto was removed to be hung in a new trendy art gallery in Hull’s Humber Street. It was there, alongside revellers celebrating the first throws of the Freedom Festival, we first saw the Bod.
So how about Dead Bod as a piece of art? It’s an interesting question, could the result of what was likely a drunken dalliance be considered art? There was of course no real intention by the artists to make this available to an audience other than to their immediate peer group and even then it’s debatable as to whether they even gave it any thought at all.
But that of course was the core intention of some of the folks who we might now lazily call the pioneers of graffiti. In Philadelphia there was a guy called Cornbread who many cite as being the first to start tagging walls, or at least the first to be recorded doing so in the way that we now recognise as graffiti. His aim was to get his name seen by as many people as possible, nothing else and that’s all he wrote ‘Cornbread’ over and over again.
That was in 1967 and the reason I’m interested and perhaps feeling a little bit cheeky is that Dead Bod certainly predates Cornbreads antics. So, given that the audience is such a particular peer group, should we be saying that this little upturned bird; battered from the sea chills and winds from the North Sea; really is the true pioneer of the world of graffiti we know today.
Inspiring City saw Dead Bod as part of the 2017 Freedom Festival visited between 1-3 September 2017. There are plenty of stories online about Dead Bod but we like this one from Born & Raised which is a good little read. There’s also this from Neil Nicklin Photography with some great pictures of the original site.