Dead Bod in Hull is 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. It has become an unlikely folk hero.
Visiting the city as part of the three day Freedom Festival, it was striking. Dead Bod is everywhere in Hull. People wear it on t-shirts. The Bod has it’s own beer. I 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. The Bod would greet the fisherman navigating the waters of the Humber as they returned home.
A Symbol of Hull
Painted sometime in the early 60’s the simple white bird became a landmark. When the site was due to be knocked down, it found itself at the centre of a campaign to save it.
The pranksters responsible could never have imagined that it would have taken on such a cult status. In the hearts of many in Hull today, Dead Bod is a loved symbol. Could they have known that it would become one of the oldest known pieces of contemporary graffiti in the UK?
A Dead Bird
Len Rood was a trawlerman who went by the name of Pongo. He and his mate Gordon Mason, an engineer, were responsible for Bod. They headed off with a pot of white paint, and probably a few ales, towards the side of the shed. It overlooked the Humber Estuary and would have been visible to passing vessels. There they painted what became known as Dead Bod.
The piece though actually says ‘A Dead Bod’. This is the Hull vernacular for ‘A Dead Bird’. The two friends might have been playing an in joke but the graffiti stayed for years. Invisible to most except those fisherman who would see it from the estuary. It became one of those familiar sights which symbolised home.
Story of Dead Bod
So what happened and what is the real legend behind how Dead Bod came to be? The story is said to have started on the south coast, Falmouth to be exact. There just outside the port ‘The Englishman’ was anchored when a bird landed on the deck with a broken wing. The bird itself is believed to have been a seagull. Seafarers would have known them as ‘Molly’s’ or ‘Mollyhawks’. For the next three weeks the bird was nursed to health by the captain of the shop. This was a man called William Valentine ‘Tulip’ Hopper. He tended to the bird and kept it safe in his cabin. When healthy Tulip took it outside in a cardboard box and went back inside with Pongo to watch it fly away.
The story takes a turn when the bosun Bob Skelton stumbles upon the box with the newly healed seagull. “What the F*** is that?’ he shouted before kicking the bird with his boot and killing it dead. Pongo, watching this unfold with the captain replied “It’s a Dead Bod!” Tulip, the captain who had cared for the bird, then said “three weeks of shit and feathers in my cabin and it ends like this. Well done Bob”.
Dead Bod Saved
‘Associated British Ports’ announced that the Bod would be saved from an impending redevelopment. This was after a campaign to save it and the rusting sheet of metal on which it was painted was removed. Eventually it would hang in a trendy art gallery in Hull’s Humber Street.
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. That is other than to their immediate peer group. Even then it’s debatable as to whether they even gave it any thought at all.
Inspiring City first saw Dead Bod as part of the 2017 Freedom Festival visited between 1-3 September 2017. Thanks to Les Ward and Andy G for their comments which have helped to inform additional elements of this story. You can see the original Dead Bod at the Humber Side Gallery and learn more about its history there.