This bike shed is a dilapidated version of your typical concrete three-sided build, with corrugated roof and a dozen metal hoops cemented into the floor, painted black but scarred from years of use. It still serves its primary function of protecting bikes from inclement weather and thieves, though fewer than previous generations now that most kids are driven to school in tank sized cars. It also performs it’s universally accepted secondary function of hiding reprobate kids wanting a cigarette or kiss and canoodle.
At first glance the graffiti on all external vertical surfaces matches that on the inside, typical of vandalism by bored kids. But this bike shed is different. A closer look at the graffiti and you’ll see more meaningful pieces of art. They are still painted using spray cans and they are still painted by troubled souls. But these pictures tell a story because this bike shed is in a school with an intake of refugees.
The children are encouraged to convey their worries and concerns, hopes and dreams, in whatever way they can. Language is obviously a barrier. Art is a well established way of expressing themselves but it can still be restrictive in the confines of a classroom if they are afraid to show their emotions in front of others for fear of reprisals.
On the bike shed they are encouraged to paint, away from their peers and can go out even in class time if they feel the need, to get that privacy. The artwork is a collage of words and images, some symbolic, some of it extremely childish, some extraordinarily accomplished: but all of it heart felt.
The walls are used as an education tool, classes are taken out to view it and discuss the content, raising awareness of what the refugee children have been through and witnessed, eliciting a level of compassion amongst their peers not often seen in school children more used to bullying and intimidating those that are different.
Every so often the slate is wiped clean, the walls painted over and a fresh canvas made available but not until photographs have been taken and the artwork preserved. The work has even been used to help the more talented artists gain access to college.
As you compare old photographs with newer ones the transition is evident. With new intakes, the pictures are dark: planes dropping bombs, burning buildings, shattered bodies, single children and fear. Then the transformation starts as the refugees begin to settle, the images become much brighter, more positive, showing whole family groups, pristine landscapes, flowers, hearts, sunshine and hope.
To many it’s just a simple bike shed, to some it’s a screen that allows illicit behaviour, to others it’s a work of art, to a few it’s a release, an outlet for deeply buried memories and fears and to the luckiest it is a portal to a bright new future.