Bristol Street Art Tour
Could your son or daughter be the new Banksy? Or could you? The city that produced the mysterious artist is now a European destination for street art, offering tours of the decorated walls and an up close insight into styles, personalities and techniques. It also offers families the chance to pick up an aerosol can and express themselves. I took to the colourful streets of this vibrant city in South West England for a Bristol street art tour; camera to the ready for Banksy spotting…
The Banksy phenomenon
We might not know who Bansky really is, but his paintings have sprayed themselves onto our consciousness through news and social media for years. So it’s a shock when I turn a corner into Hanover Place in Bristol’s Harbourside and see Girl with a Pierced Eardrum; Banksy’s parody of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The weeds and broken glass under my feet give it grit. Horizontal and vertical lines on the buildings around it give it a softness. And for the first time I see how powerful street art can be. It’s a bit like the first time I saw Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam. Even my screaming toddler couldn’t diminish the sunlight. And then I wonder if it would be as striking if I hadn’t seen Banksy’s familiar style and social messages regularly in newspapers and in my Instagram stream. Because although I have never been to Bristol I am already very familiar with this work of art, and others like it.
“There are six or seven artworks of his still here and I can only imagine the council are crying into their cups of tea about all the other works of his they removed.” – Rob Dean, Global Coordinator, Where the Wall.”
Street art hasn’t always been celebrated in Bristol. In past years, as fast as Banksy and other artists got their work up, local councillors took it down. But these days public appreciation of it has grown worldwide. And the authorities have come to recognise that far from being vandalism or a stain on the city, it is a tourist attraction in its own right. In fact street art is now one of the top cultural reasons to visit Bristol.
All on the walls
Our Where the Wall Bristol Street Art Tour (which I take during a visit to a conference in the city) starts outside the Cathedral where we all stand under a tree (mysteriously dangling shoes from its branches) looking at nothing in particular on a wall in the distance. Because Banksy’s first artwork was long ago removed. We progress on just a few metres to Frogmore Street, where ‘Well-Hung Lover’ is preserved high on a building. Kind of. There are blue splodges on part of it and a patch at the side where someone has clearly tried to take a scrubbing brush to it.
“This painting demonstrates Banksy’s alternative styles of art; either his art has a deep meaning or it’s simply end of the pier,” explains our tour guide Rob Dean who is Global Coordinator at Where the Wall tours. He says although the subject is humorous; a naked man dangling from a window while his lover and her husband look out from the frame, this painting had a deeper meaning for the artist at the time. “Banksy was falling out with his manager so this is about fidelity and unfaithfulness.”
A spray gun and a stencil
The Well-Hung Lover was painted using Banksy’s preferred technique at the time; stencil art. We learn that a stencil is a piece of cardboard with the shape cut out which artists use to spray one colour. Artists then use a different stencil and a different colour to make layers. By working with stencils, Banksy and his closest contemporaries discovered you could get a lot of detail and narrative into a small space quickly, whereas the freehand spraying method preferred by other graffiti artists is less detailed and more time consuming. And speed and not getting caught are all part of the job description.
Rob points out that the painting has in turn been paint bombed by a group of Bristol taggers called DBK (loosely standing for Dole Benefit claimers.) They couldn’t reach with their pens so they used paint ball guns. But this isn’t seen as being disrespectful. “They were following in the traditions of tagging and bombing which was first popularised in New York in the 1980’s, where in a high profile location, your name would be seen by thousands of people, creating a notoriety and a fame for yourself.” Rob explains. “Taggers feed into a healthy culture of art as they force the regeneration of new art. Taggers are at the low level of the art, but help create the eco system which means Bristol will never end up a museum of art; it will always be a cutting edge street art gallery.”
Contemporary and temporary
Bristol is pretty much one big street art gallery. Turn a corner and you’ll stumble across anything from crude graffiti tags above a line of wheelie bins to huge murals taking their cue from classical art. Or perfectly produced pop art. “This painting is influenced by the works of Jack Kirby and Roy Lichtenstein from America. The thing to look at is how clean their line is. Each line is perfectly straight,“ Rob says, almost disappearing in front of a wall of aerosol art.
We stand cricking our necks at ‘Clothed with the Sun,’ – a Madonna and child that covers the whole side of a building, created by American artist El Mac and based on his family. “If the taggers carry on practising they may achieve something like this.” Rob points up into the sunlight. “He set up a projector on the roof on another building to create the outline of the shape. He asked for some buckets of ice and chucked the cans into the ice leaving everyone perplexed as to when he was going to get started. But it appears that when you freeze the spray can, the pressure is lessened, and instead of hard sharp lines you get a much softer line with feathering and blurring. And when this is built up over a mural of this size the whole effect has a softer feel.”
Some of the artwork is extremely graceful like the 17th century church with religious inspired art under the arches. Some seems more like the graffiti that used to irritate me outside my London home. And not everyone likes it. A quick surf on the net and you’ll find lots of examples in the local press of people complaining of constant tagging on their private property. But for many in the city there’s been a U-turn on its value to the culture and economy as the Banksy effect brings other artists and tourists here.
Festival of colour
Bristol’s Upfest Urban Painting Festival, annually held in the south of the city, invites 300 artists to come and paint. By the third day the art is finished and the area becomes a massive gallery with miles of newly painted work, which people come to photograph. “Creative culture tourism is now a global thing. I think for some people a smart phone with photographs of street art is the new souvenir that you’ve been somewhere, like the plastic Eiffel Tower photos. If you’ve seen that photo on the internet, it’s not quite the same as having your own photo.” Rob explains.
Older than it looks
Street art in Bristol didn’t begin with Banksy. Local John Nation nurtured the first generation of street artists, Rob explains. “In 1986 he created the UK’s first legal painting environment for graffiti artists at Barton Hill Youth centre. He set up a load of hoardings and boards, got some wall space where these young artists obsessed with the graffiti art coming over from New York could paint legally rather than going out on the streets. This became an incubator for the first generation of street artists like Inky and Nick Walker and Cheo. Four years after it had been running, a shy sixteen year old came along and picked up a spray can.”
Self expression in a can
And the rest is history. But the Where the Wall tour of Bristol’s street art locations isn’t, in the end, about one man. It’s about the stories on the streets and about the many and myriad dreams expressed in aerosol. My tour today is without my family. But I’m thinking the teens would like the Street Art Stencil Challenge, also run by Where the Wall, a hands on group art session that families can sign up to. To hold a spray can and work out what their message is.
Rob explains what the sessions are about, “Everyone gets to spray their own A2 art print based upon some laser cut stencils that we have. It is literally for all ages but teens are the age group we are interested in. We see the future of the art form coming from this generation. And we’ve developed a system where we use water based spray paints so there’s no noxious fumes or damage to anyone who might have breathing issues or anything so it’s very inclusive. And it’s just such a buzz to give the youngsters these opportunities because once the spray cans get spraying you just feel the excitement.”
Creating new Banksys
“This youngster from Bristol turned himself, through his determination, into one of the world’s most well known and popular contemporary artists. This has a message for all of us that whatever we want to do, and no matter how far-fetched it may seem, it is possible.” – Rob Dean
Rob and his fellow tour guides see part their role as making sure the art Banksy grew out of is preserved for future generations. “Banksy was himself a second generation artist in Bristol. He was taking inspiration from the first generation of artists and we are now moving on to the third generation of artists. We want to uncover the fourth generation so we know the art is safe in the hands of people, who let’s face it, are predominantly more obsessed with touching a smart phone with one finger.”
Upfest will be held in Bristol this year from 24th July.
I went on the Bristol Street Art Tour Experience that takes in central Bristol and the creative quarter Stokes Croft. Tickets cost £9.20 for each adult or £24.80 for a family of two adults and two young people.
Running each weekend with sessions from 10am until 6pm, The Street Art Stencil Challenge is a team based activity giving everyone the chance to experience street art and graffiti culture first hand whilst having fun. Sessions costs around £20 per person.