Details: Bristol, England
With just shy of half a million residents, Bristol, on England’s western coast, isn’t exactly a major European metropolis. But over the past few decades, the city has developed something of a reputation for its street art. And for good reason: Bristol now boasts two major street-art festivals, a native son who has become perhaps the world’s most famous street artist, and thousands of square feet of public wall space covered in skillful, eye-catching art.
My guide this morning is John Nation, a Bristol native who has long played an active role in the city’s street art scene. Though not an artist himself, Nation has spent the past three decades supporting street artists and promoting their craft in and around Bristol. He knows every spray-painted inch of this city, as well as most of the artists who have adorned its walls over the years.
And he’s eager to share his knowledge. Every Saturday morning, Nation spends about two hours wandering through Bristol with a small pack of graffiti-hungry visitors, pointing out the artistic highlights and sharing the local street-art lore along the way. On this sunny morning, I’m one of about 20 people who have signed up for the tour, all but a handful of whom are visiting from outside Britain. Graffiti, it seems, is a popular attraction.
We start off near the center of town, then amble over to the grungy-chic Stokes Croft neighborhood, where the art seems to cover every square inch of wall space. I’m impressed by the immense variety of styles — quirky, delicate, blatantly political and just plain odd — as well as the artists’ geographic range. We see work from South Africa, Colombia, Germany, New York, Poland and beyond.
A few of the images jump out at me. There’s the two-story-high break-dancing Jesus by the British-based artist Cosmo Sarson; a touching portrait of a mother and child that was done by an artist known as El Mac, who hails from Los Angeles; and a delicate depiction of a giant gray fox that was painted freehand by a Belgian artist who goes by ROA. That last one, which covers about 300 square feet of wall space, was completed in just six hours, Nation tells us.
But of all the corners of the city that we explore, my favorite is Nelson Street, a narrow, high-rise-lined road that gets heavy bus traffic, so much so that Nation has to pause his commentary every couple of minutes to avoid being drowned out by the low growl of the passing engines. It’s not the most obvious spot for good art viewing, but as I’m quickly discovering, the Bristol art scene is full of surprises.