It’s a bright, warm Saturday morning — the English summer at its best — and the bells of Bristol Cathedral are singing out across the city’s tidy College Green. Seagulls are crying overhead, fountains are gurgling in the sun, and a marble version of Queen Victoria stands solemnly on a pedestal at the edge of the grass.
It’s a classic image of England, but “classic English” isn’t what I’ve come looking for today. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m here in Bristol to explore a side of this historic port city that hasn’t always been smiled upon by the establishment, including the local police. I’m here to see graffiti. Walls and walls of graffiti.
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.
Nelson Street was chosen as the site of the See No Evil festival, a massive street-party-cum-graffiti-bonanza that attracted 50,000 people in 2012, the second year it was held. For the weekend of the festival, the street was taken over by street artists, buskers, break-dancers and onlookers, and the drab gray sides of all those high-rises were transformed into building-size works of art. The result, still visible a year later, is an urban landscape unlike any I’ve ever seen.
As we gradually make our way down the street, I feel as though I’m strolling through a fantasyland of graffiti art. Every foot of wall space seems to be covered — not just at eye level, but up the sides of buildings, around corners and in little alleyways off to the side. I’m struck by a boldly colored, 100-foot-long mural that turns out to be an abstract pastiche of Marvel superhero comics. Then I look up and discover that we’re being watched by two gargantuan stick figures that peer down at us from the side of a drab high-rise. It’s almost too much to take in.
Nick Walker, a professional artist who started doing graffiti in his home town of Bristol in the 1980s, was one of the artists invited to participate in the inaugural See No Evil fest in 2011. His 75-foot-high portrait of the Vandal, the signature character of his work, still occupies the side of a 12-story building at the top of Nelson Street.
“It was mad. The whole place had been reanimated, rejuvenated and just turned into a vibrant road,” says Walker when I reach him by phone a couple of days after my tour. “There were just thousands of people wandering around, checking everything out. It was great to see that this has become such a popular form of art, in Bristol and around the world, really. There were people from all over.”
Bristol residents haven’t always been so warmly welcoming of the city’s street art, Walker says. Thirty years ago, things had a very different feel.
Street art started to proliferate around the city in the mid-1980s, which led to tensions between the artists and the local authorities. Things finally reached a breaking point in 1989, when the police made a series of raids in an effort to purge the city of its “vandals.” Seventy-two people were arrested.
One of those 72 was none other than our tour guide, John Nation, who was a local youth and community worker at the time. Nation was charged with conspiring to organize individuals to commit criminal damage, he tells me, but the case was later dropped for lack of evidence.
“That was 30 years ago, and look at me now,” Nation says, shaking his head. “I would have never in my wildest dreams thought that now, in 2013, I would be hosting street-art tours in Bristol for international tourists.”
It was a slow process to get from the police raids of 1989 to the warm public embrace that Bristol’s street art enjoys today.
A lot of the credit for that turnaround, Nation says, should go to one of the city’s most famous former residents: Banksy, the pseudonymous artist and public prankster who was born in Bristol and did his first street paintings here in the early ’90s. These days, the artist is a household name in Britain and has a devoted following overseas. One of his paintings recently sold at auction for more than $1.1 million.
But Banksy hasn’t forgotten where he got his start. In 2009, he collaborated with Bristol Museum and Art Gallery to put on an exhibition of more than 100 pieces of his work. The 12-week show was a blockbuster hit: It attracted some 315,000 visitors, about 4,000 a day. People stood in line for up to six hours just to get into the exhibit, and the museum had to hire 30 extra staff members to handle the explosion of interest.
That show was “probably the biggest turning point” in the public acceptance of street art in Bristol, Nation tells me.
And the momentum has been building ever since. In addition to the See No Evil festival, Bristol also hosts the annual Urban Paint Festival, widely known as Upfest, which takes place each May. This year’s edition brought together 250 artists from more than 50 countries for three days of “live” graffiti, street art lessons, face painting and art sales.
And just last year, Nation and his business partner, Rob Dean, started running their walking tours, with the full support of the Bristol tourist board. Interest has been substantial: On most Saturdays in the summer, the tours run at full capacity — about 20 people.
And while Banksy’s exhibition may be long gone, the artist has certainly left his mark on the city. Nation shows visitors two of Banksy’s paintings on the walking tour: the witty “Well-Hung Lover” just next to College Green and “Mild, Mild West,” which adorns a brick wall outside the Canteen restaurant in Stokes Croft. The artist’s statue of an angel with a paint bucket over its head sits inside Bristol Museum.
Banksy hasn’t been around so much lately — he reportedly hasn’t been back to his home town in more than two years — but the Bristol street-art scene seems to be doing just fine without him. Plans are already being laid for next year’s festivals, and the local artists are as active as ever. Each week, Nation says, he sees new work cropping up in various corners of the city.
And there’s so much to see.
Before I jump on a train home at the end of the day, I take another stroll down Nelson Street to spot anything I might have missed on the first pass with the group. “Classic English” this isn’t, I say to myself as I gape up at a huge painting of a wolf dressed in a bow tie and a polka-dot shirt.
But somehow, it seems to fit the city to a T.
McClanahan is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, England.