Painting the town: Bristol

Anonymous and rebellious, artists such as Banksy are splashing the streets of Bristol with striking artworks, turning the city into a life-size gallery.

It’s a title for the artwork it borders: a rendering of a white teddy bear hurling a Molotov cocktail at a group of riot police.

The picture’s meaning is up for debate, but its origin isn’t. Under cover of darkness one Bristol night in 1999, an anonymous local artist who referred to himself as Banksy painted and then signed what would become one of his city’s most recognisable features. Its title was probably meant as a rebuke for the nanny-state western world, but it now seems ironic, thanks in no small part to the artist himself.

Once famous as a port town, Bristol, in England’s south-west, has grown into its status as a laid-back university city with some of the UK’s best bars and nightclubs, as well as a booming culture of creativity. The town is now known for an underground arts scene that’s been blossoming since the early 1990s. It has spawned music and pop culture stars, the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size. But more than anything, Bristol is famous for the crop of kids with spray cans and stencils who have been the catalyst for turning the world’s repugnant graffiti into revered street art. Names such as SatOne and Phlegm might not roll off the tongue quite as easily as Hirst or Warhol, but around here they’re just as popular.

Look around Bristol and you can’t miss the evidence of its vibrancy. It’s there on wall after wall, from the illicit, political and experimental to the huge and completely legal murals commissioned by the council that adorn some high-rise blocks. A walk through Bristol’s streets becomes a stroll through a world-class art gallery (a Banksy piece will easily go for hundreds of thousands of dollars these days), provided you know where to look. Aid in that respect comes from the internet, specifically at www.bristol-street-art.co.uk. The website provides a map with pin-drops marking the locations of hundreds of Bristol’s street artworks, and is searchable by style as well as artist.

But where to start? Any Bristol art tour should begin with Banksy, and Stokes Croft is where his most public and famous piece sits, The Mild Mild West..., a rare freehand work sprayed on a wall on the main street. It has been damaged a few times by vandals, but always restored by well-meaning fans of the street-art genre.

Banksy’s pieces are rare in that respect. The street-art world is an ever-changing one, where little credence is given to longevity and artists don’t think twice before painting over the top of someone else’s work. Destruction comes with the territory; only a few pieces are respected enough to be preserved. The result is a scene that’s constantly revitalising itself - it also means that some of the works mentioned and photographed in this story may no longer exist. The fun, however, is in finding out what’s painted there instead.

Banksy’s work is Bristol’s most famous. Apart from the Stokes Croft piece, there’s a stencil of a police sniper and a young boy on Upper Maudlin Street, and the image of a skeleton on the side of a boat that is moored in the harbour. There’s also the mural of a naked man hanging out of a window on Park Street. However, as well-known as Banksy is, there’s far more to see in Bristol than its most famous son.

Nelson Street is the perfect place to view Bristol art at its most extravagant. In any other city it would be a regular CBD roadway, but here it has been transformed into an enormous open-air art gallery. “Welcome to Bristol” screams one of the brightest pieces - and you feel welcome, because this is the city at its best.

Glance upwards and the apartment blocks are covered in huge murals. There’s an incredible rendering of a mother and child done in a rippled pattern of contours by El Mac, an LA-based graffiti artist who was commissioned for the work. Next to that is another giant piece, this time by a famed product of the local scene, Nick Walker. It’s a suited man, towering over the city, tipping paint down the wall. Nearby, you’ll find a handful of hotels if you want to set up camp, including the recently restored Hotel du Vin. Previously a collection of warehouses from the 1700s, it’s a very grand home-away-from-home while you explore Bristol’s street art.

You could, of course, confine your tour of the city to Nelson Street and walk away happy. Further down there’s a two-storey-high curled fox, the work of Roa, a Belgian rapidly becoming known as one of the world’s top street artists. Nearby is another giant piece, this time an abstract vision of famous superheroes by SatOne.

Many of the works on Nelson Street have appeared as part of the See No Evil festival, an annual street-art event - the products of which go on to become a permanent fixture in the city.

However, Bristol’s essence can’t be fully expressed in legal murals. The city’s scene emerged because of underground artists often working illegally, and that continues today. Banksy is famous for painting anonymously, at night, and many of his contemporaries operate the same way.

One of the best areas to view those artists’ works is on the streets that run off Stokes Croft, just north of Bristol’s CBD. This is an arty student district filled with cafes and record stores, its brick walls covered in paint applied by some of the most talented artists around. Jamaica Street, the road that intersects Stokes Croft and Banksy’s The Mild Mild West..., is another ideal place to wander and take in the art.

There’s a surrealist piece by Phlegm that is sure to stick in people’s minds. Just across the road you’ll find some colourful spheres painted by LA-based artist Buff Monster. And around the corner sits a rose-adorned portrait created by the well-known painter, Copyright.

Fortunately, however, this isn’t the sort of area where you need to know the artists, or even know exactly where you should be looking. Every block around Stokes Croft is decorated with art - some of it as small as a couple of flames painted on a bus stop sign; other murals engulf whole two-storey walls. The styles range from Banksy-esque stencils to stickers to freehand spray painting and the occasional sculpture. You just need to wander, look skywards and observe.

So, while the Western world might sometimes seem to be a mild one, there’s definitely something a little bit different going on around here. 

Top Five

These must-see works by Bristol’s famous artist are still on the walls.

The Window
The crowd of camera-toting people below this famous work will make Banksy’s stencil of a naked man hanging out of a window easy to find. Look for it on Park Street, near Frog Lane.

Police Sniper
The image of a little boy about to burst a paper bag next to the ear of a policeman holding a sniper rifle is positioned on busy Upper Maudlin Street, making it an easy find near Colston Street.

The Mild Mild West...
One of the first and most public of Banksy’s works in Bristol, this piece is rare in that it’s done freehand, rather than in the stencil style he would become famous for. Find it on Stokes Croft.

The Gorilla
It’s a gorilla wearing a pink mask. The meaning is anyone’s guess, but this Banksy is still in good nick, with only slight damage. It’s positioned just near another possible Banksy on Fishponds Road, near Sandy Lane.

Skeleton
Painted on a hull of a ship-turned-club, Thekla, that is permanently moored in Bristol, this work is impressive as much for its positioning as its artistic value. Find it at The Grove.

Words by Ben Groundwater - Published in Voyeur September 2015
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