I don’t much like most graffiti and “street art”. It seems bombastic, derivative and obvious. But I do enjoy an understated Banksy, a wry political quip or a lover’s joke stencilled on a bleak, unromantic wall.
Banksy, the most popular contemporary artist in the world, is, of course, anonymous, although the smart money has him as former private schoolboy Robin Gunningham, who was born in the orderly South Gloucestershire town of Yate in 1973. But Banksy has been embraced by Bristol, the city where he grew up, which has an angry sadness of homeless people sleeping in its brutalist town centre and an embarrassment of lovely Georgian buildings on the fringes. And Banksy somehow speaks for the whole place (well, most of it, anyway – probably not the Bristol Division of the English Defence League).
My family moved to Bristol when I migrated to Australia from England. If this was an attempt to shake me off, it failed. I soon tracked them down.
On a recent visit and inspired by Banksy, I took a Where the Wall street art tour of the city and learnt a few surprising things about property development, the hospitality industry and the role of street artists in both.
At 55, I’m probably the oldest guest on the tour, which is led by artist and filmmaker Rob Dean. The bait is Banksy, and the first stop is College Green, outside Bristol City Hall, and close to Bristol Cathedral Choir School, which Banksy purportedly attended. Close by is Banksy’s Well Hung Lover, a stencil of a naked man hanging from a ledge while a jealous-husband type searches for him through a window. It’s a forgivable wordplay and a smart visual pun: the building could do with a window, and now it has one.
Even before Banksy started painting, Bristol was as heavily tagged as a tattooed barista in a Fitzroy coffee shop.
In 1988, the police launched Operation Anderson to counter the graffiti menace. After a testing period of covert surveillance of walls and the cataloguing of local street-art sites, determined cops swooped on about 70 alleged young artists – mainly in their parents’ homes – and took them away in handcuffs. According to Dean, a defence lawyer was able to help them escape custodial sentences with the argument that it was impossible for calligraphy experts to conclusively link a “tag” (the artist’s name sprayed on a wall) to an alleged tagger’s handwriting, since spray painting – unlike handwriting – involves no direct contact with a surface and therefore used a different manual process.
If it had not been for the failure of Operation Anderson, says Dean, Banksy – who admired the work of the arrested kids – might never have picked up a spray can.
Ironically, the police station from which the raids were planned is now an arts centre at which Where the Wall holds spray-painting workshops, and its outside walls are decorated with so-called “green-graffiti” – ethereal shapes of swallows and roses, scrubbed out of the pollution residue that had come to encrust the plasterwork.
Dean takes us to the lovely 14th-century church of St John on the Wall, which is built into Bristol’s mediaeval town walls. The vaulted passages that are part of both the church and the wall have been coated with wild, imaginative cartooning. Apparently, the arches were heavily tagged anyway, and a couple of artists suggested they be allowed to effectively muralise the space. After protracted debate, the General Synod of the Church of England, no less, agreed to their proposition. The result is in harmony with the architecture, and I know this kind of change is a part of the normal historical process – but then so is my baldness, and I don’t like that either.
We walk south of the city centre through what once was a rotting warehouse district where nobody wanted to live. Dean tells us a gang of street artists – who travel around the world responding to similar requests – was invited to brighten up the old warehouse walls with big, bold murals, which drew people to the area to look at the pictures. Developers noticed the newly popular streets were attracting tourists, bought up the buildings and converted them into student flats. Graffiti, once a symbol of urban decay, had aided the gentrification – or, at least, revivification – of the suburb.
Stranger still is the tale of the Radisson Blu in the centre of Bristol, which once was fronted by an inviting blank wall panel. The street artist Cheo – a founding father of Bristol street art and an inspiration to Banksy – turned up one day with his overalls and ladder and filled the blank canvas with a hip-hopped-up and blinged-out portrait of Bristol’s favourite bits of plasticine, Wallace and Gromit.
Aardman Animations, the makers of Wallace and Gromit, tweeted their approval and, once again, the people came to look and liked what they saw. This presented a dilemma for the Radisson.
“For them to maintain their global policy of removing – or certainly not encouraging – street art or graffiti art on the sides of their buildings across the world would potentially be quite damaging for their brand in Bristol,” says Dean. “So they didn’t make a fuss about it and they left it.”
Later, the Radisson Blu went further and, through Where the Wall, invited Cheo to decorate the adjacent panel, which he did.
“The first painting showed them it was important to become culturally connected to the places where you’re opening up a Radisson, rather than just drop these hotels in different parts of the world and have no contact.”
In some ways, he says, working with Cheo was a credit to the hotel. However, they paid the artist precisely nothing and didn’t even offer him a meal. (Dean had to buy Cheo’s lunch.)
In exchange for the chance to have his work displayed undamaged in a prominent part of the city, Cheo boosted the Radisson Blu’s corporate credibility and gifted the hotel a painting that may end up in a museum.
Dean takes us to Stokes Croft, an edgy but bohemian inner-city suburb of vegan cafes and rundown council flats. Here, Where the Wall has fought to preserve a Banksy of a rose in a mousetrap. The Perspex frame that had protected the painting had been smashed and the rat tagged over with the spray-can signatures of lesser artists. Where the Wall had cleaned it up – ironically with anti-graffiti paint – and replaced the Perspex screen within its timber frame.
“It was interesting how many of the local people came and spoke to us – initially thinking we were trying to steal it,” says Dean.
Now, the taggers have restricted themselves to the frame itself.
I enjoyed the Where the Wall street art tour and, a week later, I attended a mediaeval graffiti tour of the famous cathedral at Salisbury, about 90 minutes’ drive from Bristol. I was probably the youngest guest on the tour (at one point, the talk among the group actually turned to funeral plans) but I preferred the careful scratchings of long-dead clergymen and the desperately apotropaic drawings by God-fearing townsfolk to most of the street art in Bristol – except the Banksys.
At first, it seemed fitting that a middle-aged man might identify remnants of the Middle Ages but, when I got back to Australia, I realised something strange had happened to me. I walked up Hosier Lane, which I usually find mildly ridiculous, and all the swirly, dynamic, cartoonish murals made me grin. Later, in Sydney, I found myself enjoying extravagant tags from the window of a train rolling out of Redfern Station.
Sure, street art isn’t subtle, but it seems full of hope, with an exuberance closer to music than draughtsmanship. To my astonishment, I now like it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 31, 2019 as "Murals spreading".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription