|Dire streets’ graff makeover|
Some of the world’s best graffiti artists are descending on Bristol this month to lively up a run-down corner of the city centre. Eugene Byrne reports.
In what the organisers are billing as the biggest outdoor art festival in Europe, this month will see the transformation of a run-down part of central Bristol by some of the world’s top graffiti artists. The event, titled ‘See No Evil’, will see huge artworks being painted on the sides of many of the buildings in Nelson Street and Quay Street, which link Broadmead with the city centre.
More than 20 artists are coming to Bristol from as far afield as Poland, the United States and Chile for the event. Much of the work they do for the festival will remain in place for at least a year, and some works are likely to be more permanent. Some of the paintings will be among the biggest in the world.
There have been other similar projects elsewhere in the world, which are sometimes cited as examples of how street art can help regenerate urban areas. One such street in Melbourne, Australia, is now reckoned to attract almost half a million visitors a year.
One of the moving spirits behind ‘See No Evil’ is Bristol’s Director of Placemaking, Mike Bennett. Bennett's appointment was controversial, leading many local politicians and citizens to query his appointment at a time of stringent spending cuts in other council budgets. The project will, he reckons, cost around £80,000, half of which will come from private and business sponsors, but the hope is that the benefits to Bristol will be many times the initial outlay in the long run.
“Everyone said how good it would be to continue the buzz that came out of the Banksy exhibition at the Museum,” Bennett told Venue. “Urban and street art are widely felt to be an important part of the city's creative DNA and the Banksy show attracted shedloads of people to come to Bristol to stand in a queue for three hours.”
It’s not as yet clear how many buildings are going to be transformed by the artists, but it’ll be at least 10, and possibly more. Some of these are going to be among the largest artworks ever created. One building, for instance, St Lawrence House, is 11 storeys high. This is an office building with a variety of businesses as well as some empty office units. The owners, Newbridge Capital Investments, have agreed that an artwork can be painted on the side overlooking Quay Street, and that it can remain in place for at least 12 months afterwards, if not longer. A spokesman for the company told the press: “We were approached by the organisers, and it certainly sounds very exciting… You can see if you walk down the street there are a few run-down 60s buildings that aren’t occupied. Anything that would revitalise the street and increase footfall for a minimal cost – then all the better.”
Other buildings to be painted include the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Unite building, 9 and 11 Quay Street and the walkway over the street near Trafalgar House. The juvenile courts and one of the police buildings will also be painted, but works here may only be temporary as they are due for redevelopment in October. As Venue went to press, the organisers were still in talks with the owners of other buildings. The historic Church of St John in the Wall will not, of course, be painted.
Asked how they managed to persuade so many firms to allow artists to be let loose on their walls with spray cans, Mike Bennett said: “We just asked them, or in a couple of cases we begged them. This is an unloved street, a run-down area right in the middle of town. It needs something big development-wise. If you talk to the business experts, they will all tell you that, with the economy as it is, the prospect of any serious development here in the next five years is almost nonexistent.
“So if we do this, and bring that attention to the street, then you get increased footfall, and more attention, and hopefully businesses and potential developers will see that street in a new way. If it grabs enough attention, it makes its own economic case for development.”
Bennett is also hoping that if the event is a success, more local businesses will get behind sponsoring other projects in the future.
The artists move into the area around 14 August, and things come to a head with a number of events later in the week, culminating in a big weekend event over 20-21 August, when the street will be closed to traffic. The big day will be Saturday 20, when there’ll be music, stalls, pop-up bars and all manner of fun things happening out on the street or in empty office/shop units. There’ll also be workshops for aspiring graffers. If the weather’s nice, there’s no telling how many people will show up on the day, but if it starts getting too popular, entrances to the area will be closed off, and people only admitted via the Colston Street end and let out at the Union Street side.
One of the principal organisers on the artists’ side is Tom Bingle, better known to his worldwide following as Inkie. He now lives and works in London and his CV includes being a designer for Jade Jagger, and working as head of creative design for games firm SEGA. He was born in Bristol and grew up here, however, and frequently returns. Back in the 1980s he was one of the original crew of inner city artists and worked with the likes of 3D (of Massive Attack fame) and for a time was Banksy’s principal partner-in-crime.
“Nothing of this size and scale has ever taken place in the UK and it’s an event that has captured the minds of some the world’s most respected street artists. It’s a major coup that we’ve managed to pull this off in Bristol,” he says. “We have invited some of the world’s most talented graffiti artists to bring their skills to the city, and we have a number of returning Bristolians to head up proceedings.”
The title, he explains, is from the three wise monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. “It sort of works on the artistic element, and because it has a musical element to it as well. And of course because we’re taking over the old magistrates’ courts.
“And of course half the early grafitti artists in Bristol must have been taken to that police station or through the magistrates’ courts at one time or another, so now there’s a really nice irony that we’re going to be painting it!”
The exact line-up of artists isn’t fully confirmed, but it’ll definitely include the legendary Tats Cru from New York, who actually came to Bristol back in the 1980s, and whom Inkie credits as a major influence on his own work. There’s also El Mac from LA, famed for his distinctive ‘realistic’ style of painting, plus others from France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Australia and more. There will also by a number of artists who are past or present Bristol residents.
As well as the murals, there’s going to be some street dressing for the Saturday event to bring a lot more colour to what is, after all, Bristol’s least colourful street. “Everyone will be doing their own thing,” says Inkie. “There will be colour themes, but we’re not telling people what to paint.
“Bristol has always been at the forefront of the UK cultural scene in music and art, and this was true before Banksy came along. He’s a brilliant artist, but there have always been lots of others as well. I’d say that a good 25% or so of the top 100 artists in the country have either come through Bristol or have spent time working here. I hope this will cement Bristol’s position, and spread the word about it through Europe and around the world. I hope it'll become an annual event.”
Bristol-based Team Love (TL) are programming the music and helping arrange the Saturday street party for the ‘See No Evil’ project. TL have hosted and produced stages at lots of festivals, including Glastonbury, Big Chill and at St Pauls Park at this year's St Pauls Carnival, but they've not done anything quite like this before.
“It’s shaping up really nicely,” TL's Tom Paine told Venue. “We have a great line-up in place including the legend that is Greg Wilson and old Bristol hero DJ Milo of Wild Bunch fame. He hasn't been and played in Bristol in donkey's years so this is a bit of a coup for us.
"Alongside this we are planning to host several music events, including a screening of the recent Resident Advisor Real Scenes Bristol documentary (See http://tinyurl.com/65yn9fm) plus more events to showcase and celebrate Bristol's musical culture and talents.
"Bristol is amazing right now, better than we have ever known it – and we have been here over 10 years. There is an amazing amount of creativity in the city, coupled with belief that people can do anything.”
"I thought it was worthless. I didn’t it know it was valuable. That’s why I painted over it. I really am sorry if people are upset," Saeed Ahmed, who runs a Muslim social club on Bristol's Fishponds Road told swns.com
Mr Ahmed was speaking after learning that the grafitti he had whitewashed over on the side of the building was a Banksy. The mural, showing a gorilla in a pink mask, had been on the building for around 10 years.
Mr Ahmed, who had never heard of the artist before, has engaged a specialist fine art conservator. Last we heard, the expert from Park Street's International Fine Art Conservation Studios was working on the whitewash with cotton buds and special chemicals to see if the graf could be restored.
Bristol City Council is looking into getting local neighbourhood partnerships to nominate street art works to go on a register of murals which ought to be preserved in future.