“It’s a bit like Bristol really, you’re either clinging on by your fingertips or looking out to a bright future!” Well, perhaps Banky’s Bristol mural, The Well Hung Lover, is a metaphor for life in the city, as suggested by our street art guide Tina Altwegg of Where the Wall street art tours. Apparently Bristolians approach them all the time during their tours, and this was just one interpretation of the Banksy piece, given to them by a passer by on a previous tour. Our street art tour started and ended with a Banksy, but as we discovered there’s a lot more to the Bristol street art scene than the city’s most famous and mysteriously anonymous street artist.
As we walked down the steps to view the Banksy mural from below, Tina fed us annecdotes about the art and artists we were passing. This Banksy was created at a time when Bristol City Council was whitewashing street art as fast as it could be created, but since it was painted in a very visible but inaccessible position, on the side of a building owned by a friend of Banksy, no-one could touch it. That didn’t stop it being targetted by taggers launching blue paintball splodges which have only partially been removed. Perhaps the theme of betrayal was inpired by the bust-up Banksy had with his manager, or perhaps it’s a reference to the sexual health clinic that once occupied this building.
A little further we came across one of my favourite pieces of the tour by JPS – two cute children doing The Big Deal. The artist from Weston Super Mare uses stencils in a way that is reminiscent and even inspired by Banksy. The Queens Shilling, an LGBT nightclub it’s next to, liked it so much that they asked him to create another piece just around the corner.
This Spartacus mural by JPS is a tribute to the actor Andy Whitfield who was in the TV series but died of cancer. Apparently it’s a favourite photo spot for hen parties – can’t think why!
We moved across the centre to the Radisson Hotel Blu Hotel, not the most obvious location for street art – but here was a piece by Cheo that recreates the local Aardman characters of Wallace and Gromit as cool dudes from the hood. The first mural was created when the Shaun the sheep statues were scattered around Bristol but it became such a talking point that the hotel asked Cheo back to create its partner.
In Corn Street Tina pointed out the The Hatter Cafe who had commissioned a piece by Nick Walker using his familiar character in a bowler hat which we spotted again later along Nelson Street. There are an increasing number of businesses around Bristol that tap into the talent of Bristol street artists – you can stay in a room at the Mercure Holland House inspired by Bristol Street art or sip your cocktail on the Urban Roof Terrace of the Marriott City Hotel.
Turning off Corn Street through Leonard’s Lane was a revelation, with the murals visible at the entrance of this dark passage only hinting at the menagerie of creatures and stencil, mosaic and 3D pieces to be found by those venturing down the alley. Take a look at my photo album for a taste of some of them.
We emerged blinking into the daylight from the passage, at the old old city walls with the spire of St John in the wall above us and the unicorns and lions from the city’s coat of arms decorating the old stone archway – for unicorn chasers there’s also one inside the church.
Now we were on Nelson Street, one of the key street art areas of Bristol. Most of the uninspiring concrete buildings were painted with huge murals as part of the See No Evil Street Art Festival in 2011 and 2012. Look up to find the Madonna-like piece by El Mac based on his girlfriend and baby, using a shading technique created by chilling down the aerosol paints in a bucket of ice. Next to it Nick Walker’s bowler hatted man is painting the town red. A little further up the road, the wolf by Aryz and stick figure by the artist of the same name Stik brighted up the most unremarkable towerblocks. Nelson Street is now under development with a large building site, so some of the smaller pieces from the festival have been lost, but it’s still well worth visiting for the larger murals that remain. The festival was a predecessor of the Upfest festival that now takes place in South Bristol, hosting 300 street artists and 30,000 visitors last July.
As Tina tells us the story behind each piece, I sense a theme emerging. Some of the artists like Stik and JPS had been depressed or homeless and found a way forward through street-art. Others have been honing their artistic talent in Bristol for many years, since John Nation, now a tour guide for Where the Wall, started a street art project at the Barton Hill Youth Club. Artists like Nick Walker and Cheo started painting there before Banksy and, as Rob Dean, the founder of Where the Wall explained, if they have now found success, it’s not before time.
“The artists are now getting recognition for what they are doing rather than lurking in the shadows, which is fantastic – the people who have been doing it for 20 years need to become household names. It’s not so much commercialism as the recognition that they deserve for the hours they have put in.”
The Street Art tours are becoming increasingly popular with school groups, both in Bristol and from abroad and Tina runs the tours in French and German when required. Sometimes the tour is combined with a creative spray session at the end, so that the kids can give it a try for themselves. Art teachers find that it’s a great way of getting teenagers excited by the medium – perhaps inspiring the next generation of street artists.
We move on towards Broadmead past the old police station, now a youth centre and gallery with all sorts of artistic stuff going on. As Tina points out, there’s an irony in the place where they took arrested graffiti artists now being a hub of creativity. On the grimy stonework there’s some ‘Clean’ or reverse graffiti by Moose, created with sturdy stencils and a jet wash.
Heading through the underpass of the Bearpit, we see panels where artists can create murals in an ever changing gallery. This is the starting point for Stokes Croft, the road leading from the city centre which is seemingly one long street-art gallery. Businesses along here regularly commission work from the top street artists, like the Man in the Moon piece by Cheba that we see on the wall of the Full Moon pub and backpacker’s hostel. Tagging and spray-can graffiti is common, but the more respected artists or commissioned pieces stay free of it for a little longer.
We meander through the back alleys parallel to Stokes Croft, as Tina points out some of the more unusual pieces like a paste up piece at kerb level. It’s literally a painting pasted to a wall so it might stay anything from 1 day to 6 months before it’s torn off. At the top of Stokes Croft is the Carriage Works, an old shell of a building where the panels between the arches are a popular canvas for street artists.
Bristol is so well known for street art that many of the top international artists come here to create a piece over a weekend, to make sure they have Bristol on their creative CV. However, even the best pieces may only last a few days before they are painted over by someone else – only remembered on Facebook or Instagram.
Now our tour is nearly at an end as we meet up with Where the Wall founder, Rob Dean who tells us of his plans for the future. The company has recently started a Banksy tour which is proving a hit, even though there are only a few pieces by the artist remaining throughout Bristol. It complements the main street art tour we’ve just done and is an opportunity to give visitors a bit more context about the history of the city. Rob tells us, “I see the street art tours as a great way to go straight into the middle of the creative contemporary culture of Bristol, without having to spend days finding it, or missing it completely.”
The tour company also tries to help local street artists get more benefit from their work, by ensuring it is correctly attributed and that their intellectual property rights are not trampled upon. Last year Where the Wall worked with a calendar company on a project that saw a number of local artists being paid to create murals in the Cabots Circus Shopping Centre, which were then photographed for a Bristol street art calendar.
We discover that our guide Tina Altwegg is also an illustrator and artist, as she shows us her Dancing Polar Bear mural in the underground cycle park of Hamilton House, where she has her artist’s studio. She tells us how she wanted to imagine the polar bears dancing and having fun as a counterpoint to all the depressing news about climate change.
After a coffee in The Canteen, we check out a couple more pieces on the walls of the neighbouring buildings. The break-dancing Jesus is an iconic mural that’s become well known in Bristol and was created by artist Cosmo Sarson following a competition to decide who would paint this very visible space on Stokes Croft. It was inspired by a news story the artist had seen about Pope John Paul II inviting a group of Polish break dancers to perform for him in the Vatican.
On the opposite wall we finish as we started with a Banksy, one of his earliest surviving pieces in Bristol – The Mild Mild West. This one was created in 1999 before the artist moved into a more detailed style using stencils and stopped signing his work. Because it’s a simple black and white piece, painted by hand, it’s been easy to touch up every time someone tries to tag it or send a few paintballs in its direction. Since the mural was painted there have been protests and riots in this part of Bristol so it seems to always have a relevancy in the theme. We Bristolians may be cuddly and easy going but there’s an undercurrent of anti-establishment feeling here too.
Take the Where the Wall tour and as Rob says, even if you’re here for just a day, you’ll get straight to the heart of contemporary culture in Bristol and enjoy some great street art from Banksy and many, many more.
Where the Wall Street Art Tours cost £9.20 and there are 3 tours – The Bristol Street Art Tours, The Banksy and Harbourside walking tour and the Bedminster Street Art Tour.
Thanks to Where the Wall for providing me with a free tour as part of a Bristol Bloggers and Influencers Event.
More Art in Bristol
What the other bloggers said
Travel to Recovery – Bristol Street Art Tour
New Mum Online – The Street Art Where the Wall Tour and Colour that Inspired Aeron
Natacha the Franglais – And if we talked about Street Art
Looking for somewhere to stay in Bristol?
Here are some of the Hotels in Bristol that we recommend, which are close to the neighbourhoods that have street-art.
Boutique Guest House in Bristol: Brooks Guest House
Tucked away in a courtyard in the heart of the old city, with 23 stylish and compact bedrooms and retro rocket caravans on the roof which you can stay in.
Luxury Hotel in Bristol: Hotel du Vin
Set in an 18th century sugar warehouse with exposed brickwork and 40 loft style bedrooms, leather sofas in the sugar bar and a French Bistro style restaurant.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey