What’s the difference between a paint-sprayed wall that’s little more than vandalism and street art that defines the heart and soul of a city? In others words, when does graffiti become street art?
It’s a question that my young son and I chew over as we walk in and around Bristol, a city in transition which is undergoing an architectural and cultural gentrification that divides local opinion.
Two years ago Angus Harrison wrote a blog on the Bristol culture website Vice.com titled ‘Make Bristol Shit Again’ in which he mourned how his home city’s working class soul was being eroded by the relentless march of modernity.
Wherever we live change is reflected through evolving fashions, whether it’s the growing penchant for European café culture that bloomed in the Nineties or the glass-and-steel architecture trends that dominate our skylines today.
And art has always been a good barometer for the changing societal trends through the ages, and certainly where Bristol’s concerned, nothing much has changed in that regard.
The city’s art scene has long been rooted in the distinctively urban – in the city that launched graffiti as a bonafide art form in its own right, how could it be otherwise? And it’s through art that Bristol remains relentlessly true to its history.
Where some towns and cities doggedly cling to their tradition and reputation at the expense of what others might see as progress, Bristol’s strength as a cultural centre lies in its ability to allow new and old to thrive alongside each other.
The arts scene in Bristol has a near-audible buzz about it because it’s always been open to all. Fine art co-exists with graffitied murals on city walls and each is celebrated with equal passion.
In fact, art may well be the one true meritocracy that exists in this colourful corner of Western England.
It’s a city of community art trails and not-for-profit arts centres, of home-based exhibitions by artists you’ve never heard of but might in the future; it’s art that isn’t limited to canvasses and, most importantly of all, an awful lot of it is free.
As a hub that allows you access to art – whatever the medium, whether you’re walking down a street or gliding through a slick fine art gallery – Bristol is a gold standard and an absolutely vital cog in the long-term health of the UK’s art scene.
Savvy and well-regarded Bristol galleries, such as Hidden and That, actively celebrate artistic diversity by showcasing famous names alongside lesser-known but no less accomplished urban and contemporary artists.
And it’s the come-one-come-all inclusivity that’s such a distinctive part of Bristol’s DNA – not just as cultural petri dish, but also through its historic role as a major English port – that not only makes it a critical part of our art history, but also ensures that it will always be the place where all-comers have the chance to show the world what they can do.
Banksy may be the city’s prodigal son, but he’s only the tip of a vibrant hotbed of endeavour and talent that make this part of the world so fascinatingly relevant.
So… when does a graffiti become street art? I’ll get back to you on that.
The Mild Mild West is a mural by graffiti artist Banksy, sited on No. 80 Stokes Croft, Bristol. It depicts a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police.
Banksy drew the artwork over three days in broad daylight in 1999. It was drawn in response to various unlicensed raves and parties held in abandoned warehouses around Bristol in the 1990s, that drew increased attention from the police. A specific trigger for the mural was such an event at Winterstoke Road, where riot police began to attack partygoers.
The artwork is popular with the local community who consider it a good symbol of the heritage around Stokes Croft. It has been cited as an archetypal piece of Bristol culture, showing how a relaxed hippie can still fight back against the government and commercialisation.
In April 2009, the artwork was vandalised with red paint by an anti-graffiti organisation called Appropriate Media, but was quickly repaired. Bristol City Council announced plans to enclose the mural in glass in front of new flats, which was criticised by the local community because it would make it harder to see from the street. Coexist, an organisation managing regeneration of Stokes Croft, did not understand the vandalism. Their spokesman said, "I don't see how spraying red paint is helping with the positive change" and was happy that volunteers quickly came together to repair it. A dressmaking shop opposite the mural has complained about graffiti, and that continual cleaning has begun to damage the Bath stone walls.