Presenter Miquita Oliver traces the turbulent history of Bristol’s street art scene in ‘Vandals and Visionaries’, a new documentary for BBC One
Street art and graffiti have been part of Bristol’s culture for over three decades, yet the art form has consistently split people in the city. Some see it as an ugly act of criminal vandalism while others view it as a lucrative magnet for tourists.
Now as Europe’s largest street art and graffiti festival, Upfest, welcomes over 35,000 visitors to the streets of Bedminster, Vandals and Visionaries traces the history of street art in Bristol – from its humble beginnings in a Barton Hill youth club to its emergence as a multi-million pound global art movement.
Miquita speaks to John Nation at The Dugout, Barton Hill Youth Club
Over thirty years ago a group of teenagers embraced New York hip hop culture and brought it colourfully, and illegally, to life on the streets of Bristol. Vandals and Visionaries meets those involved at the beginning, who recall the thrill they got from spraying their names – or tags – on buildings, buses and trains.
Miquita describes how the street art scene was stopped in its tracks in the late 1980s following Operation Anderson – a simultaneous raid on over 70 teenage street artists – which all but killed off the street art scene, leaving its young devotees with criminal records and notoriety in national newspapers and on TV.
“I can only explain it as having the wind knocked out of you,” explains former street artist Cheo. “Because you were at the top of your game, you were having the best time of your life, and you had all your friends around you and it was just good times.”
But Miquita hears how there was a new generation of graffiti artists coming through and it was led by an increasingly notorious artist called Banksy. Canny about PR and marketing and strategic about targeting specific locations, Banksy’s work led to the revolution of the street art scene, taking it away from the streets and into museums and art galleries around the world.
“He’s been hugely important and he’s opened so many doors for people,” says Felix Braun, street artist and author of Children of the Can. “He saw something in it that a lot of other people didn’t at the time…. It was very brave what he did.”
Miquita describes how the movement reached peak popularity in 2009, when a Banksy takeover over of Bristol Museum – Banksy vs Bristol Museum – became one of the world’s most visited exhibitions of the year, generating over £14 million for the local economy. Former youth worker and champion of street art John Nation says:
“Banksy did his show at the Bristol Museum in 2009, it was massive and the way that it brought tourists and huge amounts of money into the city, and the tourism people and the marketing people in Bristol they market Bristol being about street art and graffiti culture as a major selling point for the city.”
But the documentary hears how, while Banksy is feted on an international scale, the police are still cracking down on street artists in Bristol and handing out increasingly tougher sentences to offenders.
Sgt. Andy Whelpton, Avon and Somerset Police says: “We take a very simple viewpoint. If someone hasn’t given permission for that tag or piece to be put on their building then we treat it as criminal damage.”
“I think the sentences that are laid down to artists are completely out of perspective with what the crime is,” says street artist Inkie. “For just you know doing something creative, or even if it’s creative vandalism, it’s damage to property and it’s not damage to the person.”
So what is the future for the movement? Miquita concludes that the answer is that artists must work collaboratively with the Police and the council to protect this vibrant scene, which does so much for the city and its reputation. She says:
“Bristol is a vibrant and multicultural city – and street art is a crucial part of this. It hits you full in the face when you arrive here by train or by car. The scene has had to adapt over the years, and it can only survive through collaboration. Everyone needs to work together to keep Bristol colourful, creative and clean.”