Marianne Swinkels looks forward to the visual feast that will be Upfest 2017…
Trump kissing Boris in the EU Remain campaign; a break-dancing, loin-clothed Jesus doing his thing outside a Stokes Croft watering hole; a naked, well-hung lover clinging for dear life on a window sill outside a sexual health clinic.
Hey, that’s almost standard stuff you’ll see in our city’s creative neighbourhoods. Because Bristol is commonly hailed as the undisputed capital of street art and, love it or loathe it, if you venture round town you’ll struggle not to come across what was once dismissed as vandalism and known only as graffiti, before the seemingly more positive term of ‘street art’ became popular and, gradually, perceptions changed until much of the imagery popping up around the city was just considered ‘art’. Things have come a long way since the uninformed, stereotypical cliché of disenfranchised youths venting their frustrations by furtively spray-canning public places after dark.
And things have moved on since frontrunner Banksy became famed for turning many a public surface into his personal canvas for witty and insightful, political and controversial pop-up works – now so sought-after that folk will fight to put down wads of cash at auction or queue for kilometers to get into his internationally attended, ground-breaking exhibitions. Indeed, this urban activity has progressed and pushed boundaries so much since he became a household name that, far from the hackneyed view of the naughty criminal nuisance, it has become a crowd-pulling, revenue-raising, cultural must. There’s even the self-guided Banksy walking trail attracting tourists and boosting city coffers in this, his hometown.
Nowadays the real talent from the movement is at the fore and a different discourse around the whole scene has prevailed. Personally, if we found ourselves considering a crude wall-scrawl, we’d be put right off if we were anywhere near the stunningly arresting designs of these talented urban painters. Forget furtive, forget the dead of night; now we want our street artists to show off their skills in broad daylight, during the height of summer, and we’re making a proper celebration of it.
By which, of course, we mean Upfest – Europe’s largest, free, annual street art and graffiti festival, this year showcasing the work of 300 artists from 30 countries and across the UK as they paint live at 35 outdoor venues throughout Bedminster and Southville in front of an anticipated 35,000 visitors. Small wonder, then, that this visually spectacular three-day event, now in its ninth year, smashed its £20,000 crowd-funding target and has no difficulty roping in an army of volunteers. Take a moment to make what you will of the scene, and the artists behind it, this year from 29 – 31 July.
“A festival of this scale wouldn’t happen like this anywhere else,” says Upfest founder Stephen Hayles. “We’ve got 30 or more years of street art history here in Bristol which gives us the edge and we’ve produced some of the most influential, legendary and subversive artists in the world. It’s part of the tapestry of the city and makes us a real magnet for creatives. This year we attracted an increased number of applications – around 750 artists from 50 countries. It was a tough job to assess.
“The motivations and objectives that drive artists are as varied as the individuals themselves. Their work often reflects the current issues of the time or highlights their personal causes and beliefs. Politics and protest, environmental and social issues feature strongly and this aspect of street art is particularly interesting in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. An image can appear on the street, get picked up by social media and open up what may otherwise be an ephemeral or temporary piece of work to a far wider public realm. Urban art is a great outlet for raising a question, making a point, getting a message across. It’s often the raison d’être for the artist. The impact of the art itself and the legacy it leaves are both important.”
“The motivations and objectives that drive artists are as varied as the individuals themselves. Their work often reflects the current issues of the time or highlights their personal causes and beliefs…”
As the Upfest team sharpen their pencils and count down the days to this large-scale celebration – also a fundraiser for The National Association for Children of Alcoholics – we can expect the unexpected. Bizarre, mysterious, weird, witty, wry and wonderful. And that’s just the artists’ names! From Abu to Zmogk, Dr Love, Mr Hope and Everything’s Oh-kay to Mind Control, Decay, Beastie, Freaky et al, they sure beat the roll call in any school register…
The Bristol link is once again strong, as two of the city’s original street art pioneers return to their old stomping grounds. There’s Xenx, who produces dreamworks or nightmare worlds and illustrator/animator Will Barras – both originators of the street art culture in the ’90s. Five Bristol street art legends, Inkie, Cheba, Cheo, Jody (see p30) and Voyder also return to the festival; over the years each has produced astounding Upfest art – from larger-than-life portraits to deep-space landscapes and enormous Mr Men murals.
And Filthy Luker – working as part of a duo with Pedro Estrellas and known for his enormous inflatable tentacle installations at the RWA and in St. Paul’s – will be back to entertain his home crowd. Working as he does with paint, mouldable foams, latex and even taxidermy, who knows what to expect this year. All the Upfest team know is that it will be big…
Thought-provoking, unpredictable, incredible, controversial, diverse – conjure up as many descriptives and assumptions as you like – whichever way you look at it, one thing’s for sure: you never know what’s round the corner with this brilliantly ‘off the wall’ feast for the eyes. Enjoy!
For the full artist lineup and further information on Upfest 2017 visit upfest.co.uk
Featured image: 2016 Upfest piece by Pichi and Avo, image © Colin Rayner