72 artists. 13,000 spray cans. Europe’s largest street art event. So read the August 2011 tagline of See No Evil, an ambitious event designed to celebrate the art form that put my hometown city of Bristol on the international map. The brainchild of renowned Bristol artist Inkie, See No Evil was not so much launched last summer as fireballed into the stratosphere; a blazing success with some of the world’s best urban artists throwing up major pieces of street art in a dilapidated area of the city centre and thousands of revellers throwing down a big, fat party that rocked the block.
This summer saw the event back with a vengeance as part of the summer long arts festival celebrating the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Twice as many people flocked into the concrete jungle area around Nelson Street to see it again transformed into one of the world’s largest outdoor galleries. A public vote was held to select the favourite of last year’s murals to stay whilst the rest was whitewashed over, providing a blank canvas for the cream of this year’s crop. As well as live painting, the crowds were entertained with huge scale digital projections, lots of music and a free pop-up gallery featuring over 100 original pieces and limited edition prints.
Maybe there’s something in the water down here in the South West or maybe it’s because Bristol sure knows how to party but there’s no doubt that a wealth of artists and talent have gravitated around Bristol over the years, developing a diverse and youthful culture that both mirrors and inspires many elements of British fashion, music and art as a whole. Hailed as one of the first cities in the UK to develop a street art scene, Bristol has a special historical significance for this genre and Bristol City Council have backed See No Evil whole-heartedly, hoping to attract more tourists following on the heels of Banksy’s widely publicised take-over of the Bristol Museum.
However, street art in Bristol hasn’t always surfed such a plain-sailing wave. Turn the clock back 30 years and my, how times have changed. The prolific young street artists emerging in Bristol back in the day were encouraged to paint the city’s Barton Hill youth club by a youth worker that wanted them to have a safe place to paint and use their talents without being prosecuted. Unfortunately, the long arm of the law noticed the tags that were so prevalent on the street matched much of the youth club work, reached for its arithmetic book and with a few furious scribbles put two and two together. Of course, (as documented in the promotional video Who’s Lenny?) two and two doesn’t always make four. One of the ‘artists’ the police insisted on finding during the prosecution rampage was the mysterious Lenny mentioned in many of the artworks. Lenny turned out to be the youth worker’s dog.
Fast forward to the here and now and everyone’s friends again, bonding over the sweet irony that the former magistrate’s court and juvenile courts where those little scamps found themselves in hot water, are now part of the See No Evil canvas, helping to provide an arena for this huge-scale celebration of street art.
Now, the once drab Nelson Street is a cacophony of colour and visual delight. Long-standing Bristol artists such as Nick Walker with his man in a suit pouring paint are captured here alongside relative newcomers like Stik, homeless 18 months ago and now responsible for the massive stick men on the side of Nelson House, reported to be one of the largest pieces of street art ever produced. Artists from the UK to LA, from Germany’s heavyweight CanTwo to Texan boy Werc, have pieces on display and the variety of creative inspiration is fantastic to see. El Mac’s religious toned offering of woman with child is just around the corner from Mark Bode’s reflection of his comic illustration background, a buxom pin-up lady. There is a little something for all tastes round these parts and from the faces of the little kids to the little old ladies I’ve seen appreciating the décor all year, the public seem to agree and have embraced street art, elevating it to the openly appreciated and celebrated art-form we see before us today.