• The Writing’s on the Wall: The Fleeting Delights of Street Art

    August 29, 2012 • Living

    Having recently moved to the Bristol area, it was no surprise to find that this creative city was one of the first in the UK to stand up and embrace its ‘public art’, most recently through its second installment of the See No Evil project. It began in early August and saw a number of internationally renowned street artists board mini cranes to work on various outdoor canvasses around Nelson Street – including everything from office blocks, bridges and student accommodation to a police station. I took the time to wander the newly painted streets last weekend and although I wasn’t captivated by all the pieces,  a few couldn’t fail to standout – Nick Walker’s Pouring Paint and El Mac’s Mother and Child (two rare survivors from the See No Evil 11) on Quay Street and ROA’s Fox on Nelson Street almost command you to stop and stare. Although I couldn’t help but admire the huge scale of some of these pieces, there is still something I prefer about the subtler, non-commissioned variety of art work. Perhaps it’s to do with contrast – brilliantly quirky pieces hidden down dingy lanes amongst restaurant crates; or perhaps it’s simply to do with the human element – the story behind these small tokens of anonomous expression that we will never know. Either way, there’s something about both the process of creating and discovering that’s difficult to replicate in an organised gallery.

    Although there are now official street art route maps available in Bristol, there is much ground-breaking and boundary pushing street art to explore off route. Banksy made his debut here and the very fact that his Hanging Man still clings on to a wall at the bottom of Park Street in the town centre, despite its being a fiercly protected ‘anti-graffiti’ zone, goes some way to show how far the street art scene has risen in the ‘art world’s’ value system. Although most cities tend to make a distinction between commissioned ‘street art’ and non commissioned ‘graffiti’, the ‘no-graffiti’ policy is more the exception than the rule here and there are many areas of the city which actively encourage this form of expression (Stokes Croft; Bedminister (Dame Emily Park in particular); St Werburgh’s; Gloucester Road etc.) These works may not have been approved by a board, gallery or the media but they certainly have something to say. Subtle social commentary is often the hardest hitting and street art as a form lends itself well to this – it is available to all, it doesn’t charge an entrance fee, it doesn’t lend itself to being easily bought or sold and it knows it’s not forever – once it’s gone, it’s gone.

    Towards the end of last year, I spent a few months in Melbourne, Australia, whose magical street-art clad laneways attract visitors from all over the world. It’s true that city officials have not always embraced it as ‘art’ and there have been various attempts by the authorities to ‘clean it up’, but even they had to finally concede that there was something in the paint and street art is now as much a part of the city as its beloved coffee houses. Hosier lane in the CBD is a perfect example, attracting tourists, photographers, sketchers, locals and most recently even bridal parties keen to be photographed against its celebrated wall designs. Higson and ACDC lanes, Degraves Street, Fitzroy and Brunswick are also alive and kicking with the works of many of the city’s infamous street artists.

    A few months before we arrived, the headlines were full of outrage that Melbourne’s last Banksy piece had been destroyed (despite having been protected by the council with a perspex cover), echoing a similar story back in the UK when Banksy’s ‘Pink Masked Gorilla’ was painted over in July 11 by an organisation which had recently bought the Bristol building and wall it adorned. But this just goes to highlight that the street art scene is nothing if not democratic – no piece is sacred and every space is fair game. This is part of the beauty and allure of the street art: it is but temporary, a fleeting gesture which accepts its own mortality. No piece lasts forever and from the moment the artist has left the scene, their work is liable to tagging, enhancement or complete destruction – if not by fellow graffitiers then by the weather or the council. It compels you to to take the time to look because it won’t be here forever…

    Discovering and creating these pieces evokes the sort of childlike excitement that occurs when given the freedom to discover and create for yourself, without having to care what anyone else thinks. They invite you to join in, to contemplate and respond rather than putting up walls you must struggle to break down or setting rules you must learn to decode first and there is something refreshing about that…


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