Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Street Art

The gathering dusk on Friday afternoon found me walking past the ugly buildings of Nelson Street in Bristol city centre.  I was delighted to discover that the dreary 60s monoliths that once accommodated faceless bureaucrats and now contain students (a nice transition) have been superbly decorated with giant graphic murals.  These dreadful concrete structures, totally without ornament, have their blind and blank expanses now covered with exotic patterns and wistful portraits many storeys high.

Bristol’s reputation for street art appears to have taken another step forward.  What were previously perceived as illicit forays with an aerosol have now been recognised as valid social decoration and, as such, the poachers have now been employed by the gamekeepers in order to brighten up the place they share. This enlightened change of council policy was worth investigation. The people with their finger on the pulse of Bristol’s street art would know.

It was a mild evening in Bristol and, as traffic darted up the atypically clear Cheltenham Road, lights glowed in the shop fronts of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft. Adjacent to the PRSC headquarters in Jamaica Street, the launch of an exhibition of portraits of local residents was taking place in the old Carriage Works.  In true PRSC fashion everyone was made welcome and, over a free and toothsome pint of Butcombe Gold (generously provided by the brewery), I got into conversation with Chalky, one of the organisers. 

We talked about ‘See No Evil’, the city’s strategy last summer to bring street art to its centre.  Yet I was surprised that Chalky failed to share my appreciation of El Mac’s 10-storey high Mother and Child and its like.  He agreed the initiative had certainly delivered stunning imagery across one of the centre’s grimmest quarters but, for him and the stalwarts of the PRSC, the feast of art down the road left a bitter after-taste.  Apparently, commissioned by the Council, street artists were flown in from around the world in order to participate in the summer event.  Several of Bristol’s street art luminaries were also involved, and contributions of paint and materials were acquired from established practitioners of the city’s street art scene. 

The reason Chalky was so underwhelmed was soon made clear. Four months later, many artists remain unremunerated. Gallons of paint were used, yet bills remain unpaid. Chalky still hasn’t got his ladders back. I was given the impression that the Council appears to want the whole affair swept under the carpet. Yet many dozens of thousands of pounds are involved.

This is a familiar and disappointing tale.  Bristol is renowned for indigenous talent in this field yet, as in much these days, ‘authority ‘ felt it needed to stick in its oar and take over.  For a fraction of the cost, the city’s inhabitants could have authored and executed their own imagery.  Didn’t the Council know the world’s leading lights in street art were their own residents? Why wasn’t the work commissioned from community organisations such as the PRSC?  Was it that the Council wanted to cash in on its street art scene but didn’t actually want to engage with its own residents, with whom it may have endured the occasional skirmish over recent years?

This is a shame.  The self-imposed agenda of the PRSC is “to work with the nature of the built environment, to improve through painting, to act gently and to care for the fabric of the area”. It would have made a wonderful job of Nelson Street, employed dozens and saved the rate-payer thousands. 

And Chalky would have his ladders back, too.

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