Bristol has been a hub for urban art for decades, producing some of the world’s best graffiti artists. Banksy is probably the best known name among these Bristol-bred artists and his emergence brought a new legitimacy to street art across the UK. A few paintings on the sides of buildings turned into an exhibition at Bristol Museum in 2009, which saw weeks of people queuing in the streets followed by international acclaim for the anonymous artist. The effects of this fame upon other artists and the culture as a whole was clear when on 16th-19th August the streets of central Bristol were given a fresh burst of life and colour as the See No Evil project returned to the city for its second year.
Last year Bristol City Council gave permission for Nelson Street to be reinvented as the UK’s biggest street art project. Previously the street had been a little used thoroughfare between the city’s main shopping area and the harbour. Enclosed by dreary office buildings and a police station, the only regular life it saw was in the early morning hours when the city’s nightlife stumbled out of clubs into kebab shops and taxis. With the building owners on board and the council investing half of the £80 000 required to set up the art, UK and international street artists transformed nearly all of the building facades on the street.
The popularity of the project allowed the street to be rejuvenated for a second time. This year See No Evil was part of the London 2012 Festival, an arts festival stretching across the country this summer in celebration of the Olympics. All but three of the existing paintings were covered over in preparation for the 30 artists to create an almost entirely new outdoor gallery. Amongst the imagery remaining from last year’s gallery is a piece by Nick Walker of a suited man pouring red paint, an illustration which towers on one of the tallest buildings in the street. The new works created by some of the most well-known names in urban art were even bigger and brighter this year.
The four day event started on Thursday 16th August with the Hear No Evil music branch of the festival, organised by Team Love. As work was begun on the walls of Nelson Street, A Taste of Bristol put together an exciting line-up of both new and established dance acts. On Friday was ‘Mail, Maps and Motion’, an event described by See No Evil as ‘a sound and visual collaborative extravaganza’ involving a visual light show of Bristol’s history alongside a soundtrack by world-renowned musicians.
The pinnacle of the weekend’s events was on the Saturday, when a New York style block party was held. This day alone drew 20 000 of the event’s total 50 000 visitors and saw the once deserted streets completely packed. As the crowd shuffled down the street in one mass, groups danced to DJs playing atop modified vans, while others lounged on deck chairs in front of the bar and in case you didn’t know the cause of it all, glittering 3D lettering spelled out See No Evil along the bus stops. Branching side streets were blocked off with stages showcasing local music talents allowing people to step out of the main crowd to better enjoy the art, food and music.
In Westgate House, an apparently empty building was actually home to a concept arena and inside over 20 local artists were busy at work on cardboard geometric shapes for the ‘Longplaya’ art installation. Visitors were able to see the progress of the art, including that of young students from Knowle West Media Centre and Trinity Community. A host of DJs played and there were blank shapes for children to try out their skills. The artists were keen to talk about their work and this accessibility added to the interactive quality of the event.
Local artist, Craig Minchington, commented on the enthusiasm of the children who had been continuously ‘running up asking for free pillars [to draw on]’. An employee of the hosting company, Epoch Designs, revealed that he believes that through events such as See No Evil, street art is ‘becoming less scribbling on walls and instead creating big pieces with more thought in them’. The benefit to the reception of urban art was reiterated by Dom Williams, a street artist and comic book designer. He said that the project ‘reinforces Bristol as a central point for graffiti’.
In the evening, the artists hung up their brushes and the Westgate Building hosted a night of music organised by Bristol Soundclash. The finished bright shapes formed the backdrop.
Sunday acted as a relaxing hangover cure after the events of the day before. Visitors were able to wander the streets more easily where the organisers had asked local buskers to play.
But the event has not ended after the four days. Driving through the streets, the artwork is still plain to see adding colour and cheer to what used to be a decidedly drab area of the city centre. It also acts as a great reminder of the wonderful talent bred in Bristol and an art-form so often dismissed as vandalism.