It was a damp, grey morning, the streets oily with recent rain, pregnant clouds overhead threatening more in the coming hours. Still, there were a number of groups toiling the winding road of Stokes Croft, camera phones aloft, guided by eager students. It was freshers’ week at Bristol University and the new arrivals, many from London and the south-east, had come to see art. Not the mediocre collection in the city museum, but instead, graffiti.
People sometimes call them murals, in an attempt to bestow a respectability which graffiti angrily shrugs off. Bristol’s graffiti, or more particularly, Stokes Croft’s graffiti, has become famous: sober students are willing to brave autumnal weather and take photos of Banksy’s ‘The Mild, Mild West’, stencilled across a wall adjoining Hamilton House, a local arts exhibition space. The irony of young, middle class students venturing into what has historically been one of city’s most deprived areas to photograph graffiti, telling their friends ‘I saw a Banksy today!’, and sharing the image on social media, is a testament to gentrification. Or it’s another way of saying that graffiti is not as ‘street’ as it once was. Banksy is in museums these days too.
Stokes Croft has stood apart from other cities like London by actively encouraging graffiti, especially by local business owners. Yet most pieces last only a few months, sometimes even less than that, a new image stencilled over a Banksy, appearing one morning bold and striking, fresh as dew.
Perhaps it’s not quite as egalitarian as the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft would like it to be. After all, Banksy is not quite like every other graffiti artist. His ‘Mobile Lovers’ was deliberately removed from the Broad Plains Boys’ Club to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. He has become institutionalised, made acceptable to middle class audiences who in the past would have shirked Stokes Croft or dismissed graffiti as urban detritus. The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins described his work as ‘anti-authoritarian whimsy’, which is perhaps another way of saying Banksy is not quite as threatening to the establishment as we may like to think. It’s not so much Banksy has sold out (his authorised website is defiantly sparse), but that his audience has. And in apparently trying to let his graffiti speak for itself, other voices have chimed in.
One only has to walk down Stokes Croft to see a whole host of divergent images on walls, some political, others amusing or ambiguous. The idea of graffiti as street politics is powerful but restrictive—Banksy is a graffiti artist, not the graffiti artist. The graceful anonymity of some of the graffiti in Stokes Croft resists the co-option of an art world hungry for the next big thing.
Meanwhile, Banksy hurtles further towards the status of international artist provocateur, and young, eager students on damp September mornings come to Stokes Croft to take selfies with Banksy’s work. Perhaps they see—and not just glance at—the other graffiti on the walls around them, and think how versatile it can be as an art form. Banksy’s greatest legacy might not be his own work, but bringing a spotlight to his fellow graffitists. There is more to Stokes Croft than ‘The Mild, Mild West.’