Adventure International

Bristol Street Art Tour

My Bristol Street Art tour awes me. Bristol is a tattoo city, wearing its ink on the sides of city buildings. This street art stretches back nearly 50 years. 

For the young artists (branded as hooligans and delinquents), their work conveyed their message to the world through their art.

Walking Tour

On a semi-warm day in early May, I stand outside the designated spot waiting for the “Bristol Street Art Tour” to commence. At least 24 other street art fans join me. (I have taken other street art tours in Berlin, Mexico, and Washington D.C.)

I hope to learn more about the hometown of Banksy, the elusive U.K. artist who is famous for his anti-establishment art. 

Our guide is John Nation. He has strong bonds with this artist community. Nation was once the youngest social worker in Bristol. He conceived the idea of getting the hooligans “off the streets” and letting them paint at the social center.

“Many were seen as problematic but artistically gifted. I was the youngest youth worker hired at age 19. The Barnhill Youth Center allowed street artists to paint,” says Nation.

“What you will see is a mixture of legal and illegal artwork,” said Nation. “I will show you a rich diversity of work with a ‘Bristolian’ accent.”

UpFest

Our tour coincided with Bristol’s UpFest street art festival (May 17-June 2). “This year, Upfest returns as UPFEST PRESENTS… a 17-day cultural program, In place of its weekend festival in the park. UPFEST PRESENTS will pop-up at multiple venues across BS3 with free to attend workshops, live painting, artist talks, arts activities, panel discussions, and Street Art Tours.”

Nation said over 400 artists will be painting over three weekends. “Bristol is a very liberal city. But it is guilty of the removal of the legacy of Banksy artwork as a young artist.”

Banksy’s Street Art

We stop first at Banksy’s Well Hung Lover mural on Frogmore Street. Look up because it is painted high on the building from Park Street across from College Green. It has recently been “bombed” with pink paint. 

“Subverters target with balloon bombs filled with paint to hit graffiti,” explains Nation.

Our guide uses this time to discuss the Bristol artist who refuses to reveal his identity.

“Banksy’s journey began in 1984. He became the People’s Artist. Robert D. is not Banksy. He travels with the artist to continue the mythology,” he explains.

Banksy moved from Bristol in 1989. He has lived in London, New York, and California. He has a cleft. His face is hidden by a mustache and beard.

Inkie Mural

Our next stop is to see a legal Bristol mural. “Inkie is a premiere street artist,” explains Nation. “He is funding Boogie Down Bristol. Inkie took three hours to paint his mural on the back of a container. He used a stencil background.”

Depending on the time to complete the work, an artist will use a mixture of aerosol paints. If the wall is wet, the aerosol will run and drip.”

Born in 1969, Inkie also hails from Clifton in Bristol. Along with Banksy, he is recognized as part of Bristol’s heritage graffiti movement.

Bristol’s 650-Year Anniversary Mural

While the Bristol Council has a love-hate relationship with street art, it hasn’t stopped using urban art to commemorate the city’s history.

“Street art is used for dressing the building. It’s a no-brainer,” says Nation.

We stop in front of a massive blue Bristol mural. This “1373-2023” mural celebrates the city’s 650th anniversary.

“He painted images famous of Bristol, including the Millenium Ferris wheel, St Mary’s Cathedral, the anchor, and the slave trade port,” explains Nation.

Renaissance Paint Jam

The city hosted the Renaissance Paint Jam in 2023, inviting 10 street artists to use techniques and styles popular during the Renaissance era. (The artists included Inkie, Bedminster-based illustrator Will Cross, sign writer TOZER, colorful painter Georgie Webster, fine art-inspired Andrew Burns Colwill, mural artist Martin D’Arcy, and street art expressionist Cheba.)

Bristol City Centre Business Improvement District (Bristol BID) worked with Bristol businesses that had vacant buildings to bring the project to life.

To celebrate the 650-year anniversary, “there’s nothing more synonymous with modern-day Bristol than street art,” states Vicky Lee, head of Bristol BID.

Pandemic Street Art

Upfest collaborated with We Are Plaster, Bristol BID, and Visit Bristol during the pandemic on multiple place-making initiatives, including the Bristol Hearts. 

“We designed and painted 374 socially distanced giant hearts across three sites in Bristol City Centre for the #BristolTogether campaign,” according to UpFest. “These hearts were to encourage and promote the safe reopening of our city after the lockdown of 2020.”

(After the tour, I discover a Use Your Love mural painted by Inkie.)

Legal vs. Illegal

According to Nation, a city must decide whether street art is illegal (must be erased) or legal (a symbol of a vibrant and diverse city).

“We see in Bristol the commercialization of the street art culture,” says Nation. “The Council and Police see it as anti-social behavior. They say Bristol looks dirty with graffiti everywhere . . . They now use anti-graffiti paint to prevent graffiti and antisocial behavior. The council reclaimed space. They evicted all the artists.”

But Bristol is the UK’s most famous street art city and the hometown of the world-famous Banksy. People flock to Bristol each year to see the street art.

“Many street art festivals have struggled to get any funding from lottery or art councils,” states Nation. 

Tagging

We see many examples of tagging on a walking tour. Young artists often prefer tagging. This graffiti style involves an artist repeatedly leaving his or her signature or symbol in a public place. The graffiti artist may use a single color or logo to heighten recognition.

Nation says the street artists typically seek out less traveled parts of the city. Stealth is mandatory to avoid discovery.

“They prefer warehouses, abandoned houses, and train stations. There is an adrenaline rush,” says Nation. 

To fight back, the city spends 3 million pounds to prevent graffiti. “It is a war of attrition. The anti-graffiti unit guarantees job security,” says Nation.

Church of St. John

So what happens when a mainline church and street artists work in tandem to attract visitors? We find out when we tour two walkable tunnels covered in street art.

In 2021, the Bristol City Council and Churches Conservation Trust commissioned this “legal” street art.

Not surprisingly, this street art project at the Church of St. John had detractors. “Painted with contemporary street art, the critics asked, ‘“’Why do we have to desecrate?’” explains Nation.

Artist Andy Council

Artist Andy Council explains the symbols used in his tunnel street art. “Situated in the Old City area of Bristol, the pieces are based on creatures relevant to the church and landmarks from the area. All the creatures are in a heraldic style and painted in colors similar to those used in illuminated manuscripts.  

The lion and unicorn are from the Bristol coat of arms. The lion is made up of more modern buildings on Nelson Street and it’s street art. It also features a ‘Doom’ mural that is in the church depicting people going to hell! The Unicorn is made up of Old City buildings including the Dutch House which is no longer there.

Artist Andy Council

See No Evil Mural

We stop at another Inkie mural near the Church of St. John pedestrian walkaways.

“Inkie loves art nouveau. He painted the See No Evil blue mural in a grotty section of Bristol next to the Church of St. John.”

Painted in 2022, it features a woman wearing a wreath of flowers.

Favorite Murals

We walk for nearly three hours through Old Bristol, past high-rent Bristol condos painted with street art, and down to Stokes Croft. I love so many murals. Here are a few picks:

FLX Mural

Women Artist Collective Murals

Mother and Child Mural

Alice In Wonderland Mural

Wolf Mural

Mild Mild West Mural

Our tour ends inside an office building located in Stokes Croft. We look out at Banksy’s most famous early work in an office flat on the second floor.

Painted in 1999, the Mild Mild West street art features a bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot policemen. According to Nation, Banksy painted it freehand (no stencil). It is probably the last freehand mural. “It was voted the Alternative Tourism Landmark for Bristol,” says Nation. 

“It was painted by the artist over three days in broad daylight and is still in the city today, among some of Banksy’s other works.”

Daily Mail

Banksy English Heritage Sign

After leaving the office building, I take a photo of a fake Banksy “England Heritage” plaque hung on a brick wall in Stokes Croft. Typically, this is a permanent sign commemorating the link between a dead famous person and the location. 

But Banksy fans don’t plan to wait until he dies to celebrate him. This historical marker reads: “Banksy 19 – 20 Prankster lived here and there.”

Afterword

Nation reports that Banksy has only curated three shows in the UK.

For example, the “Art of Banksy” is an unauthorized exhibition. Attendees exit through a gift shop and buy bootleg art images.”

The Pest Control Office is the name of Banksy’s business. The website lists the business as the “Parent/Legal Guardian for the artist Banksy. Questions. Authentications. Keeping it real. Use of images.” Banksy gives art collectors a certificate of authenticity.

Near the end of my tour of Bristol, I discover Banksy’s Girl with a Pearl Earring mural hidden away in an overgrown garden. In my opinion, this is Bristol’s outdoor street art museum at its best.

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  • Sonia
    June 1, 2024 at 2:17 pm

    Visiting Bristol’s street art looks like a fun way to explore the city.

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    June 1, 2024 at 3:36 pm

    We absolutely love to find great street art when we travel. But we have not yet visited for a street art festival. UpFest in Bristol looks like a good one for us to plan to attend. I love all the colour in the art and the variety in the designs. Definitely worth a visit.

  • Laureen Lund
    June 1, 2024 at 4:34 pm

    I have not YET been to Bristol but we have done several mural/street art tours before and I really love them. I am also very intrigued with Banksy, and have had the pleasure of seeing the artists works in a few places around the world. I love this post and am saving for when I make it to Bristol.

  • Goya
    June 1, 2024 at 7:07 pm

    I’ve been living in the UK for almost 10 years now and am yet to make it to Bristol! I take this as a sign to visit it asap and discover all the amazing murals and street art it has to offer. Thanks for sharing!

  • Patricia (Tish) Mikan
    June 1, 2024 at 10:16 pm

    Terri I always loved to look at street art.
    Wonderful pieces of art you posted
    Thanks. Sounds like a great trip

  • Sharyn
    June 1, 2024 at 11:13 pm

    Sometimes you really need to look hard to see street art amongst graffiti, but in Bristol it looks like there is plenty of street art to see.

  • Teja
    June 2, 2024 at 4:00 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I wouldn’t consider myself an art expert at all, but I am drawn to specific kinds of street art, like Banksy’s, with its sharp and incisive messages that almost compel you to think, or feel. I didn’t know Bristol is his hometown.

  • Maggie
    June 2, 2024 at 7:56 am

    I don’t usually think of England as having great street art, but it makes sense that Banksy’s hometown would! So much fun variety! It’s interesting that a city decides what art is legal or not, rather than just saying all graffiti is one or the other.

  • Hannah
    June 2, 2024 at 1:58 pm

    Ah I love finding the street art of Bristol! My brother lives there and it is such a vibrant city! I’ve seen bits and pieces of the city street art but I’d love to take a tour to explore it all properly. I’m going to schedule one on my next visit! Thanks for the great guide!

  • Anja
    June 2, 2024 at 2:04 pm

    I lived in Bristol, but never paid enough attention to the street art scene! I love the city though, very underrated, great place to live and great place to visit!

  • Pam
    June 2, 2024 at 3:30 pm

    I love finding street art when I travel. I feel as though it gives me an inside look into the personality of the place I’m visiting. I love the one in the alley on the roof – that’s such a hidden gem. So many people probably walk by it every day and don’t take a minute to really appreciate it. Love this!

  • Kelly
    June 2, 2024 at 11:41 pm

    I am a HUGE fan of street art. I love that wolf! I have heaps of street art posts on my blog, including Australia, New Zealand, Penang, and Hong Kong, plus more if you are interested. https://thecaptainandthecook.com/category/street-art/

    • Terri
      June 21, 2024 at 6:54 pm

      I am a huge fan of street art too! The wolf mural was AWESOME!

  • Cass
    June 4, 2024 at 7:16 pm

    I really love the full murals and the ones in walkable tunnels. Making it clear when/where street art legal adds so much colour and character to places like Bristol. It would be great to visit during UpFest