Banksy: The Bristol Legacy


Bristol’s very wonderful Redcliffe Press has just published BANKSY: THE BRISTOL LEGACY, a book about the 2009 Banksy show at the City Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition attracted over 300,000 visitors and established, once and for all, that street art or graffiti, or whatever you call things painted on walls by people who don’t always have the property owner’s permission, was a key part of the Bristol brand.

I’m responsible for one of the book’s chapters, but don’t let that put you off buying it as editor Paul Gough has pulled together plenty of talented, and incisive contributors to look at all manner of aspects of the show and its aftermath, from arts critics and curators to economists and lawyers.

Me, personally, I don’t know nothing about art, but what does interest me in the case of Banksy and Bristol’s other street artists, is the changing nature of their relationship with Official Bristol. A few of us made some short speeches at the book launch. Here’s what I said:

In the last 25 years or so, official Bristol has performed one of the most remarkable U turns in the city’s entire history.

Back in the 1980s young graffiti artists were arrested, hauled before the beaks, given criminal records and generally treated as vandals.

The local media generally gave them a hard time, though not nearly as much as the correspondents in the letters pages, some of whom really did say they hadn’t fought a world war just so’s these young punks could make a mess of our city.

Naturally, we at Venue magazine were all liberal about it. Every year or so for about 20 years we’d do a big article about street art, usually with the headline or strapline is it art or is it vandalism?

Hindsight suggests we were slightly missing the point. You can parachute in a crack elite squad of highly trained art critics and never get any real agreement. In any event the question is irrelevant.

Instead, the question we should all have been asking all along, is “do we want this stuff on the walls of our city, or what?”

The answer that the Bristolian public came up with, long before most councillors, was a resounding yes, and much of that is down to Banksy.

Nowadays, graffiti is a key part of the Bristol brand. It’s up there with Brunel and Wallace and Gromit when we’re trying to bring in tourists, students or attract business.

Last year’s See No Evil street art festival was a huge success, as of course was the Banksy museum show before that. We’ve now taken graffiti so much to heart that in the case of Stokes Croft, official Bristol is prepared to believe that it might even be instrumental in turning around an area with all manner of social and economic problems.

In less than a generation, graffiti has gone from being the problem to the solution.

And if there’s any individual who’s responsible for that remarkable turnaround, it’s been Banksy.

Many, maybe most, of us think that the Banksy museum show was the key turning point in that transformation. But in my contribution to this book I suggest that the moment civic Bristol performed its historic U turn was actually a few years before that. Buy the book and feel free to disagree.

Now we face probably several decades of new debate in the media and on the internet about whether our graffiti artists have sold out to The Man, or whether they’re keeping it real, or what?

If we do that, we’ll be missing the point again. Who cares if they’ve sold out or not? The question will always be whether or not we want this stuff on our walls.

There’s another question, too. And that’s whether or not we’ll be smart enough to recognise it when – if – a new generation of youngsters comes along, maybe pursuing some new, different creative avenue. Will we be smart enough to realise it when we’re confronted with a new group of enterprising, gutsy kids who are inspiring and entertaining us … Or will we persecute them, and post moans on the message-boards about how we didn’t fight World War Three just so’s these young punks could take the mickey.

I hope not. I like to think that actually, Bristol nowadays is a far more intelligent place. And one of the things that’s made us more intelligent is all that thought-provoking, weird, decorative, funny or sometimes just plain enigmatic stuff on walls all over the city. In the 1980s all we had were billboards advertising booze, fags and cars. We have come a very long way, so well done Banksy and well done us.

# See


15 Responses to “Banksy: The Bristol Legacy”

  1. 1 John Serpico

    I can remember how crappy local magazine Bristle used to publish full-colour copies of Banksy’s work in its crappy pages. In practically every issue. This was well before he was known outside of Bristol. I remember how The Arnolfini would always refuse to sell Bristle in their shop. I remember how copies of the latest issue would always be taken in to The Arnolfini and how they would peruse through it, scoffing and then declining to take copies on a sell or return basis. I remember Banksy’s Zapatista picture being auctioned in The Plough in Easton. I remember Banksy at the Anarchist Bookfair in London with his Queen Victoria picture. All things and places The Arnolfini types would choose to have no relationship with.
    Years later the Arnolfini are of course big fans of Banksy. As is everyone else within academia and the arts.
    There’s nothing new in this, of course, but there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

  2. 2 thebristolblogger

    Second what John says. Of course, the one noticeable voice missing from this book is one from Bristol’s radical and dissenting community, which helped spawn Banksy in the first place.

    Best not have anyone rain on the parade, eh?

  3. John; can’t talk about Arnolfini and its relationship with Bristle, but IIRC it always had a thing for graff. I was reading in an old Venue recently about a big show there in 1980s featuring among others 3D aka Rob’t del Naja of later Massive Attack fame. Think they also made a lot of noise round same time re showing doc film about Basquiat. Though that might’ve been Watershed. I’d say that street art met far more hostility from councillors, council officers, local press and the law than it did from the arts & academic crowd.

  4. TBB; can’t really respond as haven’t yet read all book (and don’t actually have a copy). Not sure what member of radical & dissenting community looks like (is there a community?)

  5. 5 thebristolblogger

    Fair point. But the book’s line-up is very establishment. Who gives a toss what Andrew Kelly thinks about Banksy for chrissake?

    Unfortunately no-one’s actually seen this book. Has Banksy had them all pulped or something? I heard he had the original Damian Hirst rat cover scrapped because there was “too much Damian Hirst”.

    You read that here first …

  6. Re “establishment” line-up. Yes, probably. And Andrew Kelly’s views on Banksy are admittedly of limited interest, but the whole point of the book is to look at the Banksy museum exhibition and its consequences, not Banksy’s work or career as such. AK’s views on one of the biggest cultural events to hit Bristol in years *are* of interest insofar as he’s been a significant local figure culturally for 20+ years.

    Lots of people have seen the book now, quite a few were bought at the launch do the other night. My copy is still in the post, unfortunately. Re rat cover, my understanding is that nothing was pulped, but that the great man (we’re not worthy etc.), presented with a choice of possible covers, hinted that he’d prefer one with more Banksy and less Hirst.

  7. 7 thebristolblogger

    The pulping reference was a joke btw.

    The problem with Kelly – a self-styled cultural entrepreneur – is that he’s just not very good. He ran a City of Culture bid in 2002 where he singularly failed to promote street art or spot Banksy.

  8. Ah. Humour. I see. Excellent. Obviously I disagree with you about AK. I think he’s terribly good, and he might well be able to produce a few other witnesses to that effect. Interesting re Capital of Culture bid; I am pretty sure it did include street art as part of Bristol’s cultural offer, but back then it tended to be seen as a niche thing – an inner city and youth interest – rather than mainstream.

  9. 9 John Serpico

    The reference to Bristle magazine and the Arnolfini isn’t to do with their relationship with a crappy local magazine but Arnolfini’s inability to recognise significant art (as in the numerous Banksy reproductions within its pages) when it’s on their doorstep and when it’s even shoved beneath their noses. It says a lot, I reckon. It’s the same point, essentially, that you’re making in your piece when you ask whether we’ll be smart enough to recognise something similar in the future? There will be people around (me for one, heh heh heh) who will recognise it but I wouldn’t count on them being employed at the Arnolfini or within academia.

    When thinking of the arts and academia types and their relationship with Banksy the word that keeps coming to my mind for some reason is ‘commodification’. Not sure why…..

    Re 3D and him being exhibited at the Arnolfini pre-Massive Attack, a vague memory comes to mind about Banksy once entering the Bristol club Massive Attack owned on Unity Street and stencilling one of the walls. This was before Banksy was really known outside of Bristol. Apparently, because the stencil was not asked for, Massive Attack (or member of) hit the roof, viewing it as vandalism, basically. Or so the story went. Whether it’s true or not it’s pretty amusing….

    Re Andrew Kelly, I too remember the City of Culture bid and no way was Bansky ever a feature of it. Again, if only Kelly had recognised Banksy at the time? What a feather in his cap that would have been? But that was half the problem with the bid wasn’t it: the defining of culture as a commodity reflecting mainstream values. No wonder Bristol didn’t win it. I wonder where Banksy nowadays fits in with Kelly’s definitions of culture? Should I be reaching for my revolver? Again, it would say a lot, I reckon…. The book would be of interest for this alone, probably.

  10. Fair play, John. I wasn’t particularly trying to make the ‘Fini’s case for them as I don’t really know what their thinking was at the time, but simply wanted to flag up the fact that it did pay street art some attention back in the day. I guess the debate among the arts crowd will always be whether or not graffiti=Art, and I suspect you’d get a wide range of views among them. That is a legitimate debate for arty types, while the rest of us simply have to say whether or not we want this stuff on the walls of our neighbourhoods. Seems to me where we are now is that Banksy is a very mainstream taste; the people who look down on him would include some art critics, some activists who’d say he’s sold out, and a die-hard hardcore of Bristolians who write letters to the Evening Post saying he’s a vandal. Evening Post editor Mike Norton is a big Banksy fan which, I suspect, would tell some on the radical side all they need to know. I interviewed him for my piece for the book. He takes the rather interesting view that Banksy’s humour is very Bristolian. I have no idea what Andrew Kelly’s view is, though I suspect he’d say that anything which gets huge numbers of people queueing for a museum or gallery has to be a good thing. Now I wonder who I could ask about your Massive nightclub story…

  11. Just for information, Mr Kelly’s people have been in touch with my people to let it be known that the Capital of Culture bid document did mention Banksy.

    See here:

    It does not, however, appear to mention Venue magazine. An unconscionable omission.

    • 12 John Serpico

      I stand corrected, a fleeting mention is actually made to Banksy – along with Richard Long I see. I suspect that would be news to Banksy too? The amusement never ends…
      No mention of Venue as rightly pointed out though. No mention of Chaos UK or Disorder either, both globally recognised local hardcore punk acts – very big in Brazil and Norway at one time.
      Couldn’t mention everything I suppose. Not even renowned writer and charismatic local commentator Eugene Byrne…..

  12. Yeah, good point. Though I don’t think I’ve ever been big in Norway. Hell, I’m not even big in Henleaze.

  13. 14 thebristolblogger

    Read the book now. David Lee’s piece is absolutely superb. He skewers both Banksy and the kind of arts establishment people whi fill up many of the pages of the book. Impressive.

    Otherwise not much sign of Norton’s Bristolian sense of humour to be found.

    re: Kelly. He mentions Banksy in passing doesn’t he?

  14. Call it commodification or call it fetishization, it’s always the same, people can even end up starving to death for all most of us give a toss, all until if and when the Great and the Good condescend to give their imprimatur and then that individual will be raised up and feted. It’s pity we can’t value more highly the brilliance of those people we actually know personally, instead of hero-worshipping celebrities.

    And this ooh! aah! story that the Museum somehow didn’t know what was going on seems like a load of hype as well.

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