Go beyond Banksy in Bristol England and discover eye popping murals in three different neighborhoods. This tour will show you a Bristol street art scene full of world class urban art.
Bristol’s Street Art Culture
“I find 90% of this art form to be boring, banal and unimaginative. Images far too ordinary to be exhibited in art galleries are admired because they are on the street”
——Jonathan Jones, art critic and chief curmudgeon at The Guardian
Well, I disagree Mr. Jones and fortunately, so does Bristol.
It wasn’t always that way of course. In the ’80’s and ’90’s, when street art was more about tags than murals, the city tried to crack down on the “perpetrators”. In 1989, they launched “Operation Anderson”, which raided the homes of suspected graffiti artists, confiscating sketchbooks and materials. They then attempted to match the Bristol graffiti with samples from the artist’s schoolwork using handwriting experts.
Well, that didn’t fly and most of the kids were let off with a slap on the wrist. Fast forward twenty years and Bristol street art has been institutionalized with the Upfest festival and a city culture that embraces street art in all of it’s forms.
The array of creativity in Bristol street art is pretty staggering and it takes on all forms and materials. You’ll find tagging, throw ups, graffiti, stencils and murals using creative materials like charcoal, power washing, sketching markers, metal works, spray paint, ceramic tiles and (not kidding here) small wads of chewing gum.
Bristol has been hosting Upfest since 2009 and every year it takes over the Bedminster neighborhood with a blast of fresh works from 300 artists. The city also supports media interest in their street art scene and I was fortunate to have the Visit Bristol team host part of my stay and help me with access to Bristol street art tours and insider access at the festival.
Read More: Spend some extra time in Bristol and explore with this guide for things to do there.
Banksy in Bristol
Banksy and Bristol go hand in hand. He is, unarguably the most famous street artist of our time and he’s one of Bristol’s favorite sons. Banksy guards his anonymity pretty fiercely but it is known that he was born in Bristol in the ’70’s and was part of Bristol’s early graffiti scene. He experimented with graffiti and freestyle but in the early 2000’s he discovered Blek le Rat’s stenciling technique and the rest is history.
Banksy’s brand of highly satirical, politically charged street art and his willingness to execute pranks and stunts, has given him notoriety in the broader culture. He has worked all over the world but Bristol is Banksy’s home base and the city does what it can to preserve his works in situ.
Banksy’s Girl with the Pierced Ear Drum is a great example of how he makes use of the surrounding environment to inform his work. In this instance, he makes clever use of a fire alarm as an earring. Hence the broken ear drum.
This very early Banksy Bristol piece was painted into the side of a fishing boat. After Banksy’s reputation skyrocketed and the boat had outlived it’s usefulness, the owner cut out the piece and donated it to the MShed museum.
This sort of removal and preservation is a thing with Banksy’s works, and not just in Bristol. There is some serious loot to be made by carefully removing and restoring Banksy art from the sides of buildings. Of course, he doesn’t get any of that money but he has done well enough for himself by selling prints so I don’t think he needs to worry about paying for his beer and beans.
In another case of ironic street art, he stenciled this message onto what was originally a sex health clinic. In 2009, the stencil was defaced by blue paint balls, which add an ironic and mildly dangerous element to the piece. In the spring of 2018, it was defaced again with graffiti. There is a (false) rumor that the blue paint was meant to symbolize a rival futball team’s color. There are a lot of false rumors about Banksy, including one that he is actually the front man for Massive Attack (I heard he isn’t).
This anti-establishment, pro-cuddle piece typifies the Banksy Bristol ethic and is well-regarded by the residents of Stokes Croft. Read further to find out how where to find these and other works on the Banksy walking tour.
Beyond Banksy: Bristol Mural Neighborhoods
Banksy may be popular, but he isn’t the only game in town. Bristol was Europe’s vanguard for urban art and the streets are full of pieces from both local and world artists. You can find it tucked away all over the city but there are three particular neighborhoods worth checking out. I’ll review the neighborhoods first and at the end, you’ll find information on how to find murals on your own a suggestion for a Bristol street art tour.
Central Bristol Street Art
There are both tall buildings and lurking alleyways housing graffiti and murals in Central Bristol. Most of the large pieces shown here were part of the See No Evil Bristol street art festival in 2012. The local artist Inkie (who was one of those arrested in 1989), worked with the arts council to spruce up what were otherwise some pretty drab mid-century buildings and parking lots. The smaller, grittier pieces are largely illegal works that Bristol graffiti artists and muralists have been throwing up in the alleyways for many years.
Connor Harrington specializes in staged set pieces. He photographs his friends in 17th century swashbuckling poses and then creates the mural, using paint thinner to drip and “age” the images. You can also find his work on my Belfast street art guide.
El Mac’s portraits are so interesting because they are photo realistic but he gives the murals additional texture by pixelating them with dots and swirls. Right down the street from this mural is the nearby Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel. They had local artists create pieces for their lobby and the halls also have prints from local urban artists.
This sweet stencil from JPS is reminiscent of Banksy. In fact, JPS credits a visit to Bristol’s Banksy spots for turning around his life and setting him on his art career. This piece is located on Frogmore, not far from Banksy’s Well Hung Man stencil. JPS also has another piece featuring a buff gladiator around the corner.
Like JPS, Stik also made a comeback from a rough existence and he now self-funds these large scale murals all over the world while also raising money for charitable causes.
This steam punk version of a Hippogriff is simply delightful and it’s a great add to what is otherwise a very dreary parking lot.
Leonard Lane features quite a few pieces with unconventional materials including the mosaic above, the bronze tile below and the chewing gum painting below that. The bronze piece was installed by Jonsey. He is based in London’s Brick Lane where he has installed a series of whimsical creatures on top of street posts. You can find more of his work in my Shoreditch street art guide.
Wilson specializes in painting on flattened chewing gum. While even thinking about it makes me want to reach for an wet wipe, I appreciate the challenge he has created for himself by choosing such a small canvas and the Quixotic nature of putting art where it’s not likely to be seen.
This is one of the more subtly brilliant displays of street art that I’ve ever seen. Unauthorized painting, stenciling and the like are still illegal in Bristol. However, in a big f-off to the very police station that arrested those kids in the 90’s, someone has used wooden stencils to power wash images onto the police building. As my Where the Wall tour guide guide so wryly put it, “you can’t be arrested for cleaning things”.
Stokes Croft Street Art
Street art thrives in rough and ready neighborhoods, like San Francisco’s Mission District or Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and Stokes Croft is right up there with the best. As recently as 2008, the neighborhood was characterized by boarded up store fronts and massage parlors. Forgotten neighborhoods like this often become hubs for street artists who want a cheap place to live and walls to practice on.
Community organizations like Hamilton House have mindfully cultivated rejuvenation and a creative entrepreneurial spirit so the neighborhood has tipped toward an urban renewal hipster vibe. That said, things are still gritty in Stokes Croft and as a result, you can find a lot of off-the-books graffiti and murals there.
Stickers, graffiti and smaller murals cover the inside of the Bear Pit and the pedestrian tunnels leading into it. Be sure to look down as well as there are pieces built into the paving bricks.
There are a lot of commissioned pieces that travel up the buildings in Stokes Croft, as you see in the pic above and several below.
The Full Moon Hostel not only commissioned the outside of their building, but they have street art in the rooms and sculptures on their deck. You can also find a lot of horizontal guerilla works located down Moon street and on City road. Be sure to peek into the alleyways and car parks.
Bedminster Street Art
Bedminster is our third stop on the Bristol street art tour. While you will find spots of guerilla graffiti (mostly in the Dame Emily skateboard park), most of the works in Bedminster have been commissioned as part of the Upfest street art festival. Upfest is a bacchanalia of spray paint that goes on every July in Bristol. The ten year old festival has an ethic of inclusion and is fueled by volunteers.
They feature 300 artists on a range of platforms including multi-story buildings, side streets and small-scale boards. During the festival, nearly every building, side yard, park and parking lot is used.
They invite world renowned artists like Nomad Clan, Kobra and Mr Cenz but they also give space to local and emerging artists. The festival is also a big party with food trucks, bands and beer. Each festival has a theme (or two) and the lead artists are asked to design to the theme. But the rest of it is a free for all of creative expression.
“What do you think of Upfest?”
“I love it. But it has to be the good stuff because some of it is bollocks”
—- Gruff local character from Bedminster whom you wouldn’t think would care for street art
You can see the murals in Bedminster any time but I do recommend trying to visit during Upfest where you can watch the works in progress. The next three shots show the evolution of a mural by Louis Masai. He creates pieces featuring endangered species and his colorful coral reef at Upfest centered around a hawksbill turtle. This is a very complicated mural, which took him longer than the three days of the festival but as you can see by looking at the final work on his Instagram feed, his efforts were worth it.
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And the final piece. Doesn’t it make you want to go snorkeling?
The 2018 Upfest had a female empowerment theme and they also partnered with Matt Groening to feature the Simpsons. Pretty gutsy of Groening to let loose the copyright for his iconic brand so that the artists could riff on it. I wish Disney would do that.
L7M paints faster than the hummingbirds that he features. He easily finished two sizeable pieces by the second day of Upfest.
Austrian ceramic artist China Girl painstakingly constructed this giraffe over three months and then delicately delivered it to Bristol via secure diplomatic pouch. You can find it and quite a few murals in the yard of the Tobacco Factory.
While you are in Bedminster, you should also visit the Upfest Gallery. They have street art supplies, prints and exhibitions. It’s located on North street right in the middle of all of these murals. You can find the exact spot on the map below.
Bristol Street Art Tour
Wandering around seeing street art on a self-guided tour can be a great way to get to know a neighborhood. Alternatively, taking a guided tour will give you much more background on Bristol’s street art culture. If you have time, do a mix of both.
I recommend Where the Wall for a guided tour of the Central Bristol and Stokes Croft locations. The tour is a steal at £10 and guides are knowledgeable local artists who can give you a deep dive behind the pretty walls. You can also do an add-on that includes a stenciling session with your own take-home piece of art.
Where the Wall starts in Central Bristol and ends in Stokes Croft, so you can spend some additional time revisiting some murals, checking out their quirky shops or getting a late lunch. The Bedminster neighborhood doesn’t have a tour so you’ll need to do it self-guided. Give yourself at least a few hours to wander Bedminster. There are plenty of pubs and cafes to fortify you along the way.
Use my Bristol street art map below. It highlights the main streets of Central Bristol, Stokes Croft and Bedminster with the most murals. The map flags Banksy art in those neighborhoods as well as those in outlying areas. There is also self guided paid app called the Banksy Bristol Trail which gives background and locations for his pieces. Where the Wall also has a Bristol street art map that calls out some specific pieces with exact address locations, however the UI is a bit clunky.
The easiest thing to do is bookmark this page and use this map on the fly while you are in Bristol.
(Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission)
Learn More About Street Art
You can learn more about street art by viewing Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. You can also purchase a street art encyclopedia like the New Street Art, Street Artists 2: The Complete Guide, the World Atlas of Street Art & Graffiti or Lonely Planet Street Art.
In fact, if you have an Amazon Prime account, you can get the Lonely Planet for free as an ebook on Kindle Unlimited. If you don’t have an Amazon Prime account, you can get a 30-day free trial HERE.
Bristol is ground zero for a street art movement that has brought urban art out of the shadows and into the wider public consciousness. It’s a great street art city and one worth devoting a lot of time to seeing. Happy Trails!
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