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Bristol street artists work with city on legal graffiti walls

Artists in Banksy’s home city want to cooperate with council to establish network of walls on which they can legally create public art

There has long been tension between the street artists of Bristol, the home of Bansky, and the authorities. Now a crackdown on litter, waste and graffiti by Bristol’s mayor has prompted some street artists to agree to work openly with the city council to create a network of legal walls where they can create their pieces without fear of prosecution.

Street artists have so far given the council a list of 56 walls across the city that they believe they ought to be allowed to paint on. A delegation of artists is meeting the council on Monday. One of them, Benoit Bennett– aka object…, said he hoped that a network of legal walls would mean an end to the cat-and-mouse game artists often play with the police, and increase the quality of the work.

He said: “Street art is one of the things that drew me to Bristol. Spotting new work is one of my favorite experiences moving through the city, and my very favorito thing to do here is make public artwork on the streets.”

People walk past street art in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty Images
People walk past street art in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty Images

Bennett was a strong critic of Labour mayor Marvin Rees’s hardline Clean Streets campaign, which he said could make Bristol as clean as cities such as Zurich, Tokyo and Singapore. He approached the council, which has said it wants to work with the street artists. “It will create a stronger sense of joint ownership and responsibility, whilst encouraging the continued development and vivacity of the graffiti and street-art scene,” he said. “You will be able to spend more time on your work. People can actually make pieces that are worth keeping.”

Bennett has appealed for all street artists to contribute by saying where they have painted with actual, presumed or historical permission. The idea is that the city council will help establish ownership of the spots and approach owners to verify what is allowed and where.

Another street artist, Decay, agreed that knowing which spots were legal and which were not would mean artists could make informed decisions. “Either go and paint illegally, in which case you know it’s illegal and understand the risks, or paint on legal walls,” he said. “Graffiti art is a huge part of the city’s culture. People come to Bristol for the art.”

Chris Chalkley, of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, a community group that provides legal spaces for some spectacular murals, was supportive of the project. He said: “It seems to me that in a city where there is a massive painting culture, there needs to be those spaces.”

But there are those who are uneasy. On a Facebook posting, one street artist said he worried that the project could harm the free expression that had put Bristol on the map. He said: “I’m against this because it will inevitably end up in zero tolerance of free expression, something that has made Bristol famous and great.”

Bristol’s Clean Streets project manager, Kurt James, insisted that he and the mayor wanted to work alongside the artists, not against them. “If we start from a position that says street art is important to this city, there’s no reason why it can’t be accommodated.

“It’s about working with artists to help us to solve some of these problems that we’ve got. When you talk to artists, they want to help. They want the city to be pretty. They want interesting images to be displayed on walls, which can enhance the lives of people.”

Mayor Rees said street art was a hugely important part of the city. “We’ve got to protect that. But we know that some of the stuff is not art – it’s vandalism.” He said there would be an ongoing conversation with the artists about how they could have the room to express themselves – while helping to clamp down on what he sees as vandalism.

What does he think Banksy would make of legal walls? “I don’t know. I don’t know him,” he said.


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