The City of Bristol in UK Censors Graff But Supports Street Art
Bristol’s Venue magazine interviews members of the local DBK Crew and researches the government’s policies on graffiti and street art revealing the city’s progressive yet bipolar relationship to illegal public art.
Through in depth interviews and research, this article reveals a local government’s bold and complicated attempt to deal with the unstoppable spread of graff and street art on their streets. Admirably, the authorities in Bristol recognize and make efforts to respect illegal public art as a valid form of aesthetic expression that many members of their communities value and enjoy. But maybe more importantly, they also must recognize at this point, with the success of Banksy and many others, that urban art as a cultural commodity has gained economic value that attracts tourism and sells in galleries. Yet, even with this new acceptance, the Bristol city officials give a lot more leeway to street art aesthetics, whereas they will censor graffiti no matter what.
The first two thirds of the article focuses on Anon from DBK, the Dirty Bristol Kids crew. He is well spoken and articulates the writers’ viewpoint. He is quoted as saying, “Who gets to decide what art is? The people who clean up graffiti are deciding for Bristol. Or their supervisors, their supervisors’ supervisors. If they’re not sure whether it’s street art or graffiti, they actually have to make a phone call to their supervisor, send them a picture, and they tell them whether they should buff it or not.”
He also states, “Street art is allowed to stay; it’s socially acceptable, people like it. But even if people go down Nelson Street and go, ‘Ooh, I like the pretty pictures!’ they still won’t like graffiti. The organizers of See No Evil [the UK’s biggest street art event, which takes place on Nelson Street in Bristol] weren’t even allowed to use the word ‘graffiti’.”
In the last third of the article, the focus switches more to the city officials’ viewpoint. “ ‘I don’t think we make an artistic judgement,’ [a city councel member] says. Tagging, however, is a special case: ‘We don’t regard that as art.’ While the removal of street art is only considered if complaints are made, the council actively hunts down tags.”
But with street art, in some cases, like the story that went worldwide about a Banksy stencil that was saved from the buff in Bristol, they have even taken the time to collect votes from the citizens of the surrounding neighborhoods on a piece’s merits to see if it should be buffed. They have also instituted a program through which artists can submit proposals to paint certain spots. It would be great if NYC had a program like that, especially in Manhattan because it is becoming a white-washed, bland, art-less city with nothing left but billboards and monitors transmitting ads day and night. Even if such programs do become popular around the world, serious heads and street artists probably would not choose to expose themselves to authorities for fear of giving their anonymity away. An important formal aesthetic element of the art form is the statement made by the illegality of the act and the inherent anti-status quo message it contains.
It is interesting to note also that although calligraphy, a precise and venerated art form which tags frequently take their styles from, and abstract expressionism, one of the most well respected fine art movements of all time which many tagged up doors resemble, can not be appreciated by the citizens when it is produced on the street by graffiti writers as individuals or as a collective. Maybe it is the public that need to be educated and not the writers that need to be censored. If tags themselves ever became economically valued or if a serious writer’s canvases ever begin selling like a Banksy, such as a Jose Parla or a Cope2, then the tides might change as the public actually learns how to look at and appreciate them. But generally the public fears tags as the ultimate sign of anarchy, the uncontrolled individual reigning havoc, the barbarians attempting to bash down the castle doors and walls.
At this juncture in the debate about what the success of graffiti and street art means to all of us on a societal level, much respect to Bristol for seriously taking the time and making the effort to devise some truly democratic and thoughtful solutions to an important and worldwide form of human expression. These aesthetic public actions can no longer be interpreted as antisocial behavior by solo deviants outside of society, but must be read as positive cultural signs, a prevalent social voice calling for more art, more space and more individual freedom, and an aesthetic symptom to be analyzed as an expression of human aspiration. These actions are a desire for a better environment for all of us, one that is not hemmed in or buffed to black, white and grey walls that only serve as symbols of repression and control.
For the full article on the DBK Crew and the city of Bristol’s interesting take on illegal public art, visit Venue, a Bristol based magazine and website, often referred to as the TimeOut of the West Country. The author of the article is Mike White with additional research by Iris Faraway.
Text: Daniel Feral