Banksy in Bristol

The pseudo-name “Banksy” stands behind arguably the most sought-after street art pieces in the world, some of which are even touristic landmarks today. The artist of mysterious identity gained his public fame through his first exhibits in the early 2000s, and particularly through his intrepid works on the bitterly disputed wall separating Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2005. He held a major show across the boroughs of New York in 2013, and recently ventured to the Gaza Strip, where, not without self-irony, executed his artworks on ruins. Banksy’s legacy is irreversibly spreading around the globe influencing a whole generation of  artists not only in UK and US, but also in crisis-devastated countries like Syria and Egypt.

The earliest Banksy masterpieces are in his hometown, Bristol, and since we made a trip there to see Mary Poppins at the Bristol Hippodrome, the art-loving party of Ertegun scholars stayed for a brief exploration of what the city displays in terms of street art. Although crawling around as treasure-hunters was part of the fun, nowadays we could tool up with smart-phone apps for spotting the artworks with relative ease. Nonetheless, what we discovered was highly unexpected: though we were searching for Banksy works, what we were most struck by was the plethora of street artists working in Bristol. Indeed, some streets of Bristol have been transformed into exhibition galleries with countless thought-provoking pieces of street art decorating nearly every visible space of walls.

Probably the most-famous among Banksy’s Bristol pieces is the Mild Mild West depicting a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at 3 threatened cops behind shields. The piece represents the rather  clichéd questions of revolution, freedom, disobedience, etc.; what is new is the expressive way a graffito can convey all this, while its satiric appearance inevitably leaves  us with a smile on our faces. This work has subsequently become the emblem of a newly gentrified neighbourhood of the city.

Another unique stencil-piece decorates Park Street in central Bristol: a naked man hangs out from a window, through which a smartly dressed figure is looking in the wrong direction, while a woman, presumably the former’s mistress and the latter’s wife, is standing in the background in underclothing. The affair depicted in this composition is fairly obvious; as per usual, Banksy skilfully combines humour and critique. It not only makes one wonder how often we overlook the obvious, but the real wit of this artwork lies in placing it on the wall of a sexual health clinic.

Street art, by definition, is accessible to anyone, and even without paying attention to it, its visual input affects our experience of the world; and the streets of Bristol are thick with eye-opening thoughts featured on the walls. An emblematic Banksy slogan states that “if graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal.” Credit him or not, art is generally joyful, and we needn’t even shuffle into a museum for it, but only wander around in a city like Bristol.

Péter Nagy and Thea Goldring