M Shed walk: Exploring Bristol’s street art

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Rob Wheeler of Graft

Bristol has a rich and varied graffiti and street art heritage. Graffiti artists have come and gone, pieces have been painted over many times, but just as the parish boundary markers still exist in the Old City, clues highlighting the history of graffiti culture still remain, alongside the more obvious vibrant and celebrated pieces.

Rob Wheeler stood in front of a graffitied wall explaining it's significance to a group of walkersAs a Bristol-born graffiti artist and workshop leader, I wanted to create this walking tour for M Shed as a way to engage my fellow city folk in this heritage. It is a living history; new pieces keep appearing, so despite being a practitioner myself and the tour guide, there is always the chance of surprises on the tour, and I may not know the motivations of someone who has done something just the night before.

But the knowledge of the culture that I have gained from painting, meeting other artists, and reading the seminal texts such as Subway Art and Children of the Can that inspired generations of graffiti writers, gives me an insight which I love to share with others.

And it’s a two-way process: there is often someone in the tour group who has stories to share themselves, or teaches me something new, from the parent of someone who helped set up the 2009 exhibition Banksy versus Bristol Museum to a graffiti writer who frequented the Dug Out youth club when John Nation was encouraging Bristol’s finest to hone their skills as youngsters in the late 1980s.

Poster from the Arnolfini advertising The Wild BunchI genuinely find the subject matter amazing and inspiring, from the technical skill of a colossal El Mac portrait to the ‘tags to riches’ stories of Stik or JPS. Graffiti is a grassroots, democratic art form, open to all, and on the walk we take in everything from some of the most famous and photographed pieces in the world to a ‘hidden’ piece marking the Operation Anderson clampdown of 1989.

I like to share a couple of my own pieces en route; I’ve painted in locations from upmarket restaurants to dingy back-alleys, developing my own style, which is inspired as much by the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1890s as the Wildstyle graffiti of the 1980s!

The tour starts at M Shed, with a bit of background to the origins of the scene and a look at Banksy’s Thekla piece, now exhibited in the museum. We take in Bristol’s finest cultural institutions, from the Arnolfini to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and a few lesser known and less salubrious spots!

A group of 20 walkers in front of a graffiti whale on Park Row

Along the way I like to share stories, urban myths and insights about each place, incorporating things I’ve learnt as a participant myself on other M Shed walks – because although the focus of the tour is Bristol’s incredible graffiti heritage, as you walk the streets you can’t ignore the city’s fascinating and varied architecture, quirky pieces of sculpture, unnoticed plaques and other clues to its past.

I’m proud to share my passion for the street art scene and for the city I grew up in with the tour groups, and it’s a great way to give back, and support a brilliant cultural resource.

Come and join us on the next tour!

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