Rediscovering Bristol's original graffiti artists

Melissa Chemam 19 July 2021

In the 80's, Bristol was one of the pioneering graffiti art hotspots in the world and a new exhibition pays tribute to its history

A new exhibition at the M Shed museum in Bristol sheds a light on its exciting street art scene: “Vanguard | Bristol Street Art: The evolution of a global movement”.

In the first rooms, artists and photographers have shared personal photos and archives of their work on walls during a key decade for graffiti culture: the 1980s. From then on, Bristol played a huge role in the evolution of this art movement and remains today a major hub for street art from around the world. Melissa Chemam, who wrote a book about Bristol’s main artists from the era, is taking us back in time…

Looking back 40 years later at 1981, it appears as a key year for the evolution of popular culture. Hip-hop and graffiti had taken over New York, Paris, Berlin, and were arriving in a few cities in England. Bristol was one of these new cultural hot spots. 

Birthplace of pioneering sound systems and the Caribbean Carnival in St Paul’s, the city became known in the late 1970s for its underground clubs, a love of reggae and dub, and exciting music collectives. One of them, The Wild Bunch, became legendary by mixing events, breakdancing, DJ sets and an interest in DIY art. It’s not surprising that their DJs soon met with Bristol’s first graffiti writer, known as 3D, real name Robert Del Naja.  

"Birthplace of pioneering sound systems and the Caribbean Carnival in St Paul’s, the city became known in the late 1970s for its underground clubs, a love of reggae and dub, and exciting music collectives"

The Vanguard Boys

 From 1983, Robert started spraying at night in a few part of Bristol. His first mural read “Graffiti Stylee” and Robert added three letters “D” to sign, his pseudonym came about: 3D. The rebellious teenager was into comics, electro and punk music, especially The Clash.

They inspired him to follow the footsteps of graffiti writers from New York City like Futura 2000, who worked on the band’s record sleeves. 3D’s murals got noticed and some amateur photographers started following him around to capture his work, like Andy “Beezer” Beese, whose photographs are now at the heart of the “Vanguard” exhibition, open from 26 June to 31 October 2021 in Bristol’s M Shed museum. 

3D’s artwork impressed many wannabe graffiti writers in Bristol and some started working with him, like Ian Dark and his Z Boys collective, while music crews asked him to draw their flyers. The interest for his art grew; he and The Wild Bunch started squatting hubs like the Special K café and the Dug Out club.

Most Bristolians who lived through the era remember their parties as the best night outs… 3D’s reputation became so strong that Bristol’s contemporary art centre, Arnolfini, decided to organise an exhibition around the movement, “Graffiti Art”, as early as 1985. 

"Most Bristolians who lived through the era remember their parties as the best night outs"

3D also had forged connections with graffiti writers from elsewhere in England, such as Goldie in Wolverhampton, and in the USA, like Brim and Bio from the Bronx in New York, who all came to the show “Graffiti Art”. Together, they participated in graffiti competitions and were interviewed in 1986 for the film Bombin’, directed by Dick Fontaine, now iconic. Photos of that era, by Martin Jones and Henry Chalfant, are among the highlights of the “Vanguard” show, which also brings new pieces on canvas by contemporary artists such as Conor Harrington and Lucy McLauchlan.

 3D’s murals like No Great Crime and The Day The Law Died had from the start a unique edge, and a political and critical feel. Arrested twice by the police, he started painting for pubs’ owners and friends, inspired by the economic recession and anti-Thatcher sentiment among Bristol’s working class. He experimented with stencils and collage, looking into the work of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1987, he was invited to exhibit in London.

Soon, other artists made a name for themselves in Bristol, especially Inkie, aka Tom Bingle, who is still very active today and co-founded festivals such as the current Upfest, taking place every year in July in South Bristol, inviting artists from around the globe. Inkie and other artists like Pride, Jaffa, FLX and a few years later Nick Walker, worked not only on Bristol’s walls but also in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and beyond. 

But around 1989, the situation shifted for these pioneering artists: the police were very repressive against graffiti, and found one artist’s phonebook during Operation Anderson, thus arresting many of them including friends of Inkie and 3D. In the meantime, 3D, Daddy G from The Wild Bunch and a younger producer known as Mushroom founded the band Massive Attack, and D worked on the visuals for their record’s sleeves.

Exhibit 1 at the Exhibition

The Vanguard Boys exhibition

When their first album, Blue Lines, came out in April 1991, the graffiti scene was still in pieces but the band success and strong visual ethos put Bristol on the world’s cultural map—the band posing on the cover of The Face Magazine and the NME. That soon deeply transformed Bristol’s artistic landscape, opening doors for followers and new musicians/artists. 

 Slowly, with the help of resilient people such as Inkie and the social worker John Nation, street artists came back to their spray cans. That’s about when a new artist started to paint in Bristol, inspired by his early memories of 3D’s murals.

He is nowadays one of the most well-known street artists in the world. Banksy benefited from the support of John Nation and his youth club and worked a lot with Inkie. In the late 1990s, he had added impressive stencils all over Bristol, some we can still see today, before leaving for East London in 2000. His Mobile Lovers, which appeared in Bristol in April 2014, is reproduced in “Vanguard”.

"That’s about when a new artist started to paint in Bristol, inspired by his early memories of 3D’s murals. He is nowadays one of the most well-known street artists in the world"

Bansky's "Naked Man" in Bristol

Bansky's "Naked Man" in Bristol

 What changed the game for Banksy was his choice to remain strictly anonymous. At the same time, 3D had reached global fame with Massive Attack, touring the world with their album Mezzanine, signing sleeves for the Mo’Wax label, working with Snoop Doggy Dog and Mos Def. He collaborated with photographers, designers and filmmakers, the likes of Nick Knight, United Visual Artists (UVA), Giles Duley and Adam Curtis, but regularly came back to spray cans for DIY projects. Banksy asked him to work with him; he designed the placards for the marches against the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 that 3D had an active role in. Banksy also invited him to exhibit in his unauthorised ‘Santa’s Ghettos’ exhibitions from 2005. Their two names are now synonymous with Bristol’s booming post-modern culture. 

 While Banksy’s art is now exhibited all around the world, and Robert Del Naja just received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal College of Art, the “Vanguard” show is a nice reminder of how it all began, with self-taught, humble and anti-establishment protest art, before street art became a global, established movement.

Melissa Chemam is a journalist and lecturer. After a decade as a reporter in America, Europe and Africa, from 2015 she spent years researching the cultural history of Bristol, interviewing historians, musicians, rappers, engaged Bristolians, and graffiti artists. Her book, Massive Attack - Out of the comfort zone, first published in 2016, came out in the UK in 2019.  

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