On a mildewed gable wall, bathed in natural light, is a piece of satirical art. A nude man, with his hand jammed into a window ledge, is dangling by a fingernail. Poking their heads out of the same window are a suited man and a lingerie-clad woman, presumably the naked man’s lover. Blue paintballs, like splotches of ink, deface the provocative graffiti at strategic places.
I am witnessing a blockbuster exhibit — a multi-coloured mural called Well Hung Lover — by British street-artist Banksy, while taking a sweaty stroll through Bristol’s Park Street. The subversive artwork by Bristol-born Banksy is stencilled on a wall, the road below which is teeming with fans of the anonymous artist. Lauren Collins, in her 2007 The New Yorker article ‘Banksy Was Here: The invisible man of graffiti art’, describes him thus: “Banksy surfaces from time to time to prod the popular conscience. Confronted with a blank surface, he will cover it with scenes of anti-authoritarian whimsy: Winston Churchill with a Mohawk, two policemen kissing, a military helicopter crowned by a pink bow.”
Like the enfant terrible of the street-art scene himself, Well Hung Lover is both irreverent and incendiary in equal measure. It came up on a wall bang opposite Bristol Council House, later christened City Hall, cocking a snook at the symbol of authority. Also amplifying Banksy’s ironic statement is the artwork venue — the side wall of a building that was once a sexual health clinic.
When I dropped anchor in Bristol a few hours ago, the city appeared to be one designated art quarter. I thought I could spend a lifetime here, wallowing in the slurry of fresh paint, stencils, street calligraphy and all kinds of counter-cultural expressions.
But despite art enjoying a superstar status in Bristol, there’s enough room for other tourist staples that visitors are irresistibly drawn to. Located in south-west England, the erstwhile trading port is now showing up on the radars of global tourists and you will encounter heaving crowds with selfie sticks everywhere.
For me, making friends with the once run-down dock town is easy. I take to the streets at the crack of dawn, lingering to savour Bristol’s chaotic intersections and rain-slicked cobbled streets. I run my fingers quietly through the love locks, inscribed with cute missives, before being fastened on to Pero’s Bridge in Bristol Harbour. I notice the diversity of the city when cabbies from the subcontinent tell me their immigrant stories.
To understand the current feverish energies of Bristol, one has to go way back to the 17th century, when this trading port lay at the crossroads of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, aided by Bristol merchants who had transported in their ships over 500,000 enslaved people from Africa to the Americas between 1698 and 1807. These nightmarish voyages still find an echo in conversations about black people, and are part of an exhibition at M Shed, the city’s defining museum.
M Shed, constructed in the shadow of the harbourside, takes its role as a chronicler seriously. Right outside its entrance are postcard-perfect views of the quayside, complete with historic boats, ancient trains and cranes. Even the most battle-tested traveller will marvel at the steam-train ride on Bristol Harbour Railway that takes off from M Shed. While it began its life in the 1870s, functioning as a goods railway, its current avatar as a heritage train has found loyal patrons.
The museum itself is a mash-up of futuristic design and industrial heritage, offering visual stimulation through three permanent galleries, special exhibitions as well as foyer displays. It is while pottering inside the museum that I first come to know about Brizzle, the distinctive Bristol dialect. A sign nearby has a few pointers about the local tongue that had intrigued me with its cadences earlier: “Characteristics include rolling of the letter ‘r’ (eg. ‘girrrl’), and the letter ‘l’ added to the end of words (eg. ‘idea’ becomes ‘ideal’)”.
If you have always been in search of a city where people of all races crossed paths, Bristol will be yours to pen a love letter to. Moored on the junction where the Avon River locks lips with the Frome, the westward facing Atlantic port of Bristol has been launching ambitious global explorations since the 15th century.
A remnant of those times is the SS Great Britain, a historic ship that once crisscrossed the sprawling web of millennia-old oceanic paths. Now converted into a maritime museum, it is promoting a new kind of commerce in its city of birth. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843, SS Great Britain was created for transatlantic service between Bristol and New York City. Fitted with a 1,000-HP steam engine, and ahead-of-time technology like screw propeller, it forged connections with places like Australia and San Francisco. Today, it is possible to climb up its rigging and view the city’s waterfront in all its aquamarine glory.
Despite the blue infinities of Bristol, art never recedes to the background here. I seem to be always inside an open-air gallery where entire walls and store shutters are rolling canvases of colour and irony. When I make a pit stop at Upfest, one of Europe’s largest street-art festivals, spread across multiple venues of North Street in south Bristol’s Bedminster area, I have to catch my breath.
Every visible surface — buildings, shop fronts and shutters — turn into canvases for the nearly 400 artists from 70 countries. I’m a mere speck among the over-50,000 visitors watching, with awe, the muralists at work, precariously perched on scaffolding and scissor lifts. I marvel at how these public-art practitioners, with giant masks on their faces and aerosol cans strapped in the arms, are creating avant-garde visual postcards, which are, at best, ephemeral.
It is my best moment to savour in Bristol. It is also at this instant that Banksy’s words, from his book Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall (2001), ring true: “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”
Susmita Saha is a Delhi-based independent journalist.