Bristol Street Art History: Forty Years of Graffiti Arts - Where It All Began

Written by Melissa Chemam

Being based between Paris, London and Bristol since 2014, I’ve been working at re-tracing the evolution of graffiti into street art, through the experience of artists from the three cities.

These include Inkie, Banksy, Nick Walker, Goldie, eL Seed, and Robert Del Naja, aka 3D, whose work at the centre of my book on Bristol, Out of the Comfort Zone (Anne Carrière, 2016, and Tangent Books, 2019). He was the first graffiti artist in Bristol and one of the first in the UK.

To me, it’s obvious that Bristol had a key role in building up a platform for street artists and for graffiti art from the early days, in 1983.

Since, the city’s artists contributed really interestingly to the scene, up to the making of the most famous and most anonymous street artist in the world: Banksy.

If Banksy is the most talked about, and 3D the pioneer, Bristol never stopped providing new graffiti writers and street artists.

In this series of three articles, I’m going to retrace the journey of this scene, through their work of artists.

Early years, massive buzz

Photo by Beezer

In the early 1980s, Bristol, like London and Paris, was starting to see an invasion of tags on its walls, mainly signatures and names, written free-hand.

But in the summer 1983, a first real ‘mural’ appeared in Hotwells, near the river Avon, signed by the pseudonym “D.D.D.”.

The Bristol mural was entitled ‘Graffiti Stylee’ and was a piece done at night by 18-year-old Robert Del Naja, soon to become the city’s main graffiti artist, under the tag of 3D.

Murals, with their distinct painting style, formed and decorative letters but also drawings, were taking graffiti to the next level, according to many artists choosing to paint them.

After passing a few exams, Robert left school and was unemployed, helping his father in his pub, but his world evolved around the sound of Stiff Little Fingers, the Clash, hip-hop and electronic music. And graffiti art provided him the perfect excuse to be artistic without having to be academic.

His favourite band, The Clash, introduced him to the work of the American graffiti pioneer Futura 2000. But by that time, Robert’s dream was to produce art for record sleeves, like Futura, and to mix art with music…

Futura – real name Leonard Hilton McGurr – born in Brooklyn in 1955 in an Irish-American-French family, started painting illegally in New York’s subway in the 1970s, before exhibiting with Keith Haring, Richard Hambleton and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And he designed the sleeve for the British punk band’s single ‘This Is Radio Clash’, released in 1981.

The Clash featured many references to graffiti and breakdancers in their videos, and the same year, they also enrolled Futura for their tour, asking him to paint on a wall on stage while they performed. He is even featured on vocals, singing on a track with Joe Strummer, ‘Overpowered by Funk’, on their album Combat Rock, released in 1982.

By then Robert was still living at his parents’ in the central part of Bristol known as Hotwells, when he started graffiti… He didn’t go very far from home, down by the river, and came back to the mural the next day with a camera he borrowed, to take a photograph of the mural. It featured the expression ‘Graffiti Stylee’ in a typical wording / lettering fashion, with a drawing of a ghetto blaster. And the mural rapidly bemused the dwellers.

3D’s graffiti quickly attracted fascination from other kids, including some aspiring graffiti artists, who started following him; some photographed his murals, like the now world-famous Beezer, aka Andy Beese, who largely documented the underground hip-hop scene in Bristol during the mid-1980s.

The booming hip-hop culture of Bristol took on another dimension when the graffiti artists and the DJs came together. DJ crews wanted to have stylish artists to produce their flyers and invitations to their parties.

Being friends with 3D, soon wanted his graffiti to represent the collective. On flyers as on walls, from Park Street to Marlborough Street, in 1984, the Wild Bunch was then visible everywhere in town.

D then soon joined a crew: The Wild Bunch, as their main graffiti writer, but also as a lyricist and free-style rapper. The Wild Bunch collective was created by two Bristol DJ: Grant Marshall, known as Daddy G, and Miles Johnson, aka DJ Milo. Soon, they were joined by Nellee Hooper.

Through the years 1983 and 1984, in a few months, 3D became the city’s most active confirmed graffiti artist.

Other crews were inspired by D and the  Wild Bunch, including, first, the Z-Boys and FBI. Among them, D’s friends Ian Dark, Oli Timmins, and an even younger aspiring graffiti writer known as Inkie, born in 1970, real name Tom ‘Inkie’ Bingle.

Inkie would later become one of Bristol’s street art heroes, in the mid-1990s…

Nick Walker started spaying a few years later, creating his main character on the street of Bristol: The Vandal.

1985: Graffiti Art, the first exhibition of street art in a gallery, Arnolfini

Photo by Beezer

When 3D painted murals in Bristol, everybody noticed them because he pioneered a style that had not been seen in England before.

He mostly painted outdoors, illegally, in the then bohemian/arty neighbourhood of Clifton and in Jamaica Street/St Paul’s, the neighbourhood known for its Caribbean community, the Blues parties, and the Jamaica Festival.

He was also the first to use stencils wittily.

When 3D joined the Wild Bunch in 1984, first as a graffiti artist then as a rapper, the collective found a way to express meaningfulness, a whole generation of mixed backgrounds, working class ethos, and raw, uncontrolled intelligence.

Meanwhile, a few other artists made a name for themselves in the same way in Wolverhampton and London, like Goldie and Mode 2. And soon they all met. Goldie and 3D even formed a ‘Transatlantic Federation’ with the graffiti writer from the Bronx Brim and Bio, from the Tats Cru, close to the Zulu Nation.

They all performed their art and music in July 1985, when the Arnolfini art centre, at the heart of Bristol, organised a show to celebrate their hip-hop culture, centred on 3D.

But unfortunately, the local authorities and the police were not as supportive, and started arresting graffiti writers and even the celebrated artists. 3D was arrested twice in 1985 and 1986. He carried on graffiti thanks to the support of remarkably open-minded pub owners, such as the owners of the Special K café and the Montpelier Hotel.

Sadly, in 1986, his crew, the Wild Bunch, also imploded during a trip to Japan. 3D continued writing lyrics with friends, such as Tricky and a younger DJ, known as Mushroom. And the two later formed the early version of what would become the band Massive Attack.

D always continued painting, exhibited in galleries in London, but soon focused on record sleeves and music production with Massive Attack, who released a first album in 1991 met by deep critical acclaim: ‘Blue Lines’.

Soon, other collectives came to him for sleeves, such as U.N.K.L.E. And Goldie followed the same path, focusing on drum & bass music.

At that time, the late 1980s/ relay 1990s, Bristol’s graffiti scene was almost destroyed though, due to police harassment against the artists.  In 1989, their ‘Operation Anderson’ had started a massive crackdown on graffitists.

Yet, worldwide, these two subcultures, graffiti and rap, had largely rocked the world. And street art has changed the face of visual art forever.

From John Nation to Banksy: Bristol’s graffiti rebirth 

After ‘Operation Anderson’, it took a while to Bristol artists to rebuild the scene… But in the 1990s, as Bristol became an epicentre for some of the best music in Britain, with the success of Massive Attack, followed by the one of Tricky and Portishead, street artists slowly started to work again, and to express themselves in London too.

The most successful ones were Inkie and Nick Walker, who’s journey and art I’ll discuss in the second and third part of this series of articles.

In the mid-1990s, the social worker John Nation also supported graffiti writers and artists in his Barton Hill Youth Club. And this is where Banksy notably emerged… I often think that there would be no Banksy if not for 3D and Inkie. They were the first generation.

Now, in Bristol’s neighbourhood of St Paul’s and Bedminster, we can see long-lasting murals; and the city’s street art festival – Upfest – has become known all over Europe.

Upfest, The Urban Paint Festival, was created in 2008 by Stephen and Emma Hayles. Taking place in South Bristol’s neighbourhoods of Bedminster and Southville, on North Street, it has become a nerve centre for street art by hosting, first in July and now in May.

Considered as Europe’s largest street art & graffiti festival, it attracts each year over 300 artists painting in 35 venues throughout Bedminster and Southville. Artists include Bristol legends Inkie, Cheo, Oli-T, FLX and Lokey, sometimes Nick Walker, and younger artists such as Cheba, Andy Council, 3Dom, Angus…

Bristol still stands as one of the most vibrant street art capital, and a few name really made that story possible, from 3D to John Nation, Inkie and Nick Walker.

3D – Photo by Beezer

Let’s now focus on the these two.

Bristol Series:

Part 1: Bristol Street Art History: Forty Years of Graffiti Arts – Where It All Began

Part 2: Bristol Street Art History: Inkie

Part 3: Bristol Street Art History: Nick Walker

Melissa Chemam is a writer and journalist, author of a book on Bristol’s music and art scene, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone, published in March 2019 by Tangent Books.

She worked as a reporter from Europe, the Americas and Africa, for the BBC World Service, DW, CBC, RFI, Art UK, Skin Deep, and more recently the New Arab.

Instagram: @melissaontheroad