Bristol Street Art History: Inkie

Written by Melissa Chemam

Born in 1970 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Tom Bingle aka Inkie, grew up in Bristol, England, where he became one of the greatest agents of the British street art scene since the mid-1980s. He was a young teenage boy when he discovered the blooming graffiti scene, then saw it evolve from a series of murals to a real movement. Contrary to many writers, he never stopped painting and developed partnerships with other key writers and painters, collaborations remaining at the heart of what he does.

According to the world-renowned street art festival, Upfest, which Inkie helped create, he is “one of the most notorious graffiti writers in UK history to emerge out of the 80s Bristol scene.” Though Inkie is an artist, designer of prints, illustrator, fashion designer, and muralist, he’s known for his large-scale pieces representing rebellious female faces. His diverse inspirations come from Mayan architecture as much as William Morris, Alfons Mucha and Islamic geometry.

“My dad was an architect,” he told me a few years ago when I first came to Bristol, 120 miles West of London, to write about the British punk, hip hop and art scenes. “He specialised in Georgian houses and moved us from Edinburgh to  Hollow, then to Bristol in 1976.” There, Tom went to college with Krissy Kriss, a future Bristol rapper, Andrew Vowles, who became known as DJ Mushroom in the band Massive Attack, and Steve Lazarides, who later would metamorphosize into one of the main graffiti art dealers of London.

Then Tom met 3D, aka Robert Del Naja, the artist credited for kickstarting the Bristol graffiti scene, at a small café named Special K, around 1984/1985. “I was selling weed to the guys,” Inkie remembers. “The Special K café was our network, like internet is today. We left all our messages there, our ads; we met and exchanged ideas. We were first attracted by the pool tables, but mostly by the arcade video games. I was mad about them, and very good at them.” And that’s how Inkie got his nickname (Inky being the blue ghost in Pac-Man).

Special K was an inconspicuous little place in the heart of Bristol, between the neighbourhood of St Paul’s, when reggae, dub, soul and rap music took off from the late 1970s to the cozier areas of Clifton, where the fancy house parties took place and the theatre actors lived. It was the perfect location to breed a new counter-culture…

From 1983, a few DJs emerged in this Bristol’s multicultural underground scene, influenced by the sound of post-punk, reggae, dub and early hip-hop, operating with MCs, breakdancers and graffiti artists, who tagged the walls during their performances, illustrated their invitations and flyers, and soon put the crews’ names on the city’s walls. This is what 3D was invited to do for the best crew: The Wild Bunch.

In July 1985, an outstanding event changed the game for the young graffiti writers, the Arnolfini art gallery opened an exhibition with live spray painting, around 3D, and his friends like Pride from London, Goldie from Wolverhampton, and Brim and Bio from the Bronx, NYC, USA.  “I was there at the time,” Inkie retells, “but I didn’t paint, I was still very young.” He was, in fact, only fifteen. He and his contemporaries were all enhanced in their endeavors by the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper, and the film Wild Style by Charlie Ahearn, and the BBC 2 TV documentary by Dick Fontaine, Hip Hop History (1984). “Bristol got influenced by New York’s hip hop culture, because it has such a huge Jamaican population,” Inkie explains, “and most of them have relatives in the East Coast.”

3D, Goldie and Inkie were inspired by Futura 2000, Bio and Brim from the Bronx, Basquiat but also Andy Warhol. So were their followers in the city, Felix Braun (FLX), Nick Walker and the future Banksy.

Inkie soon began working as part of Crime Incorporated Crew (also known as the “CIC” or the Crime inc.crew), along with fellow Bristol boy Felix Braun (now known as FLX).

In the second part of the 1980s, Inkie was very active on walls, painting illegally and thus often chased by the police. “Bristol rapidly became an epicentre for street art,” he says. “Bristol has always been a creative city but with this new music and art scene, it mushroomed.”

“Bristol has always been a creative city but with this new music and art scene, it mushroomed.”

But the authorities saw graffiti as a crime in England at the time. They had already arrested 3D twice, in 1985 and 1986. In 1989, Inkie participated in the Bridlington Street Art World Championship, with fellow Bristol artist Cheo. Both came second, despite being surveilled by the police.

Due to Operation Anderson, the UK’s largest ever graffiti bust, the police managed to put a pause into the creative Bristol boom.

“We were on police bail at the time. Early 1989, Operation Anderson had started a massive crackdown on graffitists,” Inkie recalls. “At first, they could catch any of us but one day they arrested a guy from our network with his address book on his with all our contact details. I was in Liverpool at the time but I got found. But we did manage to participate in the championship and as we came second everyone was suddenly talking about Bristol in this scene”.

But not all the graffiti writers did stop; some became more discreet, or worked on friends’ walls and on canvas like 3D. Inkie carried on. John Nation, a social worker, helped gather new graffiti writers around his cultural centre, in Barton Hill,  east of St Paul’s.

Inkie met the future Banksy, about four years his junior, whilst painting on Rollermania, a local skate stores shutters.

“It helped document things,” Inkie says. “It created a whole library of photos and documents”, and “offered a basket ball court where to paint.”

Meanwhile, while the graffiti scene was  significantly reduced by these police operations, Bristol became known for other arts: hip-hop, dub music, rap, and what was later labelled as “trip hop”, though the music producers hate the term. 3D became a founding member of the band Massive Attack, who released their first album, Blue Lines, in 1991, their second in 1994, followed by their friends from Portishead and Tricky. Bristol became a creative hub again.

“In the 1990s, Lindsay Baker, one of the female’s from the circle, became a journalist and started writing for the up-and-coming Face Magazine”, according to Inkie. “She got Massive Attack to be featured in the magazine. And suddenly they were the coolest guys in the world; the fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino was taking their pictures. Our friend Nellee from the Wild Bunch had moved to London, and  the Bristol producer Dom T was dating Björk… The sound from Bristol came out to the world and exploded”.

This also helped the young Banksy, who had met his hero, 3D, and dreamed of painting a sleeve for Massive Attack… He “stole” from him his techniques including stencils and political references.

In 1998, Inkie helped the latter arrange a Walls on Fire event, with Banksy, on a site in Bristol city centre, later to become an attractive educational centre. But then, for both of them, it became time to go pain further out. They were following their friend Steve Lazarides, a wannabe photographer who soon became Banksy’s sort of manager. “I left Bristol though because I wanted to have a career too,” Inkie explains. “I went to London to do design in video games. Graffiti has always been a hobby, you never make money from it.”

“With Steve, Banksy started to change the whole game. They were looking at the Andy Warhol model and making prints. They targeted an audience from the late 1990s and used PR and marketing. Steve especially took care of the marketing aspect. And Banksy had a strong discipline and was constantly painting”.

Inkie had earned a bit of a reputation in the late-1980s in Bristol as a graffiti writer, but his career gained a new level in London. “With Steve, Banksy started to change the whole game,” adds Inkie. “They were looking at the Andy Warhol model and making prints. They targeted an audience from the late 1990s and used PR and marketing. Steve especially took care of the marketing aspect. And Banksy had a strong discipline and was constantly painting”.

Inkie worked intensely in design, to support his family.“I had a deaf daughter at the time so I needed to get a proper job and was lucky to find a great one at Sega, a dream job as a head of a video game company but I missed painting. Then, between 2002 and 2004, it really took off for Banksy and Steve.” They always remained in contact. “In 2007, I stopped my job, came to West London and opened my art studio. I just walked off my job and started a print business of my paintings to sustain my travels.”

Inkie has since painted and exhibited worldwide, been denounced by toxic tabloids like the Daily Mail and simultaneously lauded by the elitist Times. He belongs to the list of graffiti pioneers and stars, along with Banksy, Obey and Mode 2.

His art has been published in the books Banky’s Bristol, Children of the Can, Graffiti World, Vanguard, and in the magazines Graphotism and Dazed & Confused. He has also been teaching art and graphic design to young children and college students. Recently, he moved back to Bristol, where he paints outdoors regularly and always happily helps retell the city’s extraordinary street art history.

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