I first crossed paths with Nick Walker at Galerie Brugier-Rigail in Paris, in February 2015, just a couple of days after I met 3D Del Naja in Bristol, the pioneer of the city’s street art & music scene, and the Bristol-born music producer Tricky, for interviews that would become the pillars of my book on Bristol’s music and art (Out of the Comfort Zone, 2016/2019).
I also met Nick again at the Arnolfini art centre in July 2015 in Bristol, for the 30-year anniversary of the Graffiti Art exhibition, the first ever street art exhibition to take place in an art space, in 1985.
And more recently, I interviewed him again for a long piece on graffiti artists and the art of branding.
Born in 1969, Walker emerged from “the infamous and ground-breaking Bristol graffiti scene of the early 1980s”.
The Parisian gallery Brugier-Rigail ijust held another one of his art shows, in March 2023, titled ‘Mutations’ (link to it: https://galerie-brugier-rigail.com/en/expositions/presentation/82/mutations ).
There, he staged with several pieces of work his most famous character, ‘The Vandal’, “the elegant graffiti artist with a bowler hat,” as described by the gallery owners. “Thanks to this alter ego whose style clashes with the street art world, the artist adds a humorous touch to his works,” they say.
Back in Bristol this spring, I went on the famous street art tour led by John Nation, the former youth worker who helped the writers develop their art when graffiti was highly illegal in the city, early to late 1990s. One of the most important stops on his tour is on Nelson Street, where Nick Walker’s piece, ‘Painting the City Red’, has been standing for over a decade.
Bristol, 1983-89 – When Graffiti Art became a scene in England
In the second part of the 1980, new graffiti writers emerged around Inkie, the FBI crew and the Z-Boys: Oli-T, Chaos, Cheo, FLX, Lokey, Tuco and Nick Walker. Walker was also a regular at the Wild Bunch’s parties.
In Bristol, he definitely left a mark that is visible in the city, landmarks in the street art tours that the man everyone calls the “godfather of Bristol’s graffiti scene”, John Nation, lead almost every weekend now in Bristol.
Nick became known as ‘The Vandal’ during the 1990s, a character created for his pieces, who is both him and a fictional representation.
Would he say it was an effective way of standing out?
“I created the Vandal the same way the comic book artists for Marvel or DC created their super heroes,” Nick told me.
“The Vandal is this entity that would do the outlandish things that I couldn’t achieve in my own realm,” he added. “An alter ego. Similarly, to the way Stan Lee couldn’t throw a web from his wrist or building-hop the way Spider man could. It wasn’t planned as such it organically created itself. His path was triggered by a question after my first Vandal piece which was a triptych; someone asked something like ‘Where does the Vandal go after?’ Or ‘where is he going?’ And I developed all these possible scenarios from there. Leading to all The Morning After series, the Love Vandal, etc. Interestingly many people identify with the Vandal, various age groups too.”
In 1992, Nick began to combine stencils with my freehand work. This allowed him to juxtapose photographic imagery with the rawness, which evolved from conventional graffiti styles.Stencils particularly introduce an impact element to his work.
“The appeal of stencils is that they allow me to take an image from anywhere – dissect any part of life – and recreate it on any surface. I try to add an element of humour or irony to some paintings to add a little light relief to the walls. Painting is a form of escapism for me and if my work allows the spectator to do the same thing, then I’ve achieved more than I set out to do.”
“The appeal of stencils is that they allow me to take an image from anywhere – dissect any part of life – and recreate it on any surface,” he says. “I try to add an element of humour or irony to some paintings to add a little light relief to the walls. Painting is a form of escapism for me and if my work allows the spectator to do the same thing, then I’ve achieved more than I set out to do.”
Decades of graffiti art
In July 1998, Banksy came to spray again at St Pauls’ Carnival, just like 3D did more than a decade earlier.
And in August 98, with Inkie, he organised an exhibition named Walls on Fire, along Bristol’s Harbourside. The event was scheduled over a long weekend and attracted street artists from all over the country.
On his side, Walker’s moved on to combine “the freedom the spray can brings with very controlled and intricate stencilling,” also now working on canvas.
And in 2008, he started holding sellout shows in London and in Los Angeles, California, where collectors queued for over 24 hours to be among the first to get his latest print edition.
The same year, his iconic ‘Moona Lisa’ sold over ten times its estimated value at auction at Bonhams.
Since, his work has been accoladed by the media and has attracted headlines worldwide, including the front page of the Independent arts magazine and the Observer’s round up of the year’s biggest events of 2008.
But rather than the galleries, Walker still finds the streets more appealing, like Mode 2, and that’s probably where his work looks the most powerful.
“Personally, I like to apply my work on the street,” he told me, “the city is the ultimate canvas. It was, and still is, about finding that spot on a mad busy area and getting a piece up so the world and its mother sees it, the next morning. That’s the ego trip kicking in. Some people liked it some hated it but ultimately we didn’t give a fuck. It was about getting it out of a system. It’s always good if you have a blunt message or simply having a laugh, either way it’s just about putting your thoughts out there.”
“The city is the ultimate canvas. It was, and still is, about finding that spot on a mad busy area and getting a piece up so the world and its mother sees it, the next morning. That’s the ego trip kicking in. Some people liked it some hated it but ultimately we didn’t give a fuck. It was about getting it out of a system. It’s always good if you have a blunt message or simply having a laugh, either way it’s just about putting your thoughts out there.”
Nick Walker admits having created an “artist’s brand”.
“Yes, I did – though pretty unintentional,” he confessed. “Once you gain notoriety, your name becomes branded, and people follow that name as a brand. Nowadays some artists’ works have become commodities at auction. Paintings are bought more as a status just like owning a luxury brand’s car.”
And how would he define his own style? I asked.
“Difficult really to give you a direct answer or classification because I have been doing this for a while,” he said. “But I’ve transitioned from ‘traditional’ graffiti to stencil art and never totally stopped with the free-hand style. When I first started creating stencil images, I would blow up images on shitty photocopiers and the lines would distort a little which I liked. I would cut them exactly how they came out, all jagged, no clean long straight cuts. I also like the simple one or two colour stencils. I never had the time for multiple layer stuff. It is hard to pin point my style but if I had to choose, I’d stick to something along the lines of spray can art.”
At the turn of the last decade, social media then played a major role in his and other street artists’ relation with your public/audience.
“The speed and immediacy of media content and the way everything is shared now is insane,” he confessed. “Instagram has been an important tool in spreading the work wide and far. The second I finish a painting someone across the other side of the planet, will be able to see it instantly. This was unimaginable in the 80’s. In order to let people know what I was up to, back then, I would’ve had to get my work published in magazines and books. A lot of time was spent finding out the telephone numbers for the art editors of cool magazines and basically getting their ear on a project you were working on or just finished.”
The art market for street art has thus been completely changed and literally exploded.
“People are embracing it and the love for it is growing all the time,” Nick reckoned. “From what I remember since 2008 there has been a big presence in the auction houses with record prices, which was a good exposure for all street artist. Galleries, museums, auction houses are embracing it more these days. I recall a Barbican London show, on Basquiat, I believe it was in 2017-2018, which personally gave a glimpse of the way the movement was headed at the time. I remember feeling optimistic because this meant that an emphasis onto other artists that were part of street art of that era was soon going to be spotlighted. As we know now, we have slowly been giving a traditional platform for street artists like him and I believe that it going to go on.”
Nick Walker is still working on developing The Vandal story further, and, being back in New York, inspired daily by “what I see on the streets,” he says.
“I’m always inspired by this city and how organic and resilient it is. Lately the graffiti is back with a vengeance and the styles are developing all the time. It’s like it was in the early 90’s.”