As part of a community work experience initiative, we sent 14 year old Arthur McKenzie-Perry, (from Ralph Allen School, Bath), on a photojournalism assignment to South-Bristol’s Upfest, to find out what it was all about, and what impact it had on the local community. The experience of working in this way was completely new for Arthur, and we felt it was only right to allow him to jump in the deep end, and rise to the challenge, (which we feel he did to an impressive level!). During the day he was accompanied by Dr Shawn Sobers.
Words and main photographs by Arthur McKenzie-Perry
Article written – 31st July 2017
Today I went to Upfest graffiti festival, an annual three day event held in the Bedminster, Southville and Ashton Gate areas of Bristol. I visited on the Monday (the festival’s last day), and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to view the incredible art, and also to speak to the masterminds behind the pieces and the organisers of the event. Upfest uses the streets of the area as their canvas for the art work, and sees thousands of people visit over the course of the weekend.
When still on the outskirts of the area walking towards our first stop of the festival, Ashton Gate Football Stadium, we bumped into local artist and educator Shani Ali, out walking her dog with her family.
To test the water I asked Shani if she knew about Upfest and what she thought of it. She spoke highly of Upfest, saying,
“Street murals draw people in more than galleries, as they have a natural flow which galleries cannot keep up with.”
She went to Upfest at the weekend whilst in the area shopping and couldn’t help but explore the eye-catching festival with her family. She liked the fact that art was being brought to people rather than being exclusive in a gallery space. Speaking to Shani was a good sign of what was to come.
To get to the festival we had to go through tagged subways. This is possibly what most people think about when you hear the words ‘graffiti’.
When we first got to the stadium we saw a huge crowd having a tour of the Upfest trail, being guided by one of the artists. The crowd included people from all ages and, seemed like, from different walks of life. It was the first evidence of the popularity of this event. I noticed a ‘bucketeer’ with the group raising money for charity, (more on that later).
In terms of economic impact on the local area, one of the first things I noticed was the amount of people involved that had travelled from overseas. At the stadium I spoke to a member of a Berlin based German graffiti crew called ‘Tape Over’, who were exhibiting their innovative style of art, which didn’t involve paint at all.
He was being asked questions by a lady with her young grandchildren, who took great interest in what he was doing.
People often associate street art with just cans of spray paint and scenes like the subway (above), however, to break this assumption all you have to do is take a look at the work of Tape Over.
They take massive rolls of tape and cut them up and use the pieces to create images which gives a wonderful textured effect.
“We’ve come over from Berlin for this event. This style has existed for about 15 years, I was inspired by another artist I saw doing it, and now been doing it for 8 years.”
He told me he gets paid commissions for this type of work, as well as doing it for a passion and travels a lot. He takes inspiration for his art from everyday objects and life.
Next I spoke to Yves, another artist from Germany, (originally from Montreal), who I found very inspirational, as his style is animation graffiti, in which he uses stop-motion photography to create short clips and films. He works mainly with circular subjects, merging and dividing them in his clips.
“I trained as an animator, and to achieve the graffiti animations I have to paint the picture on the wall, take a photo of it, paint over it again with the details in a slightly different position, and take another photo of it, and do that over and over again.”
It’s incredibly time consuming and he said he’d been working on it for the whole weekend.
In the above photo you can see the faint outlines of the previous scenes he’s painted over to create his animation effect.
To see the final graffiti animation Yves made, see the video below.
Also painting at the stadium was Nino, an Austrian artist who had fallen in love with graffiti from a young age. It was his first time at the Upfest festival, and also his first time painting in England. He said he uses art to express himself and chose the path of graffiti because he relished the speed and the on-the-spot creativity.
Nino was accompanied by two friends who travelled over to Austria with him. Nino told me he blended his piece in with the artist painting next to his, and as they had similar styles, they decided to collaborate by blending their work.
In addition to housing sprayed walls outside of the stadium, Ashton Gate also had an inside gallery space with graffiti pieces displayed on boards, framed on walls, and also tables of graffiti related books and other items for sale.
I spoke to Linda and John Bennett, a married couple who work as crew for the festival, who made a interesting point about how the festival is run and involves local people.
“Upfest is largely run by volunteers, many of them local people. They play a vital role in the smooth running of the festival over the whole weekend. It really is a large event for the whole area.”
They also made a point of noting how it can bring the artists together forming collaborations and assisting each other.
“Upfest is great for established graffiti writers, and also up-and-coming artists who want a chance to be recognised. Artists are given free rein to express themselves however they want, with a few limitations including profanities and sexually explicit images. Other than that they can do what they like.”
Leaving the stadium on the hunt for more street-art, we bumped into a familiar face, Daz from Bath, a former acclaimed graffiti writer and now a respected photographer specialising in black and white street scenes.
Daz claimed it was great for urban areas and “made boring walls beautiful”. He was very passionate about graffiti, however made it clear that if he did graffiti now he would first get the land owner’s permission, rather than illegally, and said he’d now be a bit more ‘respectful and mindful’ than when he was younger. He also said that places like Bath don’t recognise graffiti as an art form and it would be frowned upon it.
“Bristol has capitalised on graffiti
and used it to bring in visitors and
generating interest and income, which I think
is a great thing.”
Soon after leaving Daz we saw a scene which some went way to prove his point, seeing how the local church was getting involved in the festival, using their ground for artists to paint and display their work, and also for families to use to sit and rest.
One of the most striking pieces in this year’s Upfest is a giant mural of John Lennon, on the side of the Tobacco Factory.
I spoke to the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra responsible for this masterpiece, and also spoke to his assistants, who also acted as his translator.
Kobra (in the black leather jacket) paints his art to a giant scale using the full size of the wall to emphasise the significance of his pieces.
Last year he worked for the Rio Olympics, producing the iconic ‘five faces’ for the stadium.
His piece here in Bristol is part of his ‘Eyes of Peace’ project and depicted the Legendary John Lennon, part of series which saw him go to Amsterdam before this to paint a giant mural of Anne Frank.
Admiring the John Lennon mural was Anne from Portishead with her two grandchildren, who had come over especially for the children’s activities in the Tobacco Factory, and had spent much of their day in there, as the children were too young to fully appreciate the art on the streets.
“As a former resident of Bristol I used to see graffiti when I drove down the M32, and often admired how brilliant some of it looked. We didn’t even know of Banksy back then, I always remember how great some of it looked so it’s brilliant to have events like this.”
Like most visitors I spoke to today she said she didn’t like ‘messy tags’, such as the subway I walked through earlier, but she appreciated well thought-out colourful pieces, and welcomed Upfest as a positive event to exist. Anne told me that now she realised the pieces would be staying up for the full year ahead,
“I’ll definitely come back with my husband to
fully take in the art work on the trail another time.”
Having repeat visitors during the year to see the work is also great for the local economy, which will obviously be harder to measure, but still a very real positive impact.
After stopping for a drink in the Tobacco Factory, which was jam packed with families with young children attending Upfest related workshops.
Heading up North Street we met local resident and former café owner Ella. She was very enthusiastic about the whole festival and how it raises money for the Nacoa charity, which helps children whose parents have addictions, and she helped bake cakes to raise money for this charity prior to Upfest over the weekend. (This was what the bucketeer at the stadium was collecting for!)
Ella voiced the importance of Upfest to the local community, telling me it brings attention to the area and boosts the economy.
“As a former local business owner, I know Upfest is a massive help to the local economy. The visiting people go to local shops, bars and restaurants in search for food, rest and drinks. It’s fantastic for the area.”
Ella claimed the only downside is the temporality of the pieces that she gets fond of, but that is something everyone has to come to terms with. As opposed to galleries, Ella said she prefers street art but is against tagging.
“The best art is art that comes to the people.”
Further down North Street I spoke to Hannes and Caro Pepe, were doing a piece by The Masonic pub. Hannes told me they have been doing street art for 19 years, and take inspiration from current affairs, politics, science, religion, ‘Buddhism especially’, and tattoos, to name a few. Their piece was on the theme of metamorphosis and was focused on the topic of artificial intelligence and depicted a machine evolving into a human.
Caro was the only female artist I had seen all day so I was keen to hear her opinions and views on the underground world of street art. She said, “Graffiti is like a journey, sometimes I plan and do a quick sketch and sometimes I just draw what is on my mind and see what happens.”
Caro did not seem to have strong views on being a woman writer, and when I told her she was the first one we saw today she told me there were “plenty of us!” and laughed.
Walking through the streets of Bedminster we bumped into two friends of ours, local filmmaker Rob Mitchell, and graffiti fan and jewellery maker Lois Dalphinis, who had come down from London especially to see the work at Upfest. Rob was very positive and spoke highly of Upfest. He said that graffiti is less so overlooked since Banksy came about and spoke of the beautiful paradoxes, for example the time when when the council and local press claimed a Banksy created mural was “defaced by graffiti vandals“.
However, Rob related to critics of Banksy saying that if he was a graffiti artist he would probably refer to Banksy as a sellout. This is because, like skateboarding, garage music and grime music, graffiti is part of a thrilling underground culture which arguably should not be penetrated by mainstream living and media. He compared Upfest to the careers of The Beatles as it took many rejections before they were accepted. He went on to mention that Upfest had more art than in galleries and jokingly noted that Bedminster was running out of walls. Rob said everyone has a message and graffiti allows anyone to publicize it, when performed legally. Rob also claimed that street art can transform and shape our culture and our communities.
My final interview of the day was with Lois, who was heading back to London soon afterwards, after spending the weekend in Bristol, both days at Upfest.
‘Graffiti is part of the Bristol’s make-up’
Coming from South-East London, graffiti is very prominent in her home community however it isn’t accepted as it is here in Bristol, and they don’t have anything like Upfest to support local graffiti artists.
Lois in-front of piece by Bristol based writer Dime.
Lois said, “Graffiti is a bit like Marmite, some people like it, and others don’t, but if it’s an acquired taste, more people are getting used to it, and events like Upfest helps that. The whole community is brought together – mums, dads, kids, grandparents, teenagers.”
This is the best description of graffiti I’ve heard. She also noted how good it was that artists are able to build a community in this way, also how aspiring artists are given the chance to be noticed.
Personally, I love graffiti as its urban culture cannot be shaken off. When a beautiful mural is done, people come from all over the country, and the world, to look at it, take photos and say “wow!” It becomes part of everyday life and a decorative part of the community to be enjoyed by residents just as much as tourists and non-regulars to the area, and as we have seen it has a positive effect on local businesses.
Graffiti is a form of personal creative expression, whether it’s a controversial political statement, a large beautiful mural, or a mark to represent your support for your local football team, if it’s positive in my view I like that it exists. From what I have seen and the people I’ve spoken to, Upfest is a positive event to get the whole community and businesses involved, and I look forward to next year.
By Arthur McKenzie-Perry
I would like to thank Dr Shawn Sobers, Sophia McKenzie, Rob Mitchell and all participants who were interviewed.