I was standing in front of Jesus. And he appeared to be break-dancing. Not only that, he was 28 feet tall.
“This piece was inspired by the break dancers who performed for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2004,” said Rob Dean, a street art expert and guide in Bristol, England. Jesus saluted me — upside down — his flexed feet reaching toward heaven, a shroud of gold glitter shimmering around his body.
I was astonished. This was graffiti? It turned out the answer was no. According to Mr. Dean, break-dancing Jesus is considered “street art,” a term used to distinguish imaginative urban art from gang-related vandalism. The term “graffiti” refers to the bubble-style borders that surround a “tag,” or the skeleton of words or letters inside.
On a trip to London last winter, I decided to journey two hours west to Bristol, the town made famous by Banksy, Cary Grant, Wallace & Gromit and Massive Attack (though not necessarily in that order). It was recently named the 2015 European Green Capital by the European Commission. With about 442,500 residents, Bristol boasts a surplus of parks, with over 450, and narrow alleyways, most of which lend themselves to walking. This was good news to me, for I had signed up for a walking tour with WHERETHEWALL, a company devoted to showcasing the town’s famed street art and the place where Mr. Dean works.
Our tour began in the working-class neighborhood of Stokes Croft, the scruffy, urban crust of Bristol’s primarily placid interior. For decades, the gritty enclave was defined by its many massage parlors and brothels, and later by drug dealers, homeless people and stabbings. But that destitution also beckoned the anti-establishment, materializing in a matrix of artists, musicians and social activists. Today, the area promotes a dichotomy of grit and grace, exemplified by not only the break-dancing Jesus by the local artist Cosmo Sarson, but by the quality and quantity of the neighborhood’s street art.
When I learned that Bristol is considered the street art capital of Europe, I’ll admit I raised an eyebrow. Try as I might, I struggled to visualize the well-mannered British defacing public property in the name of art. Growing up in Southern California during the mid-1970s and ’80s, I identified graffiti with the gang culture that permeated the edges of my pleasant beach town, Santa Monica. To me, graffiti wasn’t art; it was a nuisance that turned basketball courts and park benches into bruising shades of black and blue. Back then, I was too young to know who Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were, as they took to the streets of New York to develop a new genre of art-driven graffiti that came to be known as “street art.” I was also unaware that Basquiat and hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy had formed a friendship, one that would solidify the partnership between graffiti and hip-hop for decades to come.
In Bristol during the early 1980s, graffiti arrived during a storm of cultural change. The English artists abandoned punk for hip-hop, inspired by the hip-hop scene in New York. With it came a subculture of budding graffiti artists, including the highly influential Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D. In 1982, Mr. Del Naja founded The Wild Bunch, a multimedia collective of graffiti artists, hip-hop D.J.s and sound-system spinners. Eventually Mr. Del Naja formed Massive Attack, one of the most influential and innovative bands of a generation. Both the electronica-style trip-hop and graffiti were the core of the band’s existence and bolstered Bristol’s future as a haven for urban artists.
As I gazed up at two-stories-tall Jesus, I suddenly remembered the main reason I had come to this dingy cove in the Stokes Croft district. I swung around and was greeted by a brick wall, my eyes following the rust-colored crevices upward until they reached the name “Banksy” stenciled in thick black letters. My eyes searched higher until they reached Banksy’s famous 1997 mural “Mild Mild West.” Recognized as Banksy’s earliest large work, the image depicted a stuffed animal akin to Snuggle, the fabric softener bear, poised to hurl a Molotov cocktail at three riot police officers. The work had all the ingredients of a classic Banksy: political jest, irony and deliciously dark humor. I felt as if I were seeing the street art equivalent of my first Picasso. Recently, Banksy has focused on the immigration crisis, with his work cropping up in a refugee camp known as “The Jungle” in Calais, France. In Bristol, Banksy has only a few works of street art but his influence is outsize, inspiring a movement that can be seen amid the broken patches of the urban landscape.
Banksy grew up in Bristol and first emerged there as a freehand graffiti artist during the early 1990s, following the path paved by 3D (Mr. Del Naja) and other pioneering street artists like Inkie and Nick Walker. With a flair for stenciled designs, wit and anti-establishment commentary, Banksy immediately stood out. A wide audience could relate to his art, and by the 2000s his silk-screen prints and stencil paintings were selling for up to 500,000 pounds, or about $740,000, at Sotheby’s in London. Street art had entered the mainstream art world. Many people with a dearth of art appreciation had finally found something that resonated with them, as Banksy challenged not only their definition of graffiti, but of art in its entirety. His successful art auction sales boosted the reputation of street art while creating a brand-new market for the genre.
In 2008, the residents of Bristol voted on whether the City Council should remove a Banksy stencil depicting a naked man hanging from a window ledge by his fingertips. After 97 percent of voters chose to preserve the work, it was clear that Bristol’s street art had had a huge impact on its residents, many of whom were clearly tickled by the artist’s humorous, anti-establishment commentary. It wasn’t long before city officials began to support the street art movement.
I took one last look at “Mild Mild West” and gave a grin to break-dancing Jesus before continuing toward Hillgrove Street with my affable guide. I soon discovered that it’s not easy for a newcomer to walk swiftly in Bristol; imagery competes for your attention everywhere you look.
A sunken-faced ghoul crowned with an orange top hat adorned a dilapidated building. On another, I was greeted by a cacophony of: “No G.M.O., No Monsanto,” that danced the two-step in splashes of tomato-soup red and butter yellow. A message scrawled on a paint-chipped fence declared: “Stokes Croft … It’s Alive.”
Street art was emblazoned in alleys, on storefronts, lampposts and mailboxes. As Mr. Dean and I reached the corner of Hillgrove Street, I immediately knew why this was our destination. A bleak tan building stood on the corner of this industrial part of town, its roof edged with blackened soot, which had begun to run down its exterior like smeared mascara.
Then, a white and crimson wave three stories tall — in the woodblock painting style of Katsushika Hokusai’s famous work “The Great Wave at Kanagawa” — crashed across the building, perhaps in an attempt to wash away the gloom. Two unlikely explorers teetered on stilts in the lower left corner, one bulbous eye peering through a towering telescope.
The graffiti crew MM13 was responsible for the red wave, adhered to the building over a previous work by Phlegm, a well-known artist from South Yorkshire. Phlegm responded by adding a duo of Edward Gorey-esque characters beneath the wave. Overtaken by the fantastical, I nearly missed a small stenciled panda on the bottom right corner of the building, which sat quietly, munching bamboo.
We walked to Nelson Street, a couple of blocks away, where Bristol gained its international notoriety as a street art destination in 2011. “See No Evil,” the brainchild of Inkie, a local street artist, and Team Love, music promoters from Bristol, was an art project and festival designed to transform the area’s dreary, decaying landscape into a smorgasbord of urban art. To attract culture-seeking tourists, the Bristol City Council partially financed the £80,000 venture, with one dedicated member donating half of his annual salary to the event.
In a frenzied cloud of aerosol, acrylics and oil paint, over 70 international artists descended upon the city in 2011 and 2012. Eight multistoried buildings received large-scale artistic face-lifts, while other surfaces bloomed in a bouquet of stencils and stickups.
Mr. Dean and I stood at the corner of Nelson and Bridewell streets as clouds gathered overhead. Two newly planted trees swayed in the wind among a patchwork of gray asphalt. As a nearby double-decker bus pulled away from the curb, a huge fox appeared on the surface of an industrial-style building across the street. Sitting on his haunches, the fox leaned back and clutched his fat, feather duster tail between his legs, the posture predestined for a cello player. Immediately, I loved this piece. Created by the Belgian artist Roa, who is known for creating black and white images of animals, the work had a certain softness, its fine feathery lines looking wispy in the wind.
Next, we took a detour through a Gothic archway to Broad Street, where the Irish artist Conor Harrington had created a large-scale mural worthy of a contemporary art museum on a building. Two men in 17th-century couture stood frozen in a sword fight, their muscular calves exquisitely sculpted in white tights. A stark black-and-white checkered floor lay beneath them. Mr. Harrington is recognized for combining fine art techniques with contemporary references and graffiti-inspired abstraction. While he continues to create street art, his work is now featured in galleries worldwide, including the Old School Gym in SoHo, where he had his New York debut in 2013.
As a dabbler in Zen Buddhism, I was humbled by Bristol’s artists, who seemed to be poster children for nonattachment and impermanence. The famous Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron perhaps put it best: “Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.”
The work of street artists may vanish overnight — with new works (or blank wall) taking their place. But this reality is understood. Bristol’s artists — much like Tibetan Buddhists who spend several weeks creating and then destroying elaborate sand mandalas to demonstrate the transitory nature of material life — were clearly unattached. I admired that.
IF YOU GO
To truly enjoy all of Bristol’s green spaces, the ideal time to go is April through September, though the street art can be seen any time of year.
With its home base in Bristol, this award-winning family-owned business offers a selection of savory pies made with 100 percent free-range meat and eggs, and a flaky, all-butter pastry crust with a suet crown. Local craft beers, ciders and gin are also available. Don’t miss the moo & blue, a British beef steak pie with Long Clawson Stilton blue cheese. 24 Stokes Croft or Corn Street, Corn Exchange, Old City; pieminister.co.uk.
Just 15 minutes outside of Bristol is this Michelin-starred gem opened by two brothers of Spanish descent. The seasonal tasting menu isn’t Spanish, nor Italian, as the name may suggest, but modern British. Praised by the National Restaurant Awards as one of the best restaurants in Britain, it’s a dining destination not to be missed. 38 High Street, Westbury Village, Westbury-on-Trym; casamiarestaurant.co.uk.
Hyde & Co.
Bristol’s answer to the Prohibition era is Hyde & Co, an intimate speakeasy-style bar marked only by a sign with a tiny bowler hat. Ring the bell by the discreet door and (if there’s space) you’ll be treated to a variety of inventive cocktails by some of the city’s best mixologists. 2 The Basement, Upper Byron Place; hydeandcobristol.com.
Hotel du Vin and Bistro
Housed in a collection of former sugar warehouses, Hotel du Vin is sweet indeed, with its blend of 18th-century architecture and contemporary sensibility. In the heart of the Old City, the hotel is also home to an exceptional bistro serving rustic French-inspired cuisine and a welcoming wine list. For a nightcap, check out the Sugar Bar with its extensive list of international rums. The Sugar House, Narrow Lewins Mead; hotelduvin.com.
Street Art Tours
Experience Bristol’s street art and graffiti with a personalized tour by WHERETHEWALL, arguably the best street-art tour company in Bristol. Tours are available in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German. Information: 44-7748-632-663; wherethewall.com. Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to the smattering of street art in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, the neighborhood is also known for its independent boutiques, pubs, art studios and music spaces. Don’t miss the Canteen (for drinks and music), the Bell (a Bristol pub institution), It’s All Too Much (a cutting-edge art gallery) and Dutty (for new and vintage clothing). Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft.
Correction: December 24, 2015
An earlier version of this article described incorrectly the location of Bristol, England, in relation to London. It is west, not east, of the capital.