The Bear Pit, traffic jams and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft

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Since the first cave man ground up colourful rocks and mixed them with animal fat to paint on the walls of his cave, people have been creating art. Humans seem to have an innate desire to paint, whether that be on cave walls in the hope of a good hunt or on canvas to  capture the essence of the world around them. There was a time when artists suffered for their art in filthy garrets, swapping work that would one day make art dealers millions, for a meal. These days things have changed. Modern day artists live in large apartments with millions in the bank all made without the need to be mouldering in a cold grave first. Sadly, work created for money rather than love is not always good.

Our trip to Bristol was always going to be mainly about the urban art, after all, this is a city that styles itself as the international centre of street art. So far we’d found what we were looking for and ticked off most of the Banksy’s on my list, not to mention several other high end graffiti artists who have made the big time and sell for big bucks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, after all, these artists all started out on the edge of the law  with spray cans and city walls. As a one time artist I appreciate the work involved even if I don’t appreciate the work, my objections are to the pretentious unmade bed, pile of bricks end of the market and, at the other end, the taggers who seem to me like so many schoolboys carving their initials on desks. Still, each to their own I guess.

The next part of our walk though, would take us back to the roots of street art, closer to the garret than the gallery. Bristol’s curiously named Bear Pit, otherwise known as the St James Barton Roundabout, has long intrigued me. From the satellite maps I could see it was an oval area in the centre of one of Bristol’s most notorious roundabouts set out with honeycomb shapes of grass and paving. Since the area was rebuilt in the late 1950’s, after World War II bombing flattened it, the majority of the traffic going through the city converges on this roundabout and it’s one of the reasons for all the traffic jams. To make matters worse, the bus station is just off one of the exits. In the past it was a medieval boundary to the city. Nowadays it’s all about art.

There are four underpasses leading to the sunken park come art gallery. Without them I doubt we’d ever have got across the busy road. We entered between Haymarket and Bond Street in front of a large Debehnhams Store. If I was ever in any doubt that this would be interesting the walls leading to the underpass put me straight. The graffiti began right there and continued unabted as we strolled under the road. Yes there were tags and political comments not everyone would agree with but then there was art so breathtakingly good it stopped us in our tracks. Most were more or less anonymous but I was very taken with the moody looking girl with Bristol tattooed on her inner lip painted by Stephen Quick of Splintered Studios.

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Emerging, blinking, into the sunlight on the other side of the tunnel we were confronted with such a display of colour it made me dizzy. There were walls covered with roses, vines and exotic looking flowers. Hidden amongst them was a handy loo which I took advantage of. In the thirteenth century this place hosted one of Europe’s most popular markets and, from 1238 there was an annual fair starting on the feast of St James lasting fifteen days. The last fair was held in 1837 but you can still grab a snack at the Bearritos bus, five pieces of fruit for £1 from Bear Fruit Bristol, buy a coffee in Bear Pit Social, listen to the buskers, or simply wander about admiring the art.

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The sky was getting darker by the second and, as we still had art to track down and I wanted to pop into the bus station to say hello, we headed off to the tunnel to Marlborough Street. Of course we were slowed down by the graffiti and, yet again, I had a favourite, a strange geometric affair in blues and greens, with a stylised woman as a centrepiece by Zamzam according to the signature. Then there was the bus on the slope, it seemed fitting as we were heading for the bus station but the text was all about racial discrimination.

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The bus station was as busy as I expected, with long queues for the travel shop. After a glimpse behind the scenes, a chat to colleagues I’ve only spoken to on the phone plus a look into the bowels of the famous lost property office, an Aladdin’s cave of the weird and wonderful things people leave on buses, we left. Near the Bristol Royal Infirmary I’d heard there was another Banksy piece, a police sniper with a lad creeping up behind about to pop and inflated paper bag. When we got there it was gone. Apparently it was painted over by a rival street artist called King Robbo, or his followers. Not all was lost though as, in its place, is another piece. Titled Still Sane, it appeared in June 2012 around the time of the Jubilee and shows the Queen as Ziggy Stardust. Originally it was thought to be another Banksy but it is actually the work of Bristol artist Incwel.

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We did walk a little further, just in case I’d been wrong about the original location and were rewarded with another interesting work. Sadly we couldn’t get close enough for a decent photo but the girl on a swing made from two heart shaped balloons had all the hallmarks of Banksy. Later Googling told me it was actually by JPS, who’s work we’d seen in Frogmore Street earlier.

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On our way back to the Bear Pit we’d taken our lives in our hands and crossed the road to get a better view of both paintings and, being a little scared to cross back, we carried on past the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Round about then the rain we’d been waiting for all day finally began to fall. This might have put a damper on the day if we hadn’t found a painted Shaun the Sheep sculpture outside the hospital. This is not as unusual as it sounds. Shuan is one of Nick Parks’ creations from the Wallace and Gromit films and these were created in the Aardman Studios we’d almost walked past on Spike Island. In the summer Bristol hosted Shaun in the City, a trail of painted sculptures like Southampton’s Go Rhinos and Salisburys Barron’s Trail. The event, to raise money for the Bristol Children’s Hospital Charity, finished on 31 August so I hadn’t expected to see any Shaun’s. CJ was slightly embarrassed to find his mother was the sort of grown woman who jumps up and down squealing in delight at the sight of a painted sheep, but he did still take photos himself.

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Then it was back through the Bear Pit. When we got there, the rain had magically stopped. This time we took the Stokes Croft Tunnel where a busker serenaded us and we passed more graffiti, some of which told us not everyone is a Banksy fan. Stokes Croft takes its name from fourteenth century Bristol mayor John Stokes and is well known as a centre for art, music and independent shops along with the music college BIMM Bristol. In 2006 the Heritage Lottery Fund gave the area a grant to help with the problem of derelict housing and social problems and an activist group called The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft are trying to revive the area through community action and public art. Even so, it was the epicentre of the Stokes Croft riots in 2011 when protests over the opening of a Tesco Express store escalated after the police evicted squatters from a property opposite.

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Recently things have begun to improve, there’s been some building work, more students have moved to the area and the interesting bars and clubs have drawn young media professionals. The vibrant street art has also become popular with tourists like us. This was where we hoped to find our final Banksy of the day. As it turned out we found much, much more. First we passed the Full Moon Backpackers Hostel on the corner of Moon Street. The garden looked interesting with an Alice in Wonderland style mushroom sunshade come sculpture complete with caterpillar, but it was four o’clock, time was running out.

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Our first experience of Stokes Croft Street art was on the junction of City Road. It could hardly be missed as it took up the whole side of a building. Painted by Colombian street artist Stinkfish the simple black and yellow  face of a young girl with a few accents in red, blue and pink is striking to say the least. Around the corner was a wall of colour but, much as I liked it, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Stinkfish piece.

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Then we came to Hamilton House, a disused office building  turned into a Community Hub by philanthropist and builder Martin Connolly. Run by Co-exist it now houses charities, non profit organisations, and artists along with a cafe and bar. On the wall of the building  next door is a stunning mural. Created by Cosmo Sarson, the image of a breakdancing Christ may be irreverent, some might say blasphemous, but it was inspired by a breakdancing performance in 2004 for Pope John Paul II and I think it’s quite beautiful. To get a picture I had to go into the cafe garden, such as it is but I’m sure the locals are used to strangers wielding cameras by now.

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On the opposite wall was the Banksy we came to see but, as I was facing the wrong way, I didn’t realise at the time. Instead I went back to the road searching for the place I’d read I’d get the best view of Mild, Mild West. When, after a bit of walking too far I finally found Jamacia Street, I could have kicked myself for my mistake. Maybe I could have gone back to the cafe garden but I thought that would be pushing my luck. This is probably the most famous of all Banksy’s work it has been dubbed the Alternative Landmark of Bristol. It depicts a cuddly looking teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police and, some say , it’s a reference to the Bristol Riots of the early 1980’s. Others say it’s about  the strong arm tactics police adopted in the 1990’s to break up the warehouse parties that were popular at the time. Either way it was painted at some time in the 1990’s over the course of three days. Strangely for the reclusive artist, the work was completed in broad daylight.

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It seemed that almost every building in Stokes Croft sported some kind of artwork and, in Jamaica Road we found another large mural. A giant yellow and black Mad Hatter was always going to make me smile and, although I haven’t been able to find out who painted it, it did lead us to another interesting place. A little further down the road we spotted Stokes Croft Murals, an outdoor gallery behind a highly painted hoarding. Feeling a little nervous we crept through the open door. The place was packed with ladders, paints and other assorted artist’s materials and we could hear people talking in one of the large storage containers in the corner. Feeling a little like intruders we took a couple of photos that weren’t very successful because of the sun and left.

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By this time both of us were more or less graffitied out. It was time to meander back towards the Temple Meads. On our way back to the Bear Pit there was one more unusual piece of art. We were walking under 5102, the old County of Avon administrative offices now turned into flats, that bridges the road just before the roundabout, I looked to my left and spotted a face. It wasn’t a real face, nor was it a painting. This was a whole new level of street art, a bronze painted plaster cast of a face, almost like a death mask. Assuming it was the face of the artist it probably makes this the most recognisable urban artist in the city but I loved the cheek of it all the same. Hopefully he won’t get caught and prosecuted.

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On a different day, I get the feeling we could do the whole walk again and see something completely different, such is the ephemeral nature of street art. Maybe that’s the point of it, ever changing and evolving and certainly never boring.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

16 thoughts on “The Bear Pit, traffic jams and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft”

  1. Wow, I never knew about Bristol and its urban art.

    Marie, you have enough material for several books from all the photos and stories you are accrued on your blog. Enough to make one’s head spin.

    P. S. Lovely weather: I noticed the beautiful blue skies too!

    1. He was mine too. I’m not sure I’d want to live there though, the traffic is horrendous. It’s officially the most congested city in England.

  2. So much talent. Since I am not much for cities, I doubt I’d like to live there, but it certainly would be worth a visit. I wonder how often something get painted over to make way for something new?

  3. So much street art in one place, it’s amazing!
    How wonderful to have got to see one of the Shaun’s/
    I’m sure when we were in Bristol we took a train somewhere and on the way out of the station we saw a house which had been painted green with sheep on it too.
    Nice to pop into the station and put faces to names too.
    I like the buses too.
    Lisa x

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