How street art brought a troubled community together

When a Tesco Express opens in most city suburbs, it’s good news. After all, the convenience of being able to pop in and pick up groceries after a long day at work is hard to resist. But when Tesco opened in Stokes Croft, Bristol, in 2011, all hell broke loose.

That’s because Stokes Croft isn’t like most suburbs. Even in a creative, modern city like Bristol, that was known for its culture of shunning big business in favour of supporting local suppliers way before it became trendy, Stokes Croft stands out from the crowd.

Here, the people think and act differently.

They are creative to their core. They are diverse and, often, from poor backgrounds. They are activists - and proud of it. There is one thing that represents everything that Stokes Croft stands for: the street art that covers almost every wall, shop front and blank space in the area.

It’s not a few sketches done with a can of spray paint. The street art consists of incredibly detailed, well-planned and usually politically motivated murals.

Perhaps the best known of these is the one by the king of politically-motivated street art, Banksy.

The internationally-acclaimed anonymous artist’s mural 'The Mild Mild West' depicts a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police and was painted in response to clashes between the police and the community over unlicensed raves in the 1990s.

The mural set a precedent in the community for activism using street art - and Banksy’s artwork, one of a number across the city, can still be seen painted proud in the centre of Stokes Croft today - although it’s been retouched after being vandalised a few times.

When planning permission for the small Tesco store was granted, there was uproar. The way the community saw it, profit was being put before people, and it made them angry.

Read: Henry Moore on why humans need art to live

But despite the community’s fierce objections, the Tesco store was opened in 2011. For some communities, that might have been the end of the story. Not in Stokes Croft.

Peaceful protests were planned, which descended into full-blown riots that made national news, with blame being cast on both sides.

Although tempers in the community cooled off over time, a steadfast determination not to be defeated remained. So the community fought back in one of the best and most powerful ways they knew: by adorning the walls with street art.

One of the most prominent artworks was a 'Think local, Boycott Tesco' mural that was painted on a huge wall opposite the store, facing the traffic that comes out of the city centre into the area.

The mural included the powerful statistic that 93 per cent of local people surveyed said no to a Tesco in Stokes Croft. It was hard for anyone to walk into the shop and not see it.  

Seven years later, the Tesco store has managed to stay open - but the mural, and boycott from the community, remains.

Leading the activism in Stokes Croft is artist Chris Chalkley. He founded the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in 2006, based on the belief that "rather than preventing creativity, street art can be used to put a bit of love into the general environment" and that "by giving people space to play, places can be made more beautiful".

Chris has witnessed the ways in which the street art has unified the community of Stokes Croft, particularly during troubled times.

"Across the world we see increasing commercialisation and corporations wielding more power than governments - but Stokes Croft is a rare beast," says Chris. "Here, everything is community-focussed. It’s a bit messy, and a bit wild, but that’s what makes it such a special and exciting place to live.

"There is a strong visual culture in Stokes Croft which is part of what makes it so different. So often the most side-lined people in society are denied a voice. The street art of Stokes Croft gives that back to the people in our community - that’s why it matters so much."

However, Bristol City Council isn’t always as supportive of artists using buildings in Stokes Croft as a canvas for free expression.

Their zero-tolerance approach to street art that’s deemed illegal has been well documented in local media, and on many occasions freshly-painted murals have been promptly painted over by council officials.

Some local businesses have also expressed that they disagree with such widespread street art - citing concerns that damage has been done to historical stonework as a result of graffiti being removed so frequently.

However, other Stokes Croft businesses have wholly embraced the street art culture, with some commissioning artists to paint the fronts of their bars and cafes.

This includes The Canteen, a music venue, bar and restaurant that has an enormous mural of Jesus breakdancing in its front seating area.

"The Council only approve of the street art that makes money - like the Banksy mural that brings in tourism," Chris added. "We continue to clash with them over our right to paint, but nothing will stop us fighting for what we believe is right.

"It’s shocking that huge billboards advertising for corporations are deemed perfectly ok, but politically-motivated street art is not. With austerity being forced upon the poorest among us, as well as so many other important global issues like climate change, activism through our art is more important than ever."

Quiz: A history of art and protest

The murals in response to Tesco opening are some of the most well known, but others have also caused a stir in recent years.

In 2017, a large mural showing prime minister Teresa May snogging Donald Trump with the tagline "kissing the NHS goodbye" appeared.

The mural echoed a piece done the year before in favour of remaining in the European Union showing then London mayor Boris Johnson kissing Donald Trump with the words "not in for this".

As well as standing up for its people, street art, it seems, is the Stokes Croft way of commenting on society at large, and echoing the values that the people who live there believe in so vehemently.

When renowned news and documentary photographer Adam Gray moved from Leeds to just outside Stokes Croft, he was immediately inspired by the street art.

While working for Bristol-based news agency SWNS, he embarked on a project to document the Stokes Croft murals and collate them into one project.

His series of images depict how although life goes on around the murals, they frame the vibe and mind-set of the area and are consistently in the background, reminding the world of what Stokes Croft stands for.

"Bristol's thriving art and music scene was a big reason why I moved to the city and I loved that Stokes Croft was always so lively, interesting and constantly evolving," says Adam.

"I was fascinated by the street art murals and couldn’t help noticing how the art gave such a politically-minded community a sense of pride and purpose. I really wanted to document that as I knew if I was captivated by it then others would be too."

Many of the murals are a direct comment on their environment (like the Boycott Tesco one) and others are more abstract, but equally compelling.

"From the Banksy piece to the breakdancing Jesus, when you’re in Stokes Croft you’re never more than metres away from a piece of street art that offers some kind of comment on society," Adam added.

"I think because of that, the activist mind set becomes a little contagious when you’re living and socialising in the area.

"I’ve now moved to New York for work and I chose to live in Bushwick, known for its street art, as it was the closest vibe to Stokes Croft I could find.

"I worry about Stokes Croft losing its identity if proper measures aren’t put in place to protect the artwork and stop property developers and big businesses moving in. However, I hope the community is strong and fierce enough to stop it ever becoming another cookie-cutter high street. That would be a tragedy."

Those who grew up near Stokes Croft have seen it emerge from a once run-down, impoverished area seen as a 'no-go' zone by some into a popular tourist destination.

Bristol-based illustrator Jo Wheeler spent years living in the area, and being inspired by the walls that surrounded her.

"I love the street art in Stokes Croft, it’s what gives it such a distinct personality - and that’s so important in this day and age. Although there has been trouble in times gone by, I’ve seen a definite change in the way the area is perceived

"It was once seen as run-down but has now earned a cultural status and draws in the crowds who want to see the street art for themselves. As an artist myself, I feel really inspired when I see how the urban landscape is used as a canvas. It’s like the streets have become an open air art gallery - but one with a political message to take away."

The fight to paint freely on the buildings in Stokes Croft lives on, and there is concern in the community that more big businesses might seek to follow in Tesco’s footprints.

But the fierce activism that has become part of Stokes Croft’s soul isn’t going anywhere, and the community is fighting harder than ever to paint their own future.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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