What happens when a city is forced into playing by the rules of a subculture it barely understands?
“Bowls dead.” read a text message on my phone early one morning. That, in its purest form, was how I found out David Bowie had passed away.
Whilst the world mourned, I spent a moment trying to translate what the message meant, before more rational messages came in from friends and other sources breaking the news of a generation. And after the initial shock of the news settles in, you sit there wondering why a guy you haven’t spoken to in over 5 years felt he had to be the one to break that news to you, and how he managed to get it so wrong.
It’s because breaking news first precedes both fact and spell-check in the age of the internet. We’re programmed to share big news. And when news spreads, so do rumours, debates, conversations, and most recently, offense. Suddenly, everyone you know becomes an art expert, people call you names on twitter, your funny Instagram friend makes an ironic joke, someone brings Brexit into it, a Tory councillor makes an out of touch remark, someone paints over a mural and a window cleaner saves the fucking day.
The last 10 days in Hull has been much like that one episode of The Simpsons where Lisa discovers the angel bones at the site of a new mall construction; sending the whole town in to a hysterical meltdown, only for it to turn out to be an elaborate hoax. Only this time it wasn’t a hoax, Banksy came to Hull, painted a stencil on a bridge and then managed to make everyone shout at each other all weekend – online, at least.
So why was half of Hull excited to have this new painting? Why were the other half so angry about it? And why do I think it’s important that we try to make sense of it all?
WHO IS BANKSY?
Let’s try making some sense of Banksy.
Like most people in their late 20’s, my first introduction to ‘a Banksy’ was seeing it on a canvas, hanging on a wall in someone’s bedroom. It’s unfamiliar, so naturally you ask who it is. They tell you it’s Banksy. You ask them who Banksy is and so they snigger and tell you that nobody knows who Banksy is – apart from their mate who met him in London one time and swore they “wouldn’t say out.”
Truth be told, only a handful of people know who Banksy is, though people aren’t without their theories – the most tangible being that he’s the brainchild of Massive Attack frontman Robert Del Naja. I’d doubt anybody’s ever going to admit to being Banksy, just because of the hype the anonymity generates and, you know, the long string of legal implications.
Banksy is said to have begun his graffiti career in Bristol in the early 1990’s, his style originating in freehand before adopting the stencil approach that gave his work it’s iconic look. Towards the late 90’s early 00’s, Banksy’s work exploded.
His messages are never too cryptic, they exist in the right space that allows people to enjoy their cleverness whilst rewarding you with an insight on society, political themes, capitalism, war, hypocrisy or greed – an ideal transaction for its passing audience. People relate to these messages and in some senses, pin their own agendas to them, because who doesn’t agree that class systems exist, that we’re enslaved by technology or that war isn’t always the answer? Regular people felt able to relate to the words that rats were painting on walls or that monkeys had written on signs around their necks. This happened on a worldwide scale, his work became so popular that some pieces were selling for more than 20x their value. Celebrities and art buyers alike were desperate to get their hands on it. Banksy quite quickly embodied popular culture.
MAKE SENSE OF WHY HULL LOVED IT
So, when the people of Hull woke up to the news that Banksy had painted one of his works in their city, the excitement and subsequent hype felt all too justified. These things don’t happen in Hull much, do they.
People were rushing to claim ownership of it – not literally, but in the sense that they could each attribute some association to it, to touch it, to photograph it, to experience it first hand, to give themselves license to join the conversation. We do the same thing when a person that we kind-of knew dies. Racking our brains trying to remember times we’d have spoken to them, met them or seen them around somewhere. It makes for morbid thinking but it’s in our nature to want to claim some ownership of a situation. It’s in these moments that it can become little about the matter at hand and more about the selfishness of the situation. In this case, you could see that for many it wasn’t so much about the art on the wall as much as it was about the celebrity of the occasion. This is when things begin to get conflicted as people take a position on the matter. What began as a mutual excitement for something new quickly turns in to a debate about the legibility of it.
I’d seen comments online labelling people ‘posers’ for getting pictures with the mural. “You don’t know anything about street art. Why are you even there?” People being berated for missing the obvious political message that Hull was predominantly a leave voting city in the referendum. “People queuing to see the Banksy unaware that he’s mocking them all, idiots.”
The more that momentum gathered online for the doubters, the louder the conversation seemed to get – especially for those being snobby or nasty towards others for taking interest. I put this down to people deliberately wanting to go against the grain to fast-track themselves as a shepherd amongst sheep but it turns out this is another human behaviour that we all possess called being a nob.
Things took a turn for me when I spoke to one of my friends who’s close to the Hull Graffiti scene. I thought that he’d be over the moon at the news that Banksy had painted in Hull and if I told you he didn’t laugh in my face, I’d be a liar. Once the laughter subsided I was treated to a crash course on the ‘graff scene’ in Hull. And how most people involved in it would like to see the mural “hit or bombed”; both terms for someone else’s work being painted over. My knowledge of graffiti at this point was next to non-existent and my only association to it was a t-shirt my Dad brought me back from Salou in 2001. It had a little cartoon graffiti artist on the front of it and I never wore it for fear of getting the shit kicked out of me.
I wondered why one of the most famous street artists in the world was held in such low-regard in the graff world in contrast to how much excitement I’d seen that there was for him around the city.
THE BANKSY NEGATIVE
It was the accessibility to Banksy’s work that made him a household name, and as the Banksy brand grew larger, so did the divide between Street Art and Graffiti. There has been a stigma around graffiti for a long time with some painters serving time in prison for their art, and still they’ll stand defiant in their pursuit to continue painting. Suddenly, there was a street artist who not only had the backing of the public, but seemingly had the backing of the authorities also. A double-standard began to emerge as people called for Banksy’s work to be protected whilst in the same breath, calling for graffiti to be eradicated from their walls, back alleys and derelict buildings. A whole sub-culture undermined on the whim of art’s arch nemesis; subjection. It felt like the rule book was thrown out the window when it came to Banksy as the demand for street art grew and the stigma around graffiti continued.
The praise and success that Banksy was receiving seemed unjust and didn’t sit well with the graff scene, especially on the opinion that there were better painters out there creating work that seemed to outshine Banksy’s – in both technique and endeavour. I was told this sentiment would be shared throughout the graffiti scene up and down the UK, but none more so than Hull at this moment in time.
HULL GRAFF SCENE
Hull has an immensely rich heritage when it comes to graffiti. It’s difficult to grasp just how influential it was both locally and in the UK scene. The scene in Hull began around 1983/84 with some rumours circulating that Norman Cook was the first to paint a full colour piece in Hull before his career took off playing the bass and DJ’ing, I wonder how that worked out for him? – He was then closely followed by Hull painter, Shade.
Vrok, Bigcig, Whop, Skeg & Mr. Joe. _ DRA & TSB _ Cove 2016
Vrok & Noh1 _ DRA _ Square Wall 2011
Around the same time, break dance crews were beginning to adopt the form, the “Street Elite” & “Soul Sonic Rocker” crews began a tag war in and around the avenues area. The scene continued to grow and painters were popping up all over the city; names like Quaz, Elite, Equal, Pinky, Joker, and Perv to name a few. At the turn on the 90’s, painters began forming crews of their own, two of the most notable were the RFM crew and the DRA who each represented the East & West side of the city. I should also mention the TCF crew, who have painters from both Hull and Bristol which acts as a link between the two cities. Perhaps this played a part in Banksy’s decision to paint here. This was a momentous time in the Hull graff scene that saw both sides of the city battling it out on the walls. After it’s explosive start, the scene took a short hiatus in the early to mid 90’s with only a handful of painters remaining active – but this was just the calm before the storm.
In 1992, on the corner of Bankside and Clough road (The location will be better known now for the ‘Goals’ 5-a-side pitches), the Sissons paint factory of Hull closed its doors for good and the building left derelict. This is where the scene exploded. Graffiti artists would trespass on to the site, painting the interior of the warehouses over time and developing their unique styles. The paint always remained interior until the winter of 1997 when painters began to spread their work to the outdoors of the site showcasing the artists of Hull and the accessibility of the buildings to those who passed. In doing so, the site became an iconic location both locally and to travelling graff artist from other cities. All this could ferment due to Hull’s isolated location, one of the rare times that this has benefitted the city. I’m told that painters from all-over the world came to Hull to paint there and were blown away at the complexity and unique style of the work that had developed, and suddenly, those walls didn’t feel so derelict anymore.
Eco & Paris _ Warehouse 1997
There’s a generation of painters in Hull who now have a legacy to upkeep. People say you can tell where a painter is from by the way that they paint, their work acts almost as a form of ID, both stylistically and geographically. I find it insane that Hull has had this heritage for over 30 years and I’m only now learning about it. Most, like myself, wouldn’t be able to spot this culture even if it was right there in front of them, which ironically, it has been. A fascinating and unique sub-culture ‘hidden’ in plain sight across the city – it’s only now with this understanding that I start to see it. I also see the reasoning why this is a scene that harbours resentment for people like Banksy – albeit misplaced maybe.
The situation in this world is not too dissimilar to the music industry; artists can spend years going on a journey to develop their style and finding new ways to express themselves only to be overlooked for a new mainstream act because it sells more tickets or puts more bums on seats – or most importantly, benefits those in charge. It feels unproductive to berate Banksy for the pedestal that the world has put him on.
Is it spiteful? Yeah.
Is it justified? Maybe.
Is it Banksy’s fault? Absolutely not.
DEATH AND RESSURECTION
Someone must always pay for something happening, mustn’t they? It wouldn’t be any fun if someone didn’t overreact and let their emotions get the better of them. Life’s better with those types of characters. Like when you go in Asda and see that someone has shmushed one of the crème eggs in the display for absolutely no reason at all, and now a sugary residue bonds the rest of them together like a bunch of grapes. That makes me happy. Or when you go to grab a multipack of pop and see that someone has stabbed their finger through the cellophane on the top, I like that too. I like it because there is a person behind those decisions, a trouble-maker. The one who always has to take it too far. The one who got British Bulldog banned at break time. The one who sprays chrome paint all over a mural in the midst of its popularity. As much as it goes against my nature, I still like these types of people, even though I feel disappointed with some of the things they do. We should like them because part of us is that troublemaker. It seems to be a reoccurring theme that no matter what Banksy does and where he goes, divide and conflict must follow.
There’s an acceptance to the defacing within the graff scene, not out of callous but because that’s the nature of their game. All painters will have had their work bombed or hit at some time or other, it’s likely they’ll have done the same themselves. It’s a cutthroat culture and these painters create time bombs that could last anything from a few hours to even a few years. It’s this acceptance that I find most endearing – the constant need to continue creating and evolving against the odds. You have to respect that. I reiterate. You have to respect that.
This acceptance isn’t bred in to most of us and understandably so, which is why I felt upset when I heard the news that it had been hit. It seemed a shame to lose something that many found enjoyment in – however much losing it made sense in the graff world. Soon after, peoples’ disappointment turned to anger and fingers were pointing in all directions – some towards the culprit and others towards Hull, blaming it for being Hull and for being ambitionless and for, well, existing. How are we meant to react? It’s confusing. Especially when you’re getting angry that someone graffiti’d over a graffiti that was already graffiti’d over another graffiti. Heads gone. This is how a city reacts when it’s forced to play by the rules of a sub culture it barely understands.
I’ll hop off the fence for a moment and tell you that I was pleased to have woken to the news that someone managed to salvage the mural. And that it now lives behind some temporary Perspex.
I’m happy with this, not least because of the defiance but because it offers up a second opportunity for a shot at challenging change. To make a dent in the stigma around graff or street art, or whatever you want to call it. Let’s start with Art.
Banksy may just be another painter to the graff world but what I see here is an opportunity. You have a city’s attention, they’re queueing up to catch a glimpse of street art, some with kids in tow. They’re sharing photos of it, generating conversation and debate – they’re up in arms about losing it and are actively fighting the council on their next steps. This seems like the perfect opportunity for both sides to find middle ground and to fight to keep it there, because as long as that paint sits on that bridge, so does the right to defend the paint that’s beneath it. It might not belong to Banksy but it belongs to someone in Hull and just maybe, signing a death warrant for the Banksy mural also signs the death warrant for all the work on the walls up and down the city. See this for the great opportunity it is. To use this momentum to educate people of the past and present of graff culture in Hull – and if you’ve been paying attention you’ll now know we’re not short of it! And this isn’t just on the graff scene, it’s on the rest of us too. If you were there this weekend to photograph the piece, or spoke about it to friends, voiced an opinion online or just had enough interest in the story to read about it then why not take an hour or so to look in to the history of the Hull graff scene?
The Crews: dra, rfm, tcf, ufos, tsb, ic.
(Some of) The painters: Leebo, Perv, Pinky, Risk, Ziml, Scan72, Paris, Eko, Admas, Si2, Hray, Mard, Hart, Sona, Cubs, Orgie, Skeg, Mr. Joe, Api, Keys, Hek. The list goes on deeper.
We owe it to ourselves, and the city of Hull owes it to them.
Words: Louis Jopling.
Special Thanks for Ollie Marshall – Spray Creative