Last weekend, when Bristol hosted the largest street art and graffiti festival in Europe, the local Co-op supermarket replaced entire shelves of food with cider. Only in Bedminster would Scrumpy take precedence over trendy Jamaican lager.
Upfest is a weekend long festival (23-25 July), during which over 300 artists, representing forty countries, converge on Bristol. Along the event route, which follows North Street through Bedminster, there were temporary wooden walls, a bus, and even an old train carriage to decorate. The list of artists taking part brings to mind noughties Myspace monikers, before government advertising convinced us all to use the name.surname format online: their names included, Cheo, 3rdeye, Ame72, K74, Kid 30, and Lokey.
Although many of the fixtures were temporary, the buildings that have been painted will remain until Upfest 2017. It is a sign of the event’s popularity that this year the organizers were offered more local wall space than they could actually paint over the weekend.
Jody's completed work.
Thanks to this permanent wall space, the imagery will be here all year round, brightening our daily routines. Unlike elsewhere, where graffiti tends to be temporary, these pieces tend to be left intact for the whole year out of respect, and are not painted over or annotated.
Whilst a big part of the weekend involves drinking cider in the sun and watching artists as they work, Upfest also aims to engage young children with street art. So this year, the team introduced their very own Mr Men character, calling on local graffiti artist, Cheo, to create “Mr Graff”.
Mr Tickle meets his new friend Mr Graff.
The large side wall of the Tobacco Factory, which previously depicted a rather sexualised girl, is now teeming with Mr Men characters sitting in front of a cartoon Clifton Suspension Bridge. Stephen Hayles, the organiser of the event, told me that children tend to be good for festivals, as they encourage us all to moderate our behaviour. (It is clear why this might be a concern for Upfest, as most of the route is residential.) The festival also supports Nacoa (the National Association for Children of Alcoholics), and thus caters for children in more concrete ways, too.
Another new addition to the route is The Other Art Fair at Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery. The two separate events were planned for the same weekend this year; so, instead of clashing, they decided to collaborate. Hayles argued that, by linking the two events, Upfest would be able to reach a demographic that might not ordinarily be attracted to a street art event.
He did have some reservations about the collaboration, however. “I wonder whether the gap between us is too big,” he says. “There’s quite a jump – even our contemporary artists are quite pictorial, and the more abstract ones have their roots in graffiti.” And the murals that spill out onto the street are a far cry from the neat booths of The Other Art Fair.
Nevertheless, we are fortunate to have such a unique event hosted in Bedminster. Stephen told me that whilst other cities have tried to recreate what is happening here in Bristol, they tend to fail because they go all in for a large event. Upfest began back in 2008 as a much smaller affair and relied on a “bit of blagging”. Over the years the locals have gradually acclimatised to the weekend of street art and revelry.
Whilst the event now draws 30,000 visitors and is sponsored by Relentless Energy Drink, it still feels low-key. I spotted only one Relentless DJ booth and a few crates of cans. Perhaps because the route is so long and fragmented, there seems to be no single focal point.
All in all, the weekend offers a unique opportunity for world renowned artists to gather together and hang out with crowds of appreciative fans. I’m looking forward to Upfest 2017, when North Street’s facades will be reimagined once again.
All images courtesy of Upfest.