The story of street art in Britain

Friday 25 May 2018

In the 1980s and 90s, you'd typically see train carriages, bridges and underpasses in Britain decorated with graffiti. But it was all rather forgettable, the efforts of thousands of anonymous spray-painters blurred into one. Then Banksy came along.

Banksy's identity may have been secret, but his satirical, subversive works - carried out in his distinctive stencilling technique - captured and stirred the public's imagination, with his feisty slogans ("Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable") inspiring a new wave of graffiti merchants, or guerrilla - or street - artists. In recent years, inventive, attention-grabbing art has mushroomed across the streets of Britain, from gritty urban neighbourhoods to quirky seaside towns. 

VisitBritain©Guo Ping

The British capital is particularly flush with eye-catching street art, and strolling through the buzzing back-alleys of Shoreditch, east London's bubbling hub of creativity, you'll find yourself clicking away on your smartphone or camera, especially in and around Brick Lane, a stretch also famous for its curry houses and bagel shops. Shoreditch Street Art Tours will point out work from artists including Banksy, Eine, Sweet Toof and Stik on their absorbing walks of the East End. 

A colourful walkway hidden in London

To see one of London's oldest and largest pieces of street art, hop on the London Overground railway from Shoreditch High Street to Dalston Junction, where there's a giant mural celebrating the 1983 Hackney Peace Carnival, a multicultural spectacle that called for nuclear weapons to be banned during the height of the Cold War. Restored in recent years, the mural appeared on the cover of the hit album 'Home' by Hackney band Rudimental. 

Another London musician stars on arguably the capital's most photographed al fresco artwork. Crafted by Australian artist Jimmy C (James Cochran) in 2013, David Bowie's face graces the wall of a department store opposite the Tube station in Brixton, the south London district where the rock legend grew up. It's become something of a shrine since Bowie's death two years ago. 

Bristol touts itself as the nation's 'Street Art Capital' and few would disagree. Banksy, after all, hails from this historic port city in England's south-west, and on guided street art tours with Where The Wall, you'll admire some of his best work while learning more about the artistic styles and techniques used by him and other mavericks in Bristol's left-field Stokes Croft neighbourhood. 

Stokes Croft

Although graffiti is still technically illegal in Britain, the authorities not only take a more relaxed view of it nowadays, they sometimes help fund it. Bristol's council was one of the backers of the See No Evil project, which is billed as Britain's most ambitious permanent street art scheme, helping to revitalise the city-centre thoroughfare of Nelson Street with an array of murals sprouting above bars, cafes and galleries.

Come to Bristol on the last weekend of July and you'll be here for Upfest – Europe’s largest Street Art and Graffiti Festival. Staged annually in the inner-city districts of Bedminster and Southville, it welcomes over 300 artists from 45 countries, with their kaleidoscopic work lighting up dozens of walls and buildings. 

The north of England has also embraced street art big-time, with Manchester's hip and happening Northern Quarter splashed with Insta-worthy delights. As well as a huge portrait of Anthony Burgess (the Mancunian author of A Clockwork Orange), you'll see painted clusters of the city's emblem - the worker bee - everywhere, plus the murals of the Cities of Hope, an initiative that sees artists, British and international, working with charities raising awareness of social justice issues like homelessness, mental health and LGBTQ rights. Local blogger Hayley Flynn (aka Skyliner) is a fountain of knowledge on the NQ's artistic treasures and offers fascinating guided walks.  


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A 50-minute rail journey from Manchester, Leeds claims to have the country's tallest piece of street art. Designed by Cbloxx and Aylo (Joy Gilleard and Hayley Garner), 'Athena Rising' soars 47m - the equivalent of 10 London double-decker buses – and features an owl, a moon and a crown on an office building near Leeds' main train station.  

The south coast of England has its fair share of cutting-edge street art, notably in Brighton, where colourful, politically-charged and rib-tickling stuff decorates the labyrinth of lanes tucked inland from its pebbled seafront. 

North Laine, Brighton

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