Currently midway through a four month run at Bristol’s M-Shed Museum, Vanguard explores the development of the city’s graffiti and street art scene and its global impact from the early 1980s until today. The exhibition opens with the story of the birth of graffiti in the city and how the spark lit by Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and the Z-Boys was kindled into a flame at the Dugout youth club in Barton Hill. That story has been told many times before, both in print and on film, but the exhibition makes extensive use of writers’ black books and ephemera to provide a fresh and alternative perspective on those nascent days. There is an almost inevitable discrepancy with any survey show between the extensive size of the subject matter and the limited physical space in which that history can be told. But anyone digging hard enough through the photo montages of street pieces from years gone by can still find work by often overlooked, but indisputably important, players such as MBA/DBZ, who were instrumental in rebuilding and growing the scene back in the 1990s, and Crew Mess who ruled Bristol’s rooftops in the 2000s.

The exhibition includes a re-creation of Alterior which, akin to New York’s Alife, combined streetwear, paint supplies and gallery space. Their schedule of solo exhibitions in 2000 has proven to have been particularly prophetic having included Banksy, Mr Jago, Vermin (interviewed) and Paris. On show are works from that year by each of those artists, who at the time were little known outside the city’s close-knit graffiti community. The raw, callow talent evident in these canvases contrasts with contemporary work by the same respective artists in a later room and highlights how far each have developed over the preceding 21 years. Alongside those current works are Rowdy’s (interviewed) cycle of abstract paintings depicts 25 locations around the city each capturing a successive hour of the day/night. The series evokes the multifaceted and polysemic nature of urban environments, and Bristol in particular, with different locales meaning different things to graffiti writers, workers and revellers depending on the time of the day.

The Bridging The Contemporary room demonstrates the conceptual breadth of the current studio work being created by artists with roots in the streets. Sickboy’s (interviewed) painting/sculpture/installation takes viewers on an increasingly hallucinogen trip through an expanding number of dimensions; while, Conor Harrington’s (interviewed) imposing portrait of a figure shrouded in a union flag addresses the UK’s diminished political voice since leaving the EU and the associated collateral damage which is being caused to communities in Northern Ireland. The exhibition closes out with a focus on how artists are increasingly utilising their work to empower communities and bring about meaningful change around the world. Swoon’s (interviewed) portrait depicts Walki, a young boy living in the village of Bigones where her Konbit Shelter Project (featured) established an ongoing sustainable building initiative in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. Short films are also shown within an immersive, mirrored room detailing a range of ventures including 1Up Crew’s coral installation in Bali and Icy and Sot’s response to the ongoing climate emergency with a literal depiction of our homes being on fire. 

The exhibition continues until 31st October 2021 at M-Shed, Princes Wharf, Wapping Rd, Bristol, BS1 4RN.

Photo credits: feralthings.