Tensions over ‘targeted’ graffiti end huge street art ‘godsend’

Tensions caused by graffiti which ‘targeted’ critics of a sprawling urban display have been blamed for the scrapping of the entire project. National Highways approved the first legal painting on its sites near Lenton Lane and Thane Road in 2022, with the scheme organised by the authority and Beeston Street Art said to be one of the largest of its kind in the UK.

This led to the subway underneath the Clifton flyover hosting a wide array of paintings, including large cartoon illustrations and images of pop culture figures. In August 2023 the permitted zones were expanded to include an area around Clifton Bridge, but now the entirety of the scheme will be rescinded after National Highways said artists used graffiti to “target an individual” after some people in Clifton and Silverdale complained about the artwork.

Artist Ivan Bainbridge, 55, who was part of the group who set up the agreement, said he was disappointed by the authority’s decision, which he saw as “harsh”. “I think it harsh that everything has been taken away from us instead of just the bits people found offensive, which I would have understood. It feels very heavy handed to take away everything without any consultation,” he said.

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“A blanket decision has been made to remove it all from above. We were given a new spot under Clifton Bridge recently and in hindsight the roadside was probably a bad move as the original in Brown’s Tunnels was not visible and was fine.

“I want to show it in a good light. It genuinely has been very successful in allowing people to paint without risk of getting arrested, I go down and tidy it myself and 99 per cent of the general public I speak to absolutely love what we do. Most of us have families and we don’t want to get into trouble anymore, so to have a legal space like Brown’s [Tunnels] is a godsend.”

As part of the rules attached to the project, artists were required to keep their painting within the permitted zones, keep the area clean, and not paint anything offensive. Another initial requirement though was that artists should not paint anywhere visible to traffic, which Mr Bainbridge suggested had led to the complaints after the scheme was expanded to Clifton Bridge.

Ivan, who paints ‘Lisa’ graffiti in homage to his wife, said people had come from as far as America to view the street art. “I spoke to two nurses and before they always felt at risk before it looked dodgy and horrible, but now people pass by and enjoy the artwork or take photographs.

“Now people know that they’ll be somebody painting, and I’d say the majority of artists are decent people and want to give our culture a positive spin rather than see it dismissed, so we enjoy chatting to people about what we’re doing. There’s so many positives so it is a great shame, so we’d really hope for a consultation to try protect the work of hundreds of artists who wanted to do something for our city.”

National Highways said a formal one month’s notice to terminate the licence has been given, meaning any graffiti after midnight on October 21 would be illegal. However, it also said there were no current plans to paint over the mural in Brown’s Tunnels, with discussions taking place around the future of the existing artworks.

New graffiti will be dealt with according to National Highways’ standard maintenance responses, which the body says will take up funds that could be spent elsewhere such as tackling potholes. Ian Doust, West Midlands programme development manager for National Highways, said:“ Concerns were raised about the street art by some members of the Clifton and Silverdale community and we were asked to reconsider a decision regarding the licence that permits the Beeston Street Art Project to use certain structures as a canvas for artists.

“We have since been made aware of a personalised response from within the street art community with artworks intended to increase tensions with individuals in the local area being applied to our structures. This is simply unacceptable.

“It has put us in an extremely difficult position and we have chosen to withdraw the licence at this time. It’s disappointing that this scheme, which was intended to make a positive difference in the community, has not been successful.”

Ever since modern graffiti was popularised as protest art in America, spray painting has been an under the radar form of creative expression at the Clifton flyover site, according to Beeston Civic Society. The vast Brown’s Tunnels, which were built in 1958, were named after a bakery nearby and have been used extensively by artists for decades.

In response to the justification given by National Highways for shutting down the whole project, Mr Bainbridge added: “I think there was a lack of communication between both parties – a bit more planning and talking on both sides may have been the key. None of the artists or [National] Highways meant any offence but it’s a new venture that’s bound to have teething problems.”

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