‘Missed opportunity’ as artists rue loss of legal graffiti area

An artist has spoken of his disappointment over the approaching end of a huge legal street art scheme in Nottingham. National Highways’ first legal street art scheme started at Brown’s Tunnel’s under the Clifton flyover in 2022, but it will end on Saturday, October 21, after some artists allegedly used graffiti to “target an individual” in response to Clifton and Silverdale residents complaining about the expanding artwork.

David Bird, 52, who created several of the colourful skulls in the area, is one of the artists now rushing to make the most of the time left before painting becomes prohibited again. “I started coming here as a kid in the 1980s to take photos of all the artwork, so when I was told we could legally paint here I thought it was brilliant,” Mr Bird, who had just started a new landscape painting near Queens Drive Park and Ride, said.

In August 2023 the permitted area was extended to around Clifton Bridge, which temporarily hosted graffiti which allegedly targeted a local resident, who later spoke out about the apparent tensions between artists and locals. Mr Bird, who has made around 15 trips into Nottingham to legally paint at the site every couple of weeks, said the highway authority’s decision was a “heavy-handed” one which collectively punished all of the artists and questioned why the legal zone could not be rolled back to the initial Brown’s Tunnels area.

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“I felt if they had thought it was a failure all of this time they wouldn’t have expanded it so recently to the Clifton Bridge. I can see why people would be offended by graffiti outside of their home as I wouldn’t want that directed at me, but why couldn’t National Highways calm the situation down and talk to both sides before deciding what to do.

“Why couldn’t we have to apply for a licence that would deter people who want to break the rules. Nobody was bothered before when it was just in the tunnels, so why can’t it be rolled back. It has made the tunnels look less dodgy and threatening and parents with kids come up and ask what is going on because they enjoy seeing us paint.”

Another skull artwork painted by Mr Bird in Brown's Tunnels
Another skull artwork painted by Mr Bird in Brown’s Tunnels

Mr Bird believed National Highway’s scrapping of the project was a missed opportunity for the city, which could have followed the example of parts of London or Berlin by embracing the art. “There’s no one else for me to really go and do the same thing, it was a blank canvas. It could have become something even more special with some more investment, all most artists have done is put their time and money into expressing themselves here.

“It has been liberating for me and I think it would have been able to grow into something more if given the time. A lot of cities in Europe have a very strong street art culture and have parts of the city that are known for it. Nottingham could have become similar and there was nothing to say this couldn’t have become a tourist attraction – people already came to take photos and paint.”

Mr Bird said he would reluctantly stop visiting the tunnels and look elsewhere after the licence expires. He said the space had been a haven for artists who wanted to avoid getting into trouble for expressing themselves, especially for female artists like his own daughter, who had felt more safe painting in the daylight.

He explained the rescinding of the licence would not stop those determined to continue using the site, which had always been “the place to go”, but would lower the quality by scaring off experienced artists and rushing others. “It will probably mean some of the older writers, who have families and don’t want to get into trouble, will leave and anyone else will have to rush because of the fear of being caught.”

National Highways reiterated on Wednesday, October 18, that there were no current plans to paint over the mural in the tunnels, with discussions taking place on the future of the existing artworks. New graffiti will be dealt with according to the government agency’s standard maintenance responses, which the body says will take up funds that could be spent elsewhere such as tackling potholes.

Speaking previously, 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.”

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