“It’s A Brum Ting” has been the signature of the past fortnight as Birmingham hosted the Commonwealth Games. So what is it about Birmingham, why is it so great? Armed with a cheap cheap day return rail ticket I set out several weeks back to discover what Goldie, Trevor Francis and Banksy (might have) appreciated about the UK’s “Second City” ™.
The art started right outside the train station, FokaWolf was well represented as was Brummy staple Tempo, of whom more later.
Gent 48 is a giant of Birmingham’s street art scene so perhaps it was either fitting, or just inevitable, that the first mural spotted was by Gent48, painted in January this year when Birmingham was sorting out the torch relay for the opening of the Commonwealth Games. The mural features Haseebah Abdullah, England’s first hijab-wearing boxing coach and Salma Bi, who founded the first all Asian women’s cricket team.
The one flag planted in my vague, unplanned plan was to locate Birmingham’s 2019 Banksy. Tick the box, complete the set. The route took me through a cluster of architecturally fascinating buildings. London by staid by comparison, so many planning luddites have ensured our post war rebuilding really lacks the surprise, flair and modernism a waddle around the centre of Birmingham will reveal. The interior of the Birmingham Library is so worth exploring for its design as well as its exhibition content.
The route to the Banksy had already been mapped out by the Charm Bracelet trail by Mick Thacker and Mark Renn.
What’s to say about the Banksy on Vyse Street. Great placement, great use of the street furniture and a poignancy likely to rise as rampant inflation and fuel poverty drives up homelessness next winter. It is well preserved and thankfully no gallerist twat has laid his grubby “Preserving street art for private collectors” hands on it. So far. It’s a pig to photograph clearly and parts of its execution are a tad indifferent.
Banksy confirmed this stencil as genuine with a website message saying “God bless Birmingham. In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars and a lighter – without him ever asking for anything.” – Banksy
Arriving in Birmingham I expected graffiti; thanks to an awareness of its recent history of street art festivals I expected murals; I wasn’t fully prepared for the brilliant explosion of sticker art. Every lamppost, traffic light, street sign and pole had been claimed by sticker art, one of my favourites being the huge variety of brace faces by Tempo who we used to see fairly frequently in London 10 or so years ago.
When Tempo was up in London our main delight was his large circular non permissioned paste-ups so finding a number of larger spraypainted murals was a pleasure.
Other sticker artists included Wreck1, Lisk Bot, Never A Servant, the legend Fokawolf and a very impressive scattering of the playful and rare (to me at least) street art of Pahnl.
Birmingham embraces adventurous and exciting architecture but the ancient brick and steam midlands’ post-industrial relics co-exist alongside the modern. Graff was popping up in some breathtaking spots and with more canals than Venice (Brummies say), canal-side vistas in particular are worth hunting out.
The urban huddle of car parks, streets and old factories in Digbeth just to the east of the city centre forms an amazing gallery. It is dominated by amazing murals, some appear to be permission murals liable to change, some look like relics of street art festivals with tags acknowledging “City of Colours” (2014 – 16) and “HighViz Festival” (2019-21) as well as our perpetual favourite – get up and get away with it.
Chance plays a key role in street art spotting in a city you haven’t explored before. There is the chance of what artists are “up” at that moment; your experience, your sample will possibly or probably be completely different to that of anyone else before or after. Also, what route do you take across the urban spider web of streets, alleys and paths? From A, B may be sought by going right then left; or you can turn left then go right, that’s two different street art galleries right there. While slaloming through the mainly industrial streets from Digbeth back to the train station, a glance over the shoulder into an open door revealed a delicious collection of political and tribute murals inside a fortuitously empty car park.
A good street art city should house a collection which is too vast for you to cover in your limited time, especially on a one day visit. It should also have change, renewal, vibrant health and life and Birmingham’s street art scene has both of these. It is hard to put it better than Birmingham’s own Prince Of Darkness when Black Sabbath reunited last Sunday (Paranoid starts 1 min exactly) for a spine tingling surprise set (BBC iPlayer, certain areas only, go to 2 hours exactly, next 3 months) at the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony.
“You are the best…..Birmingham for EVVVAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH”
Banksy Website (please tell Banksy you found him through Graffoto.co.uk)
All photos: Dave Stuart