Every year I go to Nuart Festival, which is 9 years and counting now, I feel I’m pitted against my own beliefs in the opening night “Fight Club” pub debate. Each year, founder Martyn Reed curates and creates the 19-year old Nuart Festival around a theme, and whether it is an issue facing street art or a historical rebellious art form where Reed ponders street art’s place, the Fight Club debate is where we hash it out. This year, the argument was Brand New vs Retro: has street art has hit an ending point in need of re-examination and re-appropriation of its own history to stay effective or will new modes of creating art within the guise of “street art” better situate it into the future? I’m not a retro person, and yet here I was, arguing for artisan methodologies and days of yore. Street art was better when there was something to fight, an art structure that wasn’t about gallery shows and museum retrospectives, but about illegality and tags and graffiti on subway cars. 

HYURO Brian Tallman Photography BKT4570 2019
Even though I’m much more into the Brand New, I’m always impressed by how Nuart finds new ways for art to connect with everyday people, social activism and inclusion. The Festival always balances the theme throughout its programming, as artists and speakers in the Nuart Plus program emobody nuanced examples of street art’s constant evolution while maintaining its original ethos in application. This isn’t just a mural festival for the sake of covering a city with murals (although the murals in Stavanger are impressive), but it dares to combine all the forms and conversations of street art into one city at one time, while achieving an enlightened understanding of how artists and scholars think about the use of public space.

2018’s Nuart saw over 26 artists take to the streets, in a charmingly chaotic curation that leaned heavily on the idea of chance in public space. 2019 was condensed and clarified, from the bombast and yet super smart graffiti crew of 1UP, to the social activism of The Pansy Project or the inspiring environmental work of the Splash and Burn project, the curation was a constant push and pull between the ambitious future of street art interventions and the classic historical precedents that came before it. After spending a week looking into the various work and practices of the international artist roster, the festival week ends with a screening of Martha: A Picture Story, the Selina Miles-directed documentary on the legendary street photographer, Martha Cooper. From her documentation of the subway trains to NYC and her newfound thrill of photographing the vandalism of the 1UP crew, the story of street art and graffiti comes full circle. And, through Martha’s lens, and the culture’s ideologies and movement ring entirely fresh and new. There is still an original spirit of freedom and fight in the Brand New. 

1up Brian Tallman Photography BKT3967WIP 2019

“From Nuno's Shirt Mask to Jofre's boat migrants, to Paul's pansies at the sites of homophobic attacks to Edwin and Dr. D tackling the oil industry and climate change,” Reed relates, “the theme is empathic, collective, freedom.” Reed, who came up in the underground and counter-culture music scenes of the UK in the 1990s, harkens back to the camaraderie of Bristol’s unique heritage as the epicenter of his thoughts curating Nuart in 2019: Bristol and its heyday of Damien Hirst, Wild Bunch, 3D, Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and of course, Banksy. “It was this freedom to create, this desire to break the rules, form collectives, to collapse and merge forms, to forge new ideas and challenge power, that was and still is at the heart of Bristol culture. It’s this that’s at the heart of this years thinking around Nuart. A playground where 11 Artists from 7 countries assisted by upwards of 20 volunteers have come together to improvise a show with no real plans, no gods, no masters, no gatekeepers and no borders.”

I kept thinking that in order to get that feeling again, we only had to look back. But that’s where I was wrong, as the retro argument can grow stale. We can look back on these iconic eras as moments that ushered change and a new collective way of “fighting the man,” but it is in the brand new ideas from which we came that tend to stand the test of time. That 1UP has become a world-wide phenomenon with a unique structure for a graffiti crew reminds us of the late 1970s in some ways, but their documentation and united vision stands alone. Hyuro may have the social realist influence but her poetically political metaphors are something we have rarely seen on public walls. Paul Harfleet’s Pansy Project has taken queer activism into the public sphere in ways that now includes the street art audience.

Those finals scenes in Martha demonstrate that graffiti and street art culture isn’t over, and remains exhilarating at its best. It’s being passed down, revolutionized and injected with new spirit that seems more vital than ever. Every year when we convene, there is always this question: have we exhausted ourselves on the possibilities of street art? Did big muralism, gentrification and the street art festival kill the culture? I think this year, Nuart and Reed sounded an emphatic, “No.” New doors open each year, and the Brand New carries on. —Evan Pricco

Listen to our Radio Juxtapoz podcasts with Hyuro and Paul Harfleet, live from Nuart, here.