Upfest 2017 – Interview with Artist Jody Thomas

The finished mural by graffiti artist Jody Thomas.

What is Upfest 2017?

Upfest, the Urban Paint Festival is Europe’s largest free graffiti festival with artists taking over 1.3km of prime real estate on North Street in Bristol. For one weekend Bedminster becomes the hub of the city, the crucible in which a melange of food, music, cider and of course art collide for one giant street party.

Over 300 world-famous street artists are joining the fray to add their own unique dash of colour to this unique city. Once again the Tobacco Factory will be a hive of activity and a sore temptation for anybody who wants to take home a piece of the festival with them with artists selling works in the yard.

A new addition to the venue list this year, and a sign of the size and prestige of this ever-growing festival, is Ashton Gate Stadium, which will host over 50 artists covering a 200m section of wall with their signature styles (as well as a rumoured NY subway car).

A portrait of the artist Jody Thomas in front of work.

Upfest 2017 Artist Jody Thomas

One of the artists that will be laying layers of beauty up and down walls this weekend is Jody Thomas. A Bristol local who grew up during the explosion of the Bristol graffiti scene in the late 80s and early 90s he came out of retirement by mistake in 2008 when an interviewer misheard an answer and accidentally claimed he was ‘making a comeback’. I’ve checked this post with him and hopefully I’ve made no glaring errors!

How did you get into graffiti in the first place?

“When hip hop culture hit around 83/84 I was 11 years old. It was everything a young person needed – it was underground, rebellious, exciting and sonically and visually like nothing I’d heard. No one had really and at the time and this was perfect timing for me. I’d had an interest in art since I was young and this gave me the opportunity to fuse my love of art with a movement that felt progressive and more importantly gave me a sense of being part of something and amongst my peers I gained an amount of cred that I couldn’t achieve in any other way.

A few years later a school friend introduced me to the charismatic John Nation at the Barton hill youth club – I took my GCSE art folder to show him and John jumped at the chance for me to paint something that reflected a more artistic approach. I never knew then that those few years I spent there, painting the walls inside and out of that run down club would have such a resonance 25 years later and what it would mean for street art culture in Bristol.”

Work in progress. Jody partway through the painting.

Why did you stop?

“Operation Anderson – British transport polices swoop on over 100 houses of graffiti artists in and around Bristol in 1989 began the downfall of the movement as we knew it then. Also the drug fuelled rave and dance movement that filtered down from Manchester was extinguishing hip hop culture pretty much entirely.”

Do you have any formal art training?

“After the decline of graffiti art in 1990 I went to college to study graphic design and illustration. We did weekly life drawing classes there which I loved.”

How did you find breaking back into the scene after a 10-15 year break?

“18 years to be precise. I was very unsure I could still actually paint – It was a very much a sink-or-swim situation that I was talked into by Felix Braun.”

The finished mural by graffiti artist Jody Thomas.

Has your style changed since you came back?

“I still straddle the art and graffiti worlds like I always did back in the 80s. The paint which is available now allows for much thinner lines and more control so I can achieve a more photorealistic look.”

What are the influences for this noirish, photorealistic style?

“My eye has always been drawn to a darker, vogue like aesthetic. Fashion photography and film have been an major influence on me – the work of David Fincher and Ridley Scott especially.”

How did you make the leap from underground graffiti to mainstream art (selling work, getting commissions etc.)?

“My work has two distinct sides – I paint commissions and commercial murals – an artistic gun for hire if you like which allows me to concentrate on the other side of my personal work which is the more figurative and portrait type paintings that I’m known for. I quite enjoy the commercial side as it pushes me to paint things that I never would even think of.”

Big brother is watching you! Artwork by My Dog Sighs and Snub 23.

Music and Art Intertwined

For a very long time Bristol has had a vibrant underground scene with various sub-cultures spawning from the diverse bohemian and multi-ethnic urban environment. Music and art have been intertwined for decades in the city with musicians delving into the world of street art and vice versa (a notable example being Robert Del Naja of the Bristol band Massive Attack).

Post-war immigration from countries across the Commonwealth made Bristol one of the most racially diverse cities in the UK and brought with it access to new genres of music such as reggae. In the 80s hip hop made it big in the city and with it came the aesthetics of graffiti from the New York hip hop scene.

The development of electronic music during the nineties and noughties fostered a symbiotic relationship between the two forms of art, as the visual art associated with genres such as drum and bass and dubstep leant heavily on street art for inspiration.

Mural of John Lennon at the Tobacco Factory

Bristol’s Graffiti Scene

Building upon this the city developed a deep relationship with street art with various artists pulling the scene in different directions. Some artists such as the world-famous Banksy are openly political and provide an outlet for many with their humorous but cutting takes on current affairs. Others such as Lucas Antics serve to beautify the city through quirky, colourful designs that raise smiles on the faces of passers-by.

The delightful Lucas Antics hard at work at Upfest 2017

The city has reached a happy equilibrium where street art is not only tolerated but actively encouraged (albeit under controlled conditions like Upfest) and the creative soul of the city rumbles on, producing works of great beauty and haunting relevance. Bristol for me is graffiti and graffiti is Bristol, the two are interrelated, entwined and inseparable. Upfest it just the latest incarnation of the Bristol graffiti scene and is probably a sign of the gentrification of the city as the underground has now become mainstream.

Either way the city is more beautiful for it.

Artwork at Upfest 2017

Thanks

Many thanks to Jody Thomas for allowing me to pester him with questions and stick a camera in his face whilst he was busy working. If you like his noirish, photorealistic style as much as I do then please support him by heading to his store and buying one of his prints: www.jodyart.co.uk/products

For more about Bristol graffiti check out my post on Stokes Croft.

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