The Revolutionary Street Art Project That Inspired Banksy And Empowered A City’s Youth

John Nation just wanted to give teenagers in Bristol, southwest England, a safe place to spray-paint without fear of arrest and prosecution.

Little did the then 21-year-old youth worker know back in 1984 that his Aerosol Art Project at the Barton Hill Youth Center would go some way to shaping British and global street art over the coming years and decades.

It spawned an entire generation of influential and genre-defining artists including Banksy. But as Nation, now 54, told HuffPost in a wide-ranging interview, the initiative also almost ended up costing him his job, his reputation and his liberty.

John Nation
John Nation founded the project as a way to channel young people’s creativity in a positive and legal way. Here he is pictured painting at the center in the late 80s.

Nation was just 18-years-old when, in 1981, he became an outreach worker at the youth center in his home neighborhood of Barton Hill. We helped kids deal with the nitty gritty of life […] providing sexual health awareness, talking about drugs, that kind of thing, he told HuffPost. A trip to Amsterdamin 1982 sparked an interest in graffiti, which he saw adorning the Dutch capitals streets. I started reading whatever material I could.

Coincidentally, some of the 14 to 19-year-olds attending the center were also becoming interested in the art form. Inspired by movies such as Wild Style and Beat Street and the painting of Bristols earliest-recognized graffiti artist 3D (a.k.a. Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack), Nation said theyd spend hours copying outlines of the work featured in the seminal book Subway Art.

When one teen returned from New York City with photographs of the graffiti hed seen, Nation allowed the teen and his friends to paint the clubs front wall.

Barton Hill was rough, Nation said. At that time the club was very territorial, seen as right wing, predominantly white and very hostile to outsiders. Its exterior walls, he said, were mainly daubed with anti-authority slogans such as No Police State in Barton Hill or ones promoting the far-right movement, the National Front.

John Nation
Street artist Cheo is pictured here painting at the Barton Hill Youth Centre in Bristol in 1989.

These guys produced a piece that was so vibrant, Nation said. It helped break down some barriers. Lots of these guys listened to hip hop, reggae and black-inspired music. Lots of the artists they looked up to were black, hispanic and Puerto Rican, but they were in a predominantly white area. Being involved in graffiti opened their eyes and helped to lower their prejudices.

Inspired by what the teens had produced, Nation sought permission from his employers at the now-defunct Avon County Council authority to set up the Barton Hill Aerosol Art Project a place he envisioned would let the youngsters, some of whom were only a bit younger than him, to express themselves freely and legally on the centers walls instead of tagging or painting unauthorized spots on public or private property which could lead to their arrest.

CheoandInkiewere among the first generation of budding street artists to attend the center, which had the added appeal of being the only one in the city with an indoor skate ramp. Before long, the artists covered most of the building with their work.

John Nation / Jody Thomas
An early piece by aerosol artist Jody Thomas, who first attended the Barton Hill Youth Center when he was 15-years-old.

Once word got out that it was a safe environment to paint and look at books and photographs and watch films about graffiti, then people from across the city started coming, Nation said. Once you had that one group of people give it their seal of approval, others saw it was safe and followed suit.

At its peak, more than 40 youngsters regularly attended the project. Graffiti writers from across the U.K. also visited, and it inspired other authorities from around the country to launch similar initiatives.

It was a great atmosphere, very expressive, very creative, Nation added. There was never any bad vibes or competition, none of that element. It was all about being a crew and a togetherness and I still think thats true to all the guys who still know each other and paint now.

Not everyone was in favor of the project, however. Unbeknownst to Nation, from 1988 to 1989 the British Transport Police surveilled the center and several of its artists as part of a city-wide investigation into graffiti tagging and criminal behavior.

There was never any bad vibes or competition, none of that element. It was all about being a crew and a togetherness and I still think thats true to all the guys who still know each other and paint now.

John Nation

Operation Andersonsought to profile graffiti artists suspected of criminal damage and culminated with a series of raids on properties across the region. Police arrested dozens of people, including Nation. Officers searched his home and the center. Bearing in mind that I was running an aerosol art project, there was no way there wasnt going to be any material at the center, he said. It was like an Aladdins Cave for them.

Police seized a massive stash of paint Nation had procured from the projects sponsors and his treasured 5,000-plus snaps of graffiti hed either taken himself or been sent by writers from around the world.

Nation believes police thought the club was some kind of Axis of Evil that was the main meeting point for all of Bristols illegal graffiti writers and a place where other writers from across the country would come.

It wasnt that at all though, he said, although he acknowledges some of the artists were painting on unauthorized spots on their own.

As was revealed in the BBC documentary Drawing The Line, (above), police matched tags on the artwork in the club to tags on illegal works across the city.

They charged several artists with criminal damage. Nation himself was charged with suspicion of conspiracy to incite individuals to commit criminal damage.

Their main case against me was that the photos and books I had, if shown to a young person of impressional age, would incite them to go out and commit criminal damage,Nation said. They also said I was covering up for the young people and I was duty bound to divulge information on them. But I didnt assist them whatsoever. I answered no comment to pretty much everything.

Several artists were found guilty of criminal damage and received fines. Nations charge, however, was dropped on the day his trial was due to begin after prosecutors offered no evidence of incitement.

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Nation says he then consciously used the subsequent press coverage to promote his projects work and to argue that without a place to legally paint, the illegal culture of the art form just gets reinforced.

Following the police raids, Nation says many of those involved in the citys street art scene went underground for a while. It was like they were regrouping, he said. Many of the guys arrested took a break, lessened their illegal activities, and some decided painting legally was the only way.

Nation says the publicity did inspire, however, a new generation of artists to begin visiting the project with one of them being Banksy.

As a young boy, hed come to the center and watch people paint. He was heavily into hip hop culture, graffiti, and Barton Hill was where it was happening. Every weekend there was fresh work going up on the walls and people would exchange ideas, Nation said.

He says he called it his religious pilgrimage every weekend to go. Many of these guys had their own crazy, little dreams and he said what Barton Hill showed him was very powerful, that you could go on to follow those dreams.

John Nation
An early Banksy piece which adorned the youth center’s wall. Nation says Banksy wasn’t considered as one of the top graffiti writers during his time at the club.

At that time, Nation says Banksy (who despite multiple attempts and theories has never been officially identified), wasnt producing the political or social commentary pieces that hes since become globally famous for.

As part of a crew with some slightly older teens, Nation says he was into graffiti and letterforms and writing. He also didnt stand out as one of the graffiti writers youd call a top boy, nor was he using his Banksy moniker either, says Nation. The Banksy thing came later.

Nation claims Banksy is without doubt the biggest contemporary artist in the world right now, but admits he didnt foresee his rise to prominence during his early days of painting at the center. Instead, he believes Banksy truly began to make his mark when he changed his style and began using stencils.

Not only could he paint quicker, he could paint more locations and produce more work. He started off with quite crude stencil work, like the rats, then he started progressing to more clean work, more sharper, Nation said.

Lee Moran
An early Banksy stencil in his home city of Bristol.

These smaller stencils started appearing across the city and for me, its once he made that conscious decision to change the style of what he was painting and the content of what he was painting when he exploded, he added.

Banksy himself admits in his book Wall and Piece that his switch in style came when aged 18 transport police chased him through a thorny bush after spotting him painting LATE AGAIN on the side of a train.

The rest of my mates made it to the car and disappeared so I spent over an hour hidden under a dumper truck with engine oil leaking all over me, he wrote. As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks I realized I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. I was staring straight up at the stenciled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realized I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high.

Nation said that change led Banksy to strike an accord with first and foremost the Bristol public, and then the British public. Lots of people who wouldnt be into street art could relate to the simplicity and the fun and the characters he was painting. As hes become more mature, the images and message have become more hard-hitting hes a clever guy.

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Nation does question how Banksy creates some of his works, such as the Brexit piece (above) that he unveiled in Dover, southeast England, in May as a commentary on the U.K.s referendum vote to leave the European Union.

Yes he painted it, but hes got to have a team of people that set up the scaffold and he must have approached the people who own the property before that, Nation said. You cant just rock up and set up a scaffold on the side of someones property without there being no questions asked. Its a huge wall. Its massive.

With so much history between Nation and Banksy, one may assume the pair remain close and in touch. When faced with the suggestion, however, Nation responded with a stony silence before changing the subject.

While the legacy of the Barton Hill Youth Center often focuses on Banksy, many of the centers other alum have also gone on to enjoy hugely successful careers.Jody Thomas, who in April gave HuffPost a helping hand in unveiling its new logo (below), has painted and exhibited his signature photo-realistic style around the world:

But for him, it also all began at the center, which he first attended when he was just 15 years old after being encouraged by a school friend whod described Nation to him as outspoken, politically militant and not one to suffer fools.

It felt like I was being led to meet the leader of a despotic cult, Thomas told HuffPost, adding that Nation didnt disappoint when he finally met him.

He immediately went through my school folder of work based around the comic art of 2,000 A.D. and classical painting and drawings, he said. I think he saw in me the opportunity to add a different artistic dimension to the clubs repertoire and left me to recreate on the walls of the club what I had on paper.

For me, John is the Darwin of street art in the U.K. and gave me an opportunity to express the art that spoke to me all those years ago.

Jody Thomas

Thomas credits Nation as being at the forefront of the street art movement at that time. His energy and personality has garnered him an amount of respect amongst Bristolians on the level of any rock star or public figure, he said. For me, he is the Darwin of street art in the U.K. and gave me a opportunity to express the art that spoke to me all those years ago.

The admiration is mutual. Nation still remembers the day that Thomas first brought in his work which was totally different to what was being produced in the club at the time. I thought to myself, fucking hell, this is amazing. Hes 15 and painting like this? I thought, this boy is going to go far, Nation said.

At first he wasnt accepted as much by the graffiti lads. Jody was into indie music and a lot of that music had dark imagery on its album sleeves, he added. He embraced that kind of artwork. He painted small pieces, then he painted these two black and white heads (below) and that was it. I have a lot of time for him. He didnt stick to what everyone else was doing. He just wanted to be an artist and express his talents.

John Nation
John Nation describes this piece by Jody Thomas as one of the Barton Hill Youth Center’s most defining artworks.

Inkie, a.k.a. Tom Bingle, also emerged from the center. Hes since worked as a head of design at SEGA and hosted his own shows across the globe.Recently, he painted alongside Shepard Fairey, the artist behind theHope posterthat came to define former President Barack Obamas 2008 campaign.

For Inkie, Nations project acted as a vital central hub for the citys graffiti artists in the pre-internet era of the late 80s to mid-90s. Without this center and Johns support of our artwork, Bristol would not have had the scene it maintains today, he told HuffPost.

John Nation
Inkie dedicated this graffiti piece, entitled “John,” to Nation — who he says has played a critical role in the Bristol street art scene.

By 1991, however, Nation had become disillusioned with the restraints he felt the authority was putting on him and quit.

I was seen as being quite outspoken, left wing and a bit of a socialist, he said. But Im proud of what I did back then. And the fact that people still talk about then and what I achieved for me is justification for what I did do.

Nation went on to forge a successful career in promoting dance music events across the U.K. and the NASS action sports and music show in Somerset.

With the explosion in the popularity of street art, which he puts principally down to the rise of the internet and social media, hes since come full circle and now gives regular tours of Bristols scene via the WhereTheWall tour.

John Nation / WhereTheWall
John Nation now guides visitors around Bristol’s street art scene via WhereTheWall. Pictured here is one his recent tour groups.

People from all over the world come, and no one tour is the same. Street art is here today, gone tomorrow. The art form is transient, he said.

In April, Nation curated his first ever solo show, Graffiti Nation, at Bristols Upfest gallery, the home ofEuropes largest live street art festival.

He also worked with Inkie on the See No Evil art exhibition in 2011 and 2012, and remains a fierce advocate for spaces where artists can legally paint. Hes also set to feature in another BBC documentary, which will analyze the U.K. street art scene in the decades since Operation Anderson.

Nations pedigree, knowledge and influence of street art and the genres that umbrella term encompasses have seen him nicknamed the Godfather of the Bristol (and increasingly British) scene. But its a labelthat doesnt sit well with him.

I look back and I feel that all those years ago I was vilified and I could have possibly lost my job, he said. Then two years ago Im being used as the face of Bristol tourism as someone who represents it as a progressive, cultural city. Who would have thought it?

I get called the Godfather, but Im not. I just had a faith and a belief in these young people when no one else would give them the time of day, he added. Im just lucky enough that ive been involved in the graffiti scene and seen it emerge. Bristol is not what it is because of me, far from it. Im just one cog in the wheel, just like Banksy and all the others.

Check out John Nations Instagram, Facebook and the tour website forWhereTheWall.

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