Brighton, UK: Revolution on the Streets

Common understanding and perceptions of Brighton focus on the city as a resort town hallmark, rich in extravagant Regency architecture and a romantic cultural atmosphere, stretching around King’s Road and the Grand Parade. However, a walk through the narrow side streets of Brighton, further away from the centre, offers a very different view of what the city is and who its inhabitants are. From the eyes of the proletarian – the real habitants of Brighton, not the tourists or seasonal folk – Brighton has been a traditionally contested political and social place, characterized by protests and social struggles.

An exploration of the graffiti and street art in working class neighborhoods alludes to the counter-narratives that exist, particularly on topics related to politics and authority.1 From anarchist inspired graffiti, stencils portraying revolutionaries, messaging from the 1968 Paris protests or posters that challenge the Cameron government, Brighton’s hidden public spaces call attention to issues that might be closer to the city’s cultural history than one might think. What makes these “forgotten” public discourses important? And what do they tell about past and present Brighton? Most importantly, how do their narratives fit into a projection of a “revolutionary” Brighton?

A history of revolt?

Local historians claim that Brighton has been a place of protest and social struggle since its early days.2 Historical narratives about the Old Ship Inn – now a popular Brighton hotel – suggest that one of the city’s earliest protests was in 1756. It is believed that due to a food shortage and high prices, the proletariat channeled their dissatisfaction through a poster in the inn which said:

“You covetous and hard-hearted farmers, that keep your stacks and mows of corn to starve the poor, if you will not sell them that we may have some to eat, we will pull them down for you by night or by day, from: Will Starve, Jack Poor, Will Needy, Peter Fearnot, and others.”

Twentieth century protests in Brighton were marked by a combination of international demonstrations and locally initiated unrests. Aside from global protests that found their way to Brighton, including the CDN anti-nuclear warfare initiatives or the Occupy Movement, the city has also been at the forefront of organizing local campaigns. Most notably, protests surrounding funding cuts, student demonstrations, anti-fascist movements or workers-led strikes are common throughout the city’s history. Not surprisingly, the Brighton Photography Biennial recently ran an exhibition titled Whose Streets? which documents many of these events over the past century.4

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 9.42.00 PM(Top Left: Photo courtesy of teaselbrush, Flickr, 2010.

Top Right: Photo courtesy of Feral78, Flickr, 2012. Bottom: Photo courtesy of Argus News, 2011.)

Although many public strife instances led to demonstrations and the gathering of the masses, another form of a more quiet and hidden form of protest creeps into daily life. Walking along narrow passageways off main streets in Brighton’s working class neighborhoods, one can find a wide range of graffiti that questions and contests social order and common narratives. In the area surrounding the North Laine, the common messaging of street art centers around revolutionary dialogues. In one particular instance, a skull on the backdrop of a barbed wire fencing propagates the message that the masses can win over authority by not giving in the oppressive systems that use fear as a form of control. Other dialogue encourages people to “fight back” or demands dissatisfaction with conventional structures. Some language even alludes to a spirit of revolution: “If your not pissed off yet…be!” It is unclear exactly what is the cause of the discontent, although overarching themes of anarchism and resistance to authority can be identified. However, is this language of revolt specific to Brighton’s struggle with power structures, or is merely a product of a twenty-first century urban sphere?

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 9.40.42 PM(Photos taken on February, 2013)

A University of Sussex report on the student demonstrations of November 2010 alludes to a more complex relationship in Brighton between the protester and the police.5 It is argued that during the demonstration, police abused their power and used “coercive policing strategies and tactics” to control and attack students, including “physical force enhanced with weaponry, technologies of surveillance and criminal legislation.”Anti-authoritarian narratives like the one about the November protests raise important questions about the struggle between the individual and authority in Brighton. Perhaps not surprisingly, Banksy’s Kissing Policeman (image bottom left) challenges exactly that. It portrays the law enforcement profession in a peaceful, non-threatening way, while contesting common perceptions about the image of authority and the struggle between the individual and the systems he or she is part of. The tension between authoritarian structures and the common folk is further evident in a graffiti appearing right behind the police station with the clear anarchist message of: “Fuck the system”.

Struggle with authority. 

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 9.36.07 PM(Left: Photo taken on February, 2013.

Right: Photo courtesy of brightongraffitiandstreetart.wordpress.com, 2009.)

Parallelism can be drawn between current anarchist and anti-state propaganda graffiti in Brighton and the 1968 Paris Revolution to further entertain an image of a “revolutionary” Brighton. As an uprising of the people, the Paris Revolution marked a time when students and workers fled on the streets to protests the rising unemployment and poverty levels under Charles de Gaulle’s government. With the involvement of the École des Beaux Arts, hundredths of different posters were produced as “weapons in the service of the struggle.”6 One of these posters, “La Police Vous Parle Tous les Soirs à 20h” (The Police Speak to You Every Night at 8pm) engages in a similar narrative with a Brighton stencil graffiti portraying BBC’s “His Master’s Voice”. Concern over the influence of government on news channels and the belief that television or radio messaging is a form of thought control made many revolutionaries fight the manipulative discourses of the time. BBC is often criticized in Britain for its leftist political agenda and its conflict of interest between objective journalism and government funding leaves individuals wary of its biases. Similarly, the English version of a popular 1968 Parisian poster “Retour a la Normale” (Return to Normal) can be found on the streets of Brighton. It challenges apathy and complacency by criticizing those who are seeking an end to the uprising in favour of a return to “normal” life. Its metaphorical visual imagery of a flock of sheep seeks to represent those who would rather follow conventional thought than fight oppressive societal systems. Messages that seek to abolish public apathy are all too common throughout Brighton’s graffiti art. But what does it really mean to be a civically engaged citizen in today’s modern Brighton? And what is the fine line between apathy and complacency? Or engagement and revolution?

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 9.16.29 PM(Top Left: Photo taken on February, 2013. Top Right: Photo courtesy of amicable-police-patrimoine.fr, based on original 1968 poster.

Bottom Left: Photo courtesy of creativereview.co.uk, based on original 1968 poster. Bottom Right: Photo taken on February, 2013)

Modern day political engagement in Brighton focuses on criticism directed towards the Cameron government. A set of posters portraying the minister and his cabinet in communist inspired visual representation found their home on street corners and abandoned walls throughout the city. Messaging like “Join Chairman Cameron on the long March to Growth” or “Forward! With Chairman Cameron’s Imperialist Struggle” contests the current politics of the ruling party and potentially Cameron’s recent EU demands.7 In a recent speech on Britain’s relationship with the EU, he advocated for more flexible policies that support economic growth and increased power at the national level. However, given the growing ‘Eurosceptisicm’ within British society (a 2012 Guardian/ICM poll found that the majority of people would choose to leave the EU at 36%8), the posters offer a sharp contrast from the popular narratives that seem to exist. It is currently unknown who the initiators of the campaign are, but questions are raised around what their motivation is. Who are the players involved? What are they really demanding? And why is Brighton the place of protest?

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 9.37.49 PM(Photos taken on February, 2013)

Strolling through the streets of Brighton, one is bound to find instances of tiny graffiti stencils on the steps of public staircases, street posts, abandoned walls or public benches. They portray revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. They are easy to miss, yet their presence seems to fit well into the city’s street narrative. Almost subconsciously, they are a constant reminder of what the city was, is or could be; a place of perceived revolution, individual liberation and unconventional thought.

The proliferation of street art in Brighton’s abandoned and derelict street corners tells an important story about present and past city life, about the agonies of common people and the counter discourses on the role of authority, politics and capitalist structures. Whether this process of marking contemporary public life is enough for Brighton to claim a status of a revolutionary city is up for interpretation. However, it nonetheless portrays a city very different than the common romantic ideal it is believed to embody; it portrays a place where the proletarian culture becomes revolutionary by constantly struggling to have a voice, to take a stance, and most importantly, to create and preserve a collective identity. It tells the story of those who are constantly struggling to define what Brighton is and who its citizens are. Back on the streets, the space becomes occupied; taken hostage by the hidden narratives that long lingered through the social fabric of the city.

Endnotes: 

1. The role of graffiti in contemporary society is to question and contest social order and common narratives. However, modern street artists and individuals who contribute to the collective marking of cities are in a constant struggle with the limitations of public space. They often seek abandoned or “hidden” public spaces to tell their story and their work is often subject to constant removal initiatives. Hence, the study of graffiti in urban settings proves to be challenging and often limiting. Many of the works presented in this report have since been removed or altered, therefore the narratives presented could be subsequently incomplete.

2. For more information on how the working class organized to contest the political space through the city’s history, consult Rocky Hill’s book Underdog Brighton.

3. Quote reproduced from Rocky Hill’s Underdog Brighton, page 60.

4. See bpb.org.uk for an introduction of the exhibition. Furthermore, visit the coverage of the event at theargus.co.uk for more information on the photographs displayed.

5. Read the complete report, including the experiences of the witnesses at: arts.brighton.ac.uk.

6. For a pictorial account of the 1968 Paris protests, visit creativereview.co.uk.

7. Read Cameron’s complete EU speech at guardian.co.uk.

8. For a detailed coverage of the results, read the article at guardian.co.uk.

Research Overview: 

The primary research conducted for this mini-study involved walking around the streets of Brighton in search for graffiti, posters and street art. Photographs were taken to aid with thematical grouping of the messaging. Secondary research for pictorial information was conducted using Flickr’s Brighton Graffiti group and the Brighton Graffiti WordPress blog. To understand Brighton’s social history from the perspective of the proletariat, Rocky Hill’s book Underdog Brighton was sourced. Multiple other sources were consulted, including Ken Fines’ A History of Brighton and Hove or the city’s “living history” website, responsible for narrating a social history of the place. News articles documenting Brighton’s protests were further analyzed to understand the relationship between the city and revolts as well as between individual and authority. Archives documenting the pictorial revolution of 1968 Paris were used to draw connections between local narratives and the Paris uprise. Lastly, current news sources were explored to identify political tensions as a way to understand contemporary counter political narratives.

This cultural analysis was part of a submission for the IDIS 305 – British Cultural Studies Course at the Bader International Study Centre, Herstmonceux, UK. 

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