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The writing is on the wall for medicine

16 July 2019

A new Bristol mural in the Stokes Croft area of the city is providing an accessible and inclusive way of representing and communicating issues surrounding healthcare.

This approach, known as Graphic Medicine, ‘resists the notion of the universal patient and vividly represents multiple subjects with valid and conflicting points of view’. Graphic Medicine is intended to stand alongside more academic discourses and, at times, to enrich them, as new images and stories of illness and health emerge.

A picture of health

The mural, titled Wall #1, is by Brighton-based physician, comics artist and writer, Ian Williams. His graphic novel, The Bad Doctor was published in June 2014 and he is behind the website GraphicMedicine.org. He has written book chapters, articles and papers for various medical, humanities and comics publications and has contributed a weekly Guardian comic strip, Sick Notes.

New arts-science collaborations

The wall art was commissioned by the Centre for Health, Humanities and Science at the University of Bristol, with the support of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute. The Centre exists to promote work at the intersection of humanities, medicine, health and science and, with the support of Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, is helping open the door to new arts-science collaborations by connecting researchers with clinicians and external partners for research focusing on philosophy and humanities.

The human touch

The artist was keen to see how a comic strip would work on an elongated wall and chose a series of wordless panels to give a sense of the passing of time and the kind of things a doctor might see during a surgery. Touch features heavily in Ian’s graphic work, probably because it features quite heavily in a GP’s practice. “Healthcare professionals,” he says, “are privileged to be granted permission to touch other people in their work – indeed, most patients expect it. Touch can be diagnostic, communicative, or healing.”

Just prior to the wall’s creation, students on the intercalated BA in Medical Humanities held an exhibition of their work. This year they were curating the work of others, as well as showing their own. ‘Touch’ was the exhibition’s theme. The exhibition was taking place off-campus in Stokes Croft, to try to engage with a different set of audiences, and Ian was invited to talk about the Graphic Medicine movement. Hearing about his work, the exhibition building owners, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, suggested Ian might like to paint a mural on an outside wall used regularly for street art; consequently Wall #1 was created.

Taking to the streets

Dr John Lee, Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Research Strand Co-lead, University of Bristol, said: “The Wall is in a very public position, surrounded by street art by famous names, including Banksy, which constantly draws tours of visitors into the area. Given the fame of the city for its street art, taking Graphic Medicine out of a book and putting it onto a wall seemed a fitting way to reach the public and communicate messages around healthcare. Promoting Graphic Medicine here could be a kind of super-charged ‘Open Access’ publication.”

Wall #1 nicely captures the Centre’s ability to facilitate ‘intersectional’ collaborations in novel ways, in this case to use Graphic Medicine as a means to communicate and engage with the public.

Making a time-lapse film of the painting process helped to take this bit of Graphic Medicine from one street in Bristol into wider circulation (an audience of more than 1.5k on Twitter alone).

To be continued…

CHHS is looking at the possibilities of commissioning further walls, especially ones which include healthcare narratives of local communities. 

Further information

Contact Dr John Lee to discuss.

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