Street art phantom Banksy turned an abandoned amusement park into his own “Dismaland”. The nightmarish attraction drew art fans from around the world – and breathed new life into a southern English seaside resort.

It’s one of those forgotten seaside resorts that might be on the coast, yet have little to boast about. Weston’s main attraction, a pier, is lined with gambling halls, souvenir shops, and fish-and-chips outlets that pollute the fresh air with the scent of stale fry fat. “You only come to Weston to die,” adds coach driver Peter.

Yet everything changed this past summer: The green between Beach Road and Marine Parade, where Peter usually drops of groups of retirees from nearby Bristol or distant London, now bustles with people, forming long lines.

And those waiting are no senior citizens, but young tourists including plenty of freaks, hipsters, punks, and other subcultures. All waiting patiently in front of a nondescript gate – often up to four hours and longer. Some have arrived on their own, others have come in groups, and nobody seems to be from the surrounding county.

Weston-super-Mare becomes a summer getaway for urban hipsters

Everyone is here for the city’s former “Tropicana Pleasure Beach,” reopened this summer after fifteen years of decay and dereliction when it lost its tropical lure and shine. Peter wasn’t the only one to have given up all hope that this fount of dejection could ever again lure the masses.

Then, Weston’s savior arrived from the underground. Just like a Marvel super hero, Banksy – the world’s most influential street artist – took over and revived the park as “Dismaland,” bypassing traditional renovation measures.

Banksy's Dismaland from above
Banksy’s Dismaland from above

Instead, he opted for a different, revolutionary approach: He wanted the park to become a dark alternative to the similarly named Disneyland, including the obligatory museum, gallery, amusement park, and party zone. “Dismaland is a family amusement park that isn’t suitable for children,” states Banksy. “In a way, it’s a festival for arts and entertainment that also teaches anarchism for beginners.”

“Stayin’ alive” – the skeleton dodgem ride

Banksy acolytes travel far for the experience. And are rewarded with a scene previously unseen – beyond our nightmares and feverish imagination, that is. It’s not exactly pretty, but that’s not what this is all about.

The prime task of staff, rides, and all attractions is to annoy, disturb, and unsettle visitors. Everything is drenched in the penetrating sound of countless speakers, only interrupted by regular announcements warning of cruelty, violence, and life’s inherent dangers.

People invariably find themselves waiting in line, e. g. for a ride on the constantly-stopping Ferris wheel. Or waiting for the carousel, which keeps switching directions to an inscrutable rhythm. And, naturally, for the dodgems where a lonely skeleton goes round and round in circles to the soundtrack of immortal disco hit “Stayin’ alive,” earning it spontaneous ovations from the audience.

Surprisingly enough, the small red-and-white striped circus tent keeps its stated promise. Inside, a minor sensation awaits: a bona fide Damien Hirst. “Where else in the world could you see a Hirst original in a tent?” asks Jiao her friend Chen. The two came all the way from Shanghai and find everything absolutely “stunning.”

Beyond Banksy and Hirst, 56 artists have contributed works, including Jenny Holzer, Jimmy Cauty, Peter Kennard, or Mike Ross; the latter showing his “Big Rig Jig” installation, which made its debut at the 2007 Burning Man festival.

Banksy's Dismaland by nigh
Banksy’s Dismaland by night

Masked ball with Pussy Riot, De La Soul, and Damon Albarn

September 27th sees the final lines outside Dismaland – and the climax of a multi-week ticketing and admissions chaos. Banksy had staged a final masked ball and announced he would attend himself to mingle with the crowd. Black market prices for 30-pound tickets rose to a whopping 1,000 pounds. Inside, Pussy Riot and De La Soul – supported by Blur singer Damon Albarn – entertained guests until the sun set behind the tattered Ferris wheel.

What remains is a fantastically absurd idea: a dismal amusement park in a deserted former seaside resort that temporarily drew the entire art world. An idea that subverts the entertainment and tourism industry – and supports it at the same time.

Dismaland killer whale show
Dismaland water cannon
Big wheel in Banksy's Dismaland
Banksy's Dismaland by nigh
Banksy’s Dismaland by night
The Dismaland entrance
Banksy's Dismaland from above
Dismaland imbecile
Long queue Dismaland Banksy
The queue.
Dismaland mini carousel
Weston’s main attraction a pier
Weston’s main attraction: a pier
Dismaland sad carousel
Dismaland selfie fun
Dismaland sinking boat
Fun at Dismaland

After all, Weston-super-Mare profited handsomely from the five-week event. Approx. 150,000 guests left a cool 20 million pounds in town. Now, Weston is finally back on the map, according to Margret who works the fryers in one of Weston’s many fish-and-chips shops.

The sweeping Banksy fest has changed a lot: Only two years ago, the old beach resort was scheduled for demolition. Current plans envisage regular cultural events at the now world-renowned location. Club Tropicana, reloaded. To be continued.

All images incl. header image: Philipp Wente