TRAVEL FO­CUS

STREET ART IN LON­DON: MASTER­PIECES OR VAN­DAL­ISM?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - By Kar­ishma Upad­hyay brunch­let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com Fol­low @HTBrunch on Twitter

UN­TIL A FEW years ago, vis­i­tors to Lon­don would rarely ven­ture beyond the West End and Soho and def­i­nitely no fur­ther east than the Tower of Lon­don. That’s changed in a big way. The bor­oughs of Hack­ney and Tower Ham­let have firmly es­tab­lished them­selves on the tourist map as the Mecca of Lon­don’s street art. Just 30 min­utes from the ‘fi­nan­cial square mile’ of the City of Lon­don is the ‘square mile of street art’ spread across Shored­itch, Brick Lane and Spi­tal­fields.

Lon­don’s graf­fiti-tat­tooed walls are as much an at­trac­tion as con­ven­tional art in its gal­leries and mu­se­ums. For me, street art is ex­cit­ing be­cause it sub­verts rules, cul­ture and pol­i­tics and helps me see a space in a new light. And the fact that it’s ephemeral – graf­fiti can be painted over or torn down at any point – is a huge part of the thrill. So I joined a group of pho­tog­ra­phers, writ­ers and out-of-town­ers for a glimpse into the un­der­ground, yet very vis­i­ble world of street art, with Karim Sa­muels of Street Art Lon­don Tours.

STARS OF THE PAL­ETTE

Shored­itch and its sur­rounds of­fer a smor­gas­bord of age­ing in­dus­trial build­ings, shop shut­ters, rail­way lines and waste­land car parks that street artists are happy to use as can­vas. The neigh­bour­hood is an ev­ere­volv­ing open-air gallery of graf­fiti, posters, free draw­ing, sten­cils, tags and mixed ma­te­rial works mounted on ev­ery avail­able sur­face.

The first stop of our tour is at a street cor­ner off Old Street Tube Sta­tion. There isn’t a sin­gle tag in sight. “Look down,” says Karim and we spot our first Ben Wil­son. The sub­ject of two doc­u­men­taries, Wil­son paints minia­ture master­pieces on blobs of chew­ing gum that lit­ter the pave­ments of Lon­don. His minia­tures of an­i­mals, land­scapes and por­traits can also be spot­ted all over the Mil­len­nium Bridge across the Thames.

As we walk down Old Street, there’s a vi­brant por­trait on a store shut­ter of a cry­ing child wear­ing a mil­i­tary uni­form. “This wasn’t here yes­ter­day,” Karim said about the piece that’s signed ROES. Next up is Bel­gium-based ROA’s fa­mous Weasel that shares a build­ing front with one of Phlegm’s bizarre fig­ures hold­ing a skull. Both the pieces are so recog­nis­able and unique to the two artists that nei­ther is signed. The blackand-white pieces have at­tracted nu­mer­ous leech tags by lesser-known artists hop­ing to be ‘dis­cov­ered’ next to fa­mous pieces. There used to be an ‘E’ by Ben Eine, who is known for large colour­ful graphic letters, on a shop shut­ter that’s dis­ap­peared un­der a sea of tags.

This two-hour walk is a sen­so­ry­over­load. Ev­ery few steps, there is a new piece of art wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered and an­a­lysed much like a gallery show. There are Thierry Noir’s iconic bright car­toon pro­files that first showed up on the Ber­lin Wall in the early ’80s. Bri­tish artist Chris­ti­aan Nagel’s gi­gan­tic, bright sty­ro­foam mush­rooms pop up on top of build­ings. And mul­ti­ple pix­e­lated works by the anony­mous French ur­ban artist sim­ply known as In­vader, in­clud­ing one in­spired by Star Wars.

Karim de­scribed street art as a ‘kind of ac­tivism; a re­ac­tion to the dig­i­tal world’. But it’s not on the pe­riph­eries of main­stream any­more. Sten­cil paint­ings of Bris­tol-based artist Banksy have fetched six-fig­ure prices at a Sotheby’s auc­tion; Tate Mod­ern ded­i­cated a week­end in the spring of 2008 to the genre; and Shep­ard Fairey de­signed Pres­i­dent Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster for the 2008 US-election. “He was the first street artist to make the cover of Time magazine,” beams Karim. Graf­fiti is not a dirty word any­more.

Lo­cal artist Stik’s rag-to-riches story also has a re­demp­tion-by-art

an­gle. Stik has gone from be­ing a home­less artist to one whose can­vases have a six­month wait­ing list. His two-tone fig­ures can be spot­ted across the world from New York to Jor­dan. We walked past two su­per-sized Stik pieces loom­ing on sides of build­ings. A Stik stick­man – ‘usu­ally made with just six lines and two dots’ – might seem sim­plis­tic, but it con­veys the most em­pa­thetic emo­tions.

THE SHOW STOP­PERS

On Hewett Street, we came across two mu­rals in very dis­tinct styles. LA-based street artist EL Mac’s pho­to­re­al­is­tic cowboy was painted in less than 24 hours in 2011. A year later, just steps away, Por­tuguese artist Vhils cre­ated a re­mark­able por­trait of a man. The Greek word ‘graf­fito’ means ‘to scratch the sur­face’ and that’s ex­actly what Vhils does. He plas­ters up a wall and then takes a jack­ham­mer to etch out his three-di­men­sional works.

ROA’s three-storey-tall crane on Han­bury Street is per­haps one of the most iconic pieces in the area. ROA’s sketch-like, black-and-white style and pen­chant for an­i­mals is un­mis­tak­able. Over the years, ROA has painted rab­bits, herons and squir­rels in the area.

ART OR VAN­DAL­ISM?

Whether street art is art or van­dal­ism con­tin­ues to be a rag­ing de­bate. In Lon­don, spray-can wield­ing artists can be ar­rested for van­dal­ism and at the same time, the coun­cil pre­serves many of Banksy’s pieces be­hind Per­spex sheets. A for­mer Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter com­mis­sioned an Eine can­vas to gift to Pres­i­dent Obama. “There’s a Bri­tish artist in the White House,” says Karim.

The man cred­ited for bring­ing street art into the main­stream is Banksy. In 2010, the se­cre­tive street artist found him­self in the com­pany of Steve Jobs and Lady Gaga as one of Time magazine’s 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the world. Yet no one knows what he looks like! His work was first no­ticed in the late ’90s. He has gone from sneak­ing his work into the Lou­vre and Tate to be­ing an Os­car-nom­i­nated film­maker (he di­rected the 2010 doc­u­men­tary Exit Through The Gift Shop).

In the heart of Shored­itch, we saw two very typ­i­cally satir­i­cal Banksy works. Ti­tled His Mas­ter’s Voice and Guard Dog, the pieces are pre­served in the court­yard of Cargo, a hip­ster cof­fee bar by day and bar at night. The court­yard also fea­tures works by French artist C215, Span­ish artist Ozmo and Israel’s Bro­ken Fingaz Crew col­lec­tive. Built on the side of an old rail­way tun­nel, Cargo also has su­per­sized Eine’s Scary plas­tered out­side. Though other graf­fiti has been painted around the pieces, both re­main in­tact and in good shape.

Long af­ter the tour, I con­tin­ued to spot pieces big and small across Lon­don, and later in Mum­bai and Delhi. It was as if this walk opened my pe­riph­eral vi­sion and I start­ed­see­ing art hid­den in plain sight.

Whether street art is art or van­dal­ism con­tin­ues to be a rag­ing de­bate. In Lon­don, it’s both

Pho­tos: GETTY IMAGES

ART WALK ACROSS LON­DON

1. A woman walks past street art by Por­tuguese artist Vhils (aka Alexan­dre Farto) on a build­ing in Shored­itch 2. Bel­gian street artist ROA’s Weasel on Great East­ern Street. Stand­ing next to works by Ben Eine (coloured let­ter­form ‘E’ now swal­lowed by a sea of tags) and Phlegm’s bizarre char­ac­ter. 3 & 4. Artist Ben Wil­son uses chew­ing gum dis­carded on the pave­ments as his can­vas 5. Pho­to­re­al­is­tic cowboy paint­ing by LA-based graf­fiti artist El Mac. 6. Martin Ron painted the left hand side of the fa­mous Han­bury Street wall which cur­rently plays host to the Roa Crane. 7. Mus­lim and non-Mus­lim char­ac­ters by street artist Stik 8. ROA’s beaver in a park­ing lot on Hack­ney Road as another artist paints around it

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