The Writ­ing On The Wall

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - TRAVEL - By Kar­ishma Upad­hyay

Lon­don’s graf­fiti-tat­tooed streets are as much a tourist at­trac­tion as con­ven­tional art in its gal­leries and mu­se­ums

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.


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

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