The Writing On The Wall
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.
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