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 ever-evolving 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.
Artist Ben Wilson uses chewing gum discarded on the pavements as his canvas (UK Press via Getty Images)
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.
Wilson gets hundreds of requests from locals to paint pictures for them of their chosen subject on chewing gum left on the pavement (UK Press via Getty Images)
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 black-and-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.
Belgian street artist ROA’s Weasel on Great Eastern Street. Standing next to works by Ben Eine (coloured letterform ‘E’ at present swallowed by a sea of tags) and Phlegm’s bizarre character (Corbis via Getty Images)
This two-hour walk is a sensory-overload. 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.
Muslim and non-Muslim characters by street artist Stik (Corbis via Getty Images)
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 six-month 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.
Photorealistic cowboy painting by LA-based graffiti artist El Mac (Corbis via Getty Images)
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.