Yesterday I went on a street art walking tour through London’s East End.
Inspired by the discovery of Hosier Lane in Melbourne during my visit with loved ones Down Under, I’ve been keen to explore more on this side of the world since my return in January.
At 10am on a lovely sunny Saturday in London, about twenty-five of us met our guide, Dave, at the Goat Statue at Spitalfields market. This is the goat, not Dave…
As we meandered towards the church, Dave gave us a bit of an introduction to street art/graffiti and the emergence of London’s street art culture. He also explained that given the temporary nature of street art, the myriad of stickers on lamp posts and other street furniture can serve as a handy guide as to who’s been contributing to the urban art scene in the area at any particular time – a bit like passport control for those in the ‘street art’ know.
The example below shows the iconic winged figure of well-known artist D*face in sticker form in Brushfield Street and then his installation in the Old Truman Brewery Complex.
We turned right at the church then took a left into Fashion Street and that’s when things really started to happen…here’s Dave introducing us to three different styles and artists – more on some of these later.
I did find the bike image stenciled onto the road particularly amusing in this picture – the urban art scene rails against the things that the establishment tells us we must do (like staying in the bike lane?).
This is probably a good point to address the questions of ‘what is street art’ and ‘how is it different from graffiti’.
According to Dave, the definitions are many and varied but for him, graffiti (below left) is created for the appreciation of the urban art community who can, for example, really appreciate the intricacies of a tag. Street art (below right) is created with a wider audience in mind – Dave told us to “think of images you might consider being on a t-shirt or as a piece of art in your home”.
Both might consist of painting, stickers, paste ups or other types of ‘installations’ and both can be done with or without permission. But after seeing a few works in progress, I was left with the over-riding premise of street art/graffiti being both temporary and accessible in nature despite permissions granted – check out the works in progress below.
We wandered along Fashion Street, learning about different techniques as we went. Below are some examples of paste-ups – where the artist has completed the image elsewhere prior to pasting it on the walls. The top left image was created using screen printing for the main image with the coloured smoke added in situ.
You can also see the temporary nature of urban art at work here with the later addition of the ‘cat chariot’ to the bottom of the original piece, a practice we saw a lot throughout the tour. Another common practice is for artists to spread their work in an area to make their mark – we saw two more of the ‘cat chariot’ further along Fashion Street and more scattered along our walking route.
An artist currently distributing himself throughout the area is Gregos. He’s a French sculptor who creates painted molds of his own face. He has installed two batches of these in London so far.
We saw these three on our route, ‘stayers’ from his last batch of fifty earlier this year. (Dave assures us that having met Gregos, this really is his face.)
Speaking of sticking things on the wall, there were loads of other things to find if you kept your eyes peeled…
The piggy you can see in the photo top left is part of a series by Love Piepenbrinck. We found them in all sorts of places and while we thought they were cute, it would appear that the urban artists themselves are quite enamoured of this idea. We found a number of works had been created around the little sculpture, leaving the ensconced piggy right where it was – maybe Piepenbrinck’s piggies will mark an era of (semi-) permanence?
The other pictures are just different examples that appealed to me: Eeyore perching gloomily amongst a frenetic background, the mirrored cloud that changed depending on my angle of reflection (pardon the pun – couldn’t help it!) and the urban tweetie attached to a council sign.
This next image was quite stunning and really struck me with all of its purple and turquoise hues. Dave confirmed here that the artist had been granted permission (by the owner of the wall, not the council) to paint here.
However, what was even more amazing is that this was all painted with spray cans. Can you imagine trying to create this kind of delicate imagery with a set of spray cans? (I probably couldn’t even manage it with a paint brush). It gave me a new appreciation of the talent of these artists. Here are some more ‘girls’ I particularly liked…
One of the elements of street art is the speed and ‘furtiveness’ required as most is completed without permission. One of the techniques used to aid this is stenciling (Banksy is a well-known exponent of this). The image on the right is painted on the door of a barber shop and so whilst the artist had probably obtained permission, this intricate portrait was still created using a whole series of stencils.
We saw some great commemorative art as well. Joe’s Kid (below left) actually runs the coffee shop that owns the wall and Charlie Burns (below right) ran the business whose shutters are right next to his image.
The Charlie Burns image also embodies the dripping effect evident in much street art – let’s face it, if you’re trying not to get caught, you don’t spend time dabbing at the drips! In this case the artist, Ben Slow has used it to effect on the left hand side of the image and then merged into photo-realism as he moved towards the right.
And the piece below – just off Bethnal Green Road – is by Citizen Kane (CZK) and commemorates the suicide of his son in 2013.
Street artists are also known for their strong anti-authority philosophies and these next two are great examples of taking a humorous and well-aimed poke at the establishment.
Ronzo is a German artist and his style is typified by the bulging eyes and the tombstone teeth of his monsters. We saw the rainbow image earlier in Fashion Street. On the right you can see Crunchy, The Credit Crunch Monster, Ronzo’s mascot for the global financial crisis, in the Old Truman Brewery complex while the City of Ronzo crest was on the railway bridge at the top end of Brick Lane. This guy gets around…
Frenchman Clet Abraham is another exponent of thumbing one’s nose at authority and uses his witty imagery on existing ‘displays of authority’ (street signs) to make his particular mark.
Nathan Bowen is yet another using his art to make a statement. Using marker pens in his signature style, he makes this plea for peace in Syria below.
Conor Harrington‘s work also appeared in a couple of different places along the way…
…and he also worked with U2 on Crystal Ballroom, part of their Songs of Innocence project. (He’s the artist in the video.)
No street art tour – of London anyway – would be complete without Banksy so we snuck through the gates of Shoreditch nightclub Cargo to see this…
Yes, it is behind perspex but while not in the temporary and accessible spirit of street art, I’m pretty glad I got to see a real Banksy. And yes, his real identity remains a mystery, even to Dave. (There’s more street art in Cargo – even another Banksy so might be worth popping down to Rivington Street.)
There was so much more on this almost 4 hour tour and it gave me a new appreciation for both this pocket of East London – about which I knew very little – and the urban art scene – about which I knew even less. I didn’t like everything – probably only half of what I saw really appealed to me but it’s interesting how with a little bit of background, the whole genre opened up and became absolutely fascinating.
And let’s face it, if street art ruled the world, there’d be a whole lot more of this…
…and for my part, that just adds some welcome colour to a day.
If you are in London and fancy a bit of urban art for yourself, check out Shoreditch Street Art Tours – Dave is obviously a guy ‘in the know’ and for just £15, it makes for a pretty cost-effective and entertaining education!