I made it to the Old Street tube station, where the underground trains stop in an area of London that was once known for its heaving slums, criminal characters and actors. Whitechapel Road was not far away, which was the haunt of “Jack the Ripper” and the Kray twins, a couple of infamous East End gangsters who gained notoriety in the 1960s. I was on my way to a street art tour but I was early, and, as instructed by the tour company, I waited just outside the station by exit 1. Gradually, a few other people showed up, most of whom were tourists from France, and after a few more minutes our tour guide arrived; Daphne, who had moved to London from Paris and worked at the Golden Scarab Gallery when she was not giving art tours for Street Art London. (A few days later I also took an evening street art tour with Shoreditch Street Art Tours. The photos published here and description written below are from my experience of both tours.)
These days, the streets and backpassages that make up the districts of Hoxton and Shoreditch in the Borough of Hackney, near the Old Street tube station, are better known for street art, bookshops, cafes, fresh street food suffused with immigrant traditions, and markets, such as the one at Spitalfields, which has also became somewhat gentrified compared to how it was “in the old days.” The area has a gritty edginess to it borne from its poor and violent past and its rapid transformation into a vibrant space for artistic expression and boutique stores of one sort or another. New people, both foreign and domestic, are being attracted to the borough because of the hipster ambiance, and with it the money that has been drawn to the area. Tourists, especially those, like myself, who go on street art tours, would likely have avoided the area only a few years ago out of safety concerns. Even the young homeless man, who asked me to “spare some change” during the tour, while I was straining to hear our tour guide above the din of the traffic passing us on Great Eastern Street, was from Portugal. But this part of London has a long history of providing a refuge for new immigrants, so I wasn’t surprised.
“Traditionally,” graffiti writing and street art have been dominated by male artists. This is probably because, as John Fekner writes in his forward to The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, graffiti and street artists, such as himself, took part in activities that were often “trespassing and illegal, and a rush,” which, by their very nature, require artists to be physically strong and fit so they can clamber over fences with brushes, rollers, paints and other items in the artist’s toolbox to create art on the walls of buildings, often under the cover of darkness, like clandestine operatives trying to evade detection by security cameras and the watchful eyes of the police. It is a rather “macho” way of life that attracts young and energetic men who want to leave their mark. But in perhaps another sign of how the area is changing, female artists have become significant contributors to the street art seen around Shoreditch.
When we reached the end of Garden Walk we came to Great Eastern Street, one of the main thoroughfares through Shoreditch. Across the road from where we were standing there was a long hoarding with works by several artists. To be able to paint on such hoardings, artists need to have a letter from the local authority with official permission to paint. To be given such permission, an artist needs to be well established and recognized for doing high quality work. We crossed the road and came across artists Amara Por Dios, an artist from Sweden, and Vanesa Longchamp, known as VLong, who were both working on new pieces of art. Por Dios makes paintings that evoke her Chilean heritage. She describes herself as a “mixed media artist” on her website and creates murals, paintings and illustrations, in addition to street art. Since 2008, she has had several solo exhibitions of her work at galleries in Sweden and the U.K. VLong likes to paint “graceful female characters” that “express emotional healing and balance” and “beautiful worlds of silence” according to her website. That’s definitely not so macho sounding.
After walking for about three hours, the tour ended at the Cargo club and music venue on Rivington Street, which has several works of street art on its property and under the old railway bridge next to it. We saw two works by Banksy and work by Ben Eine and Thierry Noir, who is famous for sneaking into no man’s land during the Cold War and painting on the Berlin Wall. Ben Eine is well known for painting colorful letters, which he has done at several locations around London. In fact, his work has become so popular that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave one of his works (“Twenty First Century City”) to President Obama when they exchanged gifts in 2010. The tour had been a great introduction to some of the street art to be found in this part of London. I then had to find my way through the darkened streets to the Old Street tube station to take the train back to my hotel.
Further posts about the East London street art scene will follow.
I enjoyed two street art tours in August 2014. The first was with Street Art London (a morning tour with Daphne) and the second was with Shoreditch Street Art Tours (an evening/nighttime tour with Dave). Both tours were great but Shoreditch Street Art Tours gets my vote because Dave, our guide, had such detailed knowledge of the street art scene in Shoreditch and he sent us very helpful and copious follow-up notes the next day.