Unlike any other part of the city, East London is at once slick and shifty. Artisanal coffee shops and curry houses both find space on Brick Lane. Every way you turn, you’re likely to find a signboard for a “Balti House,” or a graffiti-covered wall. Ben, a graffiti artist and our guide for a street art walking tour of East London, tells us that there were 250 curry houses in the area at last count. Stopping at a corner of Brick Lane, he points to graffiti by an artist known as Stik. It is a symbol of how young, white English folk and Bangladeshi immigrants coexist here. Against a blood-red background, two stick figures hold hands—one is dressed in white, the other wears a black burqa.
Stik’s art suggests that the older and newer inhabitants of East London have learned to coexist. Its message is a far cry from that of underground music groups, such as the Asian Dub Foundation, which, in the 1990s, sang lyrics like “Some fascists in Brick Lane looking for a fight/Police doing nothing/One rule for black/One rule for white.”
According to Ben, Stik’s work has been on this corner for five years. A reminder of the positive change in race relations, its staying power is a sign of how people respect the idea of coexistence. Most street art, Ben says, doesn’t stay on the walls for more than two weeks because of the paucity of space and “legal walls” that the artists are authorised to use.
Not all street art is cerebral, or takes upon itself the task of harping on some political or social evil. A few turns ahead, we stop short to gawp at a four-storey mural of a stork-like bird, which looks like it’s about to hop onto Hanbury Street for a quick bite—at a balti restaurant, of course. The black-and-white bird is a signature piece by Belgian artist ROA. ROA’s distinctive style incorporates detailed brush strokes, which bring beasts and birds alive in the urban jungle. A grumpy pig, who looks like he’s suffering from a serious case of Balti belly, resting under the display window of a jewellery store and a hedgehog hiding behind a lamp post in Shoreditch are both instantly recognisable as ROA’s creatures.
As with most art forms, the biggest challenge for most street artists is to come up with a trademark style that identifies them, and to break the mould as often as they can. Lily Mixe, one of the few female street artists in the city, stands out because of her labour-intensive paste-ups, which are first painted on paper and then glued onto the walls. In one of her works, an oceanic adventure unfolds on a wall close to ROA’s stork, with jellyfish and octopuses trying to get a peek inside an unsuspecting Londoner’s bedroom. It’s not easy to tell it is a paste-up until you spot some sea anemones peeling off the wall. Mixe is also a guide at Alternative London Tours.
We almost miss the Pac-Man installation in Shoreditch, painstakingly made using tiles, by French artist, Invader, a well-known name around the world. When do these artists from all over the place take to the streets of London? “Mostly at night,” Ben says. “It’s too risky to do it during the day, but some of them do. A lot of times, the boldest of moves can go under the radar.”
Of course, there is some posturing on display too. A few street artists take on commercial work that craftily sells a car or expensive liquor. Ben says he and other artists immediately paint over such work, identify who its creator is, and ensure everyone else knows who he is as well. This loss of street credibility can crush an artist’s career.
The line between commercial viability and credibility is a tightrope walk for many. I wonder if it isn’t hypocritical to diss business suits on the street, while selling street art for hefty prices in galleries. “I hear you,” Ben says, “these are doubts that bother us too. But we have to make money. The rents are so high in the city now that a lot of artists are just moving to Berlin.” If you know where to look, you’ll find art in every corner of the street. Ben points to the top of a lamp post in Shoreditch that is fitted with a miniature brass angel, its wings spread open. The angel was made in 2013 by Jonesy, a street artist and master sculptor from London. Ben tells us that “for the wings, Jonesy made a cast using the wings of a dead pigeon that he found at his home.” This kind of effort is unusual—speed and location take priority for most street artists. A few months down the line, the angel may vanish to make space for another mythical being out of Jonesy’s imagination, or the City of London Police may have cleaned things up. One could follow its story using Pinterest and Instagram, but a tour like this one, which lasts close to three hours and constantly has new landmarks on its path, is a much more exciting way to watch the battle between street artists and city authorities.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “The Art of Street Murals”.
The two-hour-long Alternative London Walking Tour is conducted on a pay-as-you-like basis by street artists. I paid £30/₹3,000. Tours start near Spitalfields Market, East London, 5 mins from Liverpool Station; Monday to Saturday; booking essential, details at alternativeldn.co.uk.