Street Scene: A Tour of London’s Street Art 1 – Shoreditch, Brick Lane and more
This essay originally appeared on Carabas on March 11th 2016.
I love street art. I always used to look forward to the pages near the back of Hip-Hop Connection (HHC) magazine, where they’d show pieces from around the UK. When I started getting more into photography, I started visiting places like Shoreditch,and particularly up and around Brick Lane. Those are areas that take a more relaxed view of graf, so artists are able to take their time, and express themselves more.
It’s not a coincidence that I was introduced to street art through HHC. Graffiti is inextricably linked to hip-hop. Along with Deejaying, Emceeing, and B-Boying / Breakdancing, it was one of the “4 pillars” of hip-hop when it originated. Its roots were also firmly working class, originally, as spraycans were a cheap and available way to find self-expressions for youth in New York. You could ‘bomb’ a train, and have it go around the city like a mobile gallery, showing off your artistic skills to more people than would ever see it otherwise.
As London artist Paul “Don” Smith put it in a 2013 interview,
“There’s the wonderful hip hop movement that picked a lot of us up. There was music, dance and art – creativity for people who needed to do something. It goes back to New York. You have loads of kids, some a little upset and they found themselves through this incredible movement. Writing music, poetry, dancing… how much energy is being vented? It’s just saved so many people. I think graffiti is the darker side of all of this. You had to go into places you shouldn’t be. It was all quite rock and roll, drink and drugs coming a bit hand in hand with it.”
If you’re lucky enough to travel the world a little, you see graffiti and street art everywhere, and, to a greater or lesser degree, you see those same hip-hop roots. Some artists stick closer to those old-school techniques and try to perfect them, and others push things in more distinctive directions. I’m probably biased, but i love seeing it in London.
In London, you’ve got good examples of those distinctive styles in the work of homegrown artists Shok-1 and Stik. Both are London-based artists whose styles are instantly recognisable, but also worlds apart. Shok-1’s pieces almost look photographic at times, with intricate layers of colour. He changes up his style regularly, with his recent x-ray pieces trying to reflect “a combination of science and magic.”
Stik has a much simpler, style with simplified figures that match his desire to make his art represent the communities it’s painted in. His approach is unusual, with any piece visible from the street done for free. According to an interview from last year, he “feels an unbreakable bond with east London, which he came to know intimately while spending several years in homeless shelters.” Perhaps it’s having a background like this that leads to his socially-conscious approach, and “small-p political” comments on gentrification like, “This is where a lot of artists used space that nobody else wanted to use...We made it cool and now it’s hard for us to stay here,” and, “I think there’s space for everyone but I’ve got a feeling they’d rather we weren’t here.”
You can’t help but like that.
These guys are completely homegrown, but London is also an immigrant city, so as well as visiting international artists, you also have artists like Osch, who have chosen to become Londoners. Osch is a Chilean artist who has made London his home, and lectures in Architecture. His work shows his aim of “breaking the flatness of a canvas”, with the way he deconstructs some images into ribbons in some of his works. His work fits in seamlessly with the feel of London street art, especially when he works in references to his new home.
It’s not unique, but it’s always interesting to see what messages people use graffiti and street art for. Around Brick Lane I’ve seen tributes to recently dead local and national celebrities, like these tributes to Discworld author and cover artist Terry Pratchett and Josh Kirby, Peaches Geldof and artist Frank Frazetta.
Outside of the births, deaths and marriages section, you can also find graffiti and street art about immigration policy, and advertising for films, including World War Z and Legend, the film about local gangsters, the krays. Also, you can find the typical, fake-deep student sounding pronouncements, which can sound as pretentious as you’d imagine, but at least are sometimes done with style.
I also wanted to throw in this large wall on Holywell Street, just around the corner from Brick Lane. Every time I visit, there's a new piece there, and it serves as one of the more pleasant reminders of time's passing. Also, you can't help but like some of the senses of humour shown in a couple of them.
The other place in London that has always resonated with me is the Undercroft, under the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. As Wired describe it, “The area itself is something of an accident of architecture though, the result of several surrounding developments and elevated concrete walkways birthing a space that came to be perfect for skating.” Its 40 year history of skating has saved it from being redeveloped, but my main attraction to it is the grafitti. The pieces there often aren’t as polished as the ones in East London, probably because serious artists would be a little hesitant to put their pieces in places where they would be hard to see. It does mean that you get more traditional, classic-style street art, which really benefits from being in such an unusual environment. The way the walls of the Undercroft frame the pieces and channel the light is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
When I first visited Sydney, where I now live, I started looking for the street art here, and the impression I got was that a lot of the pieces there were holding tighter to their roots, and using a more traditional style, whereas London was more experimental. Looking back at my photos from both cities now, I realise I was wrong; Sydney has plenty of more distinctive or experimental artists, like Fintan Magee and Nico, and London definitely has traditional artists that have really refined their art, and my first impression wasn’t doing justice to any of them. It took me a while to work out what the difference was, but now I think I’ve got it.
It’s the grey.
London is a grey city, and I say that in a loving way. The grey works for London, and it’s always there, rain or shine. Sydney is a much redder city; lots of the bricks used in the older buildings are made from red clay, and there are bright colours everywhere, especially under the much more abundant sun. Sydney looks wrong in the rain. Just wrong. The colours try to shine through, but they get smothered and muted in a way that shows it wasn’t meant to be.
London works in the rain. Greyness is expected, and I think, even on a subconscious level, that greyness is anticipated in the street art. The artists know in advance that their work is going to be seen against buildings and grey skies, and that shapes the work.
And as happy as I am living in a sunburnt country now, sometimes you look forward to a nice, cool bit of grey.