Street art is a curious phenomenon indeed. I knew nothing about it other than what I had learned from the media: a film called ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’ and an episode of ‘Faking It’ in which a wealthy and foppish art student learned to be a graffo. This was quite sufficient for me to enter into a spirited discussion with a family friend one Christmas. I contended much street art is pretty: the friend argued vehemently it was flagrantly destructive to paint someone else’s property without their permission. In one sense that argument summarises street art perfectly. It is both right and wrong. At its worst it is simply destructive and illegal – at its best it can make the soul sing. In the middle of that spectrum is some dross, but more creativity, wit, conflict and sheer enthusiasm for life itself than you can shake a stick at.
But I get ahead of myself. Time Out’s Book lists several items of street art, and I was worried that I could spend a great deal of time trawling the back streets of London without finding one of them. I needed a guide, and by Jove I found one. A very nice young man called Griff operates a number of street art tours: a two hour tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays for £10, or a four hour street tour costing £15 on Saturday. You’ll be surprised to hear I went in deep, and went for the £15 tour, partially so I didn’t have to take the day off specially, and partially because the website was clear the longer tour was better value, and I’m certain it was. The pound per piece of art rate viewed was very high and Griff is both immensely knowledgeable about his subject and genuinely pleased to share that knowledge in a very no nonsense and unpretentious way. A photographer himself, he knows many of the street artists personally and interviews them on his website (details below).
Now, despite the fact Griff emailed all those signed up to the tour a day in advance to remind us that London’s transport sytem really is rubbish on a weekend, I forgot how rubbish it is, and therefore turned up half an hour late. Happily, Griff had given us all a mobile number for just such an eventuality, and so he told me where to go to the Foundry building to meet the tour. The tour was full of expert little touches like that: it really was a very slick operation. As I joined the group, Griff was leading a keen discussion about the commercialisation of street art: the old Foundry building is to be demolished to make room for a new hotel: because Banksy had painted two walls inside the Foundary, those walls are now being protected 24/7 by security guards so they can be preserved and the new hotel can be built around them.
This was the first of the many contradictions I found on the tour. I vaguely think of street art being the preserve of the young, impoverished and creative: it is not quite so. Many of the artists are international players who tour major international cities, others combine really quite flash city jobs with pasting up art in their free time. One, Eine, was fired from his City job when his double life was discovered. He went on to be the favourite artist of David Cameron, who gave Barack Obama a piece of Eine’s work when he came to visit the UK. Eine is an interesting case study of how communities have embraced local street art. His specialism is typography: particularly painting the initials of businesses on their shutters. For reasons I don’t really understand, graffos like to tag street artists work: when shopkeepers found their Eine letters tagged, they tried to repair the damage, to protect the artwork they had been freely given.
All this puts the local council in a very tricky position. It cannot really be expected to differentiate between good art, bad art and indifferent art. The local community actually really likes a lot of the art it is given, and will protest to protect it (as it did in the case of this hare).
In that context, all the council can reasonably do is focus on geography. There are some legal walls, where the turnover of art is exceptionally high, and a piece might last perhaps a week or two. There is art on people’s property, which will be left alone, so the owners themselves can remove it if they so wish. And then there are communal walls, where the council will remove the art regardless. There are some places, like trains, where any form of art, tagging or street art, is highly illegal, and will always be removed, and unhappily is both considered the major prize and to be a major cause of the relentless increase in fares.
All this has major implications for the way the art itself is made. Speed being of the essence, some use stencils, sculpt or produce their art on paper so the time intensive bit can be done at home, and stuck stuck up around the city fast. Others place their art on very inconvenient places, so it is very tricky to remove. The most extreme version of that we saw was this piece, which had been painted by an artist dangling headfirst and upside down on top of a several storey high building. Had he fallen, he would certainly have been killed.
The funny thing about all this from the point of view of the tour is that it sort of turned the group into a posse of street artists too. We started as a group of (broadly) white, middle class people, with an awful lot of flash cameras. As the tour went on, people were getting down on the ground, and climbing lamp posts to get a better view, as we wandered the back streets and car parks of East London. I got to chatting to a lovely French woman whose husband ran a street art website in Paris. She had a weird talent for spotting art: at every corner, she pointed to so many pieces I otherwise would not have seen. She was amazing, but then, so was the tour.
Fair reader, I have something to confess to you. I was never the cool one at school (I lived through the summer of love in 1988 without popping so much as a Murray Mint). The street art scene is relentlessly cool, witty, clever. As I went round the tour, I felt less cool and more of a tourist than I ever have whilst on my voyage through a thousand things in London. A couple of the residents of Brick Lane chuckled at us for taking photos of all this stuff, and I didn’t really blame them. But equally, nothing I have done before made me think so hard or learn so much in such a short period of time. Griff, our guide, is incredibly knowledgable about his subject, and terribly generous with that knowledge. Given that this is an art scene which changes day by day and hour by hour, just keeping up to date with it all was no mean feat. He was accessible, engaging, and even willing to give tips on photography for those who wanted them.
I thought he was great, and I really, really think if you possibly can you should go on the four hour tour. Wear comfortable shoes, warm clothing and prepare to see things which will make you smile or gape in awe, and perhaps mourn the passing of beautiful things which will last a week, or perhaps two. It will open your eyes to the world around you: make you query what is art and not, and you can even keep your eye in by following them on Facebook and Twitter. If you do nothing else on my list of a thousand things, do this one.
The street art website is here: http://streetartlondon.co.uk/tours/, and contains details of how to book a tour, interviews with street artists and lots of images of the street art itself. You can also like the Street Art facebook page, or follow them on Twitter (@streetartlondon).