Aside from my everyday adventures in London itself, one of the most interesting and eye-opening experiences I have had abroad was my street art tour with Alternative London. Led by a man who once painted the walls of the East End himself, the tour was truly a lesson in perspective.
First, a little background on the East End. The area was a city geographically independent of London until their borders finally met due to expansion. One can still observe the nicely painted bollards that were put up to denote the cities’ borders. The East End was once a center of docks, factories, and heavy industry. However, as these stories tend to go, the industry left and the people stayed. The last large-scale commercial operation out of the East End was the Truman brewery. Today the East End is home to a large Bangladeshi community among others and a vibrant art scene that takes place on the streets.
Going into the tour, I was in a less than stellar mood as the wind was howling and I had woken up with the sun. I expected to see little more than “tags” (essentially writing one’s name) and “paste-ups” (advertisements, reproduced art, and faux art used as less direct advertising). I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I saw was subtlety and emotion and humor and sculpture. The tour took us through streets and alleys and behind warehouses where we saw a vibrant community of artists and residents living largely symbiotically. Much of the art was ideological with statements to be made about the global finance crisis and what it is to be homeless. Images that stick out are one of businessmen playing monopoly on the backs of workers and another of a figure checking to make sure its sleeping companion is alright. In addition, sculpture “mushrooms” sprouted from the tops of buildings in bright colors and a destroyed sports car that belonged to Banksy was displayed on a shipping container. Across from the car was a warehouse with giant golden arrows protruding from the side.
The whole tour was truly a visual feast and I will post pictures as I can. The featured image for this post is one of a piece by Stik that depicts a woman in a niqab and another figure holding hands. This piece was especially striking because of the subtlety of the lines which are able to convey a feeling of natural movement and posture with so little. Stik also tends to portray what he sees on the streets, so this piece is likely a reflection of the cultural integration between conservative Muslims and other groups in the East End.
Truly the most important part of the tour was the character of the East End and the art itself. More art on the streets then a pejorative “street art,” the paintings, engravings, and sculpture on the East End are mostly done with permission and of the minority that are not, efforts are often made to preserve the results. The art lends character and vibrancy to a region of the city where incomes are low and the encroachment of grey paint, pavement, and developments is a serious problem. The people of the area are determined to keep its status as an approachable hub of creativity while developers and councilmen see it as a prime target for gentrification, which could eliminate the affordable studio space and colorful small businesses that give life to the East End. The East End and street art are an important part of London and serve as a creative outlet and an opportunity for a better life for many people who would otherwise be homeless or have no creative outlet for pent up energies, joys, and frustrations.
Long live street art and long live the creative East End.