The street art walking tour was by far my favorite required part of the trip. I fell in love with the East End area as soon as we entered and I looked up at the worn buildings that managed to survive the destruction of World War II. It was the London grit I was looking for.
I liked our tour guide, Ben, right off the bat. He was passionate about what he was saying, as he is a street artist himself; he gave a very politically driven view of the community and the art that occupies the area; and I guess I had a bit of a soft spot for him because he reminded me of a good friend of mine back in Pittsburgh, who, for a period of time, tagged the streets of Pittsburgh will a small but distinct symbol and, on any given night, could be found ranting about bourgeoisie bullshit interfering with his way of life. The tour was amazing, and I wish I could be as informative as Ben was, but I’m just going to gloss over some of the artists we saw.
I think this piece by Stik is an important one to start out with because of its obvious link to its location. The image depicts two stick-like figures—one, a woman wearing a burqa, the other, dressed plainly—holding hands. This is a reference to how the area is divided and how it evolved into the thriving area it is now after the devastation of the war. One side of the neighborhood was restored by Indian immigrants that moved to the area and started many successful businesses. (Mostly restaurants. Try walking down Brick Lane and not smelling delicious curry.) The other end of the neighborhood is occupied by vintage clothing ships and chic eateries. (Hipster crowd, hello.) Together, the make the East End what it is today, and Stik represented that harmony perfectly with his simple yet effective visual statement.
ROA, a Belgian artist, whose work often features animals in minimal color palettes, is all over the East End. The bird painting, a commissioned piece, has been on that wall for five years now—outliving ordinary street art turnover, which is around six months. And miraculously, the painting only took eight days.
Jonesy was one of my favorites from the tour because his art was so subtle that you really had to search for it. (And this makes me wonder about the impact of his message.) Most of Jonesy’s works are bronze-casted statues, though he does use other mediums as well. He is an advocate for environmental protection, and this is promoted in many of his pieces, either implicitly or explicitly. Beyond that, Jonesy seems like a pretty interesting dude; the statue of the person with winds was apparently cast from real pigeon wings, and I’ve read a rumor that he may be a man in his 50s, which throws him way out of the stereotypical age group of street artists.
Another artist breaking the stereotype is SAKI and Bitches. Not many street artists are female, but the number is steadily rising. Much of her works feature provocative images of women, reminiscent of images of fertility with larges breasts and bottoms, but I particularly liked the piece I saw because you could interact with it by constructing different characters.
Clet Abraham, a French artist, is known for the stickers he illegally posts on street signs. Without changing the function or visibility of the sign, he both adds humor or seriousness to the sign and comments on how rules and restrictions hinder expression.
While some artists’ work may involve just pasting a sticker up in the dead of night, other artists undergo much more elaborate processes. Some, like the works done by Alexis Diaz, show influences of schooling in the Fine Arts—as indicated be the precise individual brush strokes.
Similarly, the work of Borondo can be linked to techniques used by the old masters—except he uses larger strokes. His piece, stunning up close, can be appreciated even more after taking several steps back.
Some other artists show extraordinary talent with spray paint, as seen in El Mac‘s cowboy above. By first freezing the spray paint, he could achieve the desired effect.
Some artist go to great lengths to get their work up on the walls. Invader, whose work was posted illegally by him and his team, involved borrowing a lift, wearing high visibility jackets, closing a junction, and diverting traffic. I guess the trick is to just look like you’re supposed to be there. Invader does a lot of other cool projects—like sending art to space. Read more about that here.
Vhils has a different, but equally interesting method. To create his portraits, he first plasters the wall and then uses chisels and jackhammers (or EXPLOSIVES) to provide both the image and texture. What is extra cool about this piece is that it looks different in person than it does on camera because of the physical depth. And do you think you recognize that man? Think again or stop thinking because he is just the Everyday Hero.
LIke I said before, I really enjoyed Ben. He was especially dedicated to helping us understand how art can and should be politically driven. I like what he had to say about graffiti—that is about identity and an attack on the system—because so many people discount it as an art form. I personally feel different about it because I know several tag artists in the Pittsburgh area who I know to be thought-provoking people, and not people solely interested in defacing a facade for no one’s better sake.
Ben also spoke tragically of the future of the East End. The multimillion dollar corporations are budding and quickly overtaking the history of the East End, as well as the people who’ve long lived there and the potential canvas space. If you stand on certain street corners, like the one featured in the pictures above, you can literally look one way and see the historical sites and art and then look the other way to be struck with skyscrapers and chrome.
With that, I want to end with one of Ben‘s pieces—which brings us back to where we started, the community. Charlie Burns had a great reputation in the East End. His family owns a second hand furniture and paper goods shop and was heavily involved with the Repton Boxing club. For all of the positive influence he’d had on the area, he was deemed The King of Bacon Street. And so Ben gave him a proper memorial outside the family owned shop because art means so much more when it’s connected to its location.