I’m not sure it is true that the invention of mobile phones is the reason we never look up. Other than John Betjeman, who I increasingly believe is the sole reason that London, in any sense of glory, still exists, I am not convinced we are a looking up kind of species. In general, we like to see where we are going, and looking down at our feet makes us feel more secure, less open to the world. And yes, nowadays we certainly do spend an inordinate amount of time glued to our handheld devices, myself included. And yes, it is a shame. But was ever thus, I think. However, it is a habit worth breaking as there is a fantastic amount of cool stuff happening above our heads….and that is my neat segue-way into Street Art Tours. Graffiti, by its very nature is counter cultural. And daring. And bold. And look-what-I-did brash. It is also controversial, political, angry, funny and increasingly mainstream. So much so that street artists recently blacked out one of Berlin’s most iconic spray painted images in response to what they see as the over gentrification of that city, and by extension, their work in it. Over to you Banksy (I am quoting). But, dear reader, this blog is not about Berlin (as much as I love it so)….it is about me, me, me and my passion love affair with London. And that includes its street art.
Up and over to Shoreditch we went to spend a few hours with Karim, a street artist himself, on a Street Art Tour. And wow was it fantastic.
We learned much, much more than the simply art of looking up, as valuable as that is. This tour includes generous doses of history and politics, some of it brutal some of it funny. All interesting. We learned you can still be arrested for graffiti, but that lots of landlords actually enjoy a bit of art on their walls. In fact, many developers invite street artists to decorate hoarding. And that the line between tagging and advertising is, no surprise really, getting mighty thin.
We learned street art is a global phenomena. The work we saw was done by people from all over the world. Men and women. Some work had stories attached, some didn’t. But what we wanted to know most of all was “how the hell did they get up there?” These people must be ninjas or circus performers. Certainly daring, maybe crazy. But not all graffiti is up or even across, some of the most fun was down. The guy who paints on discarded chewing gum. Not technically graffiti as he is defacing someone else’s rubbish, so not punishable. Fantastic, tiny pieces these. And because my life works this way, of course I got to see him in action a few weeks later on Millennium Bridge. Terribly nice man. I also met the sister of the boyfriend of one of the prominent female artists, who goes by the name ‘Gold Peg.” When I asked if she was actually spiderman because her work is in impossible places, I got only a sly smile in return. And there is a code of conduct. Some work we saw has been left unmolested by others for years. A sign of true respect. Many other artists don’t fare nearly so well and tag over tag over tag can make for a dizzying affect.
Some work is ridiculous. Huge boobs are never that perky. Nor do the girls attached always carry two guns. Some naughty. Some nostalgic. Some aren’t even painted, but made of ceramic or tile or foam or recycled materials. Some are angry. And thoughtful. And clever, clever, clever. Though in general, the names of the “crews” are not. They should read more books. Familiarize themselves with the concept of puns and the subtle art of reference. But perhaps I ask too much. This is less art of the word rather art of concept.
And of course the personalities. And the stories. Pure Evil and his double-barreled surname. The Banksy v Robbo feud. Robbo’s fall from a ladder and his subsequent long, slow death. But my fav has to be the one about the guy who worked at Lloyds by day and expressed himself with spray paint by night. He showed his face in a documentary on graffiti and when the powers that be found out he was fired. First thing he did was get his neck and hands tattooed, guaranteeing he could never be employed in the City again. Respect. (Of course, those of you who read the Metro with the devotion I do will remember the recent exchange between all single women of London and “City boy with sleeves” and know that this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.) But back in the day (whenever that might have been) it was. I admire this guy’s determination, even though not so keen on the neck tattoo myself.
Karim was superb. Not just in his knowledge and presentation, but his patience was saint like. Get the brains of 3 atypical Wandsworth women and their enormous pack of children stirring and it is rather like the existence of Halloween candy. Everything, all the time. Too much is never enough. More, more, more. In every direction. Not sure who was more exhausted by the end….but well satisfied we were.
For weeks after, we have been noticing and sometimes recognizing street art all round London. We’ve started looking up and out. Taking in. Observing London from different angles and viewpoints. Imitating John Betjeman’s St, Pancras statue. Can only be a good thing that.
To book your own street art tour: http://streetartlondon.co.uk/tours/