I Got Schooled in Street Art in Shoreditch
I was face and eyes into planning my return trip to London and I was debating what kind of tour I wanted to do. When I travel solo I always like to book at least one group day tour/activity. For one, I like to learn something about the place I’m visiting and I find that day tours are a way to be social and maybe meet new people. Two birds, one stone.
But what should I do in London? Should I seek out a food tour? The ones I did in Barcelona and San Juan were delicious and educational. Bike tour? The one I did in Paris was a trip highlight. Camden pub crawl? Beer was the social lubricant I needed in Brussels. Or should I go Banksy hunting in Shoreditch?
Bingo! Banksy it is! Street art has become a pop culture phenomenon in recent years and Banksy is the undisputed king of street art.
So on a bright, warm morning I found myself sipping a Costa cappuccino and milling around Spitalfields Market with a dozen other people, waiting for our tour guide from Shoreditch Street Art Tours to show up. Dave wasn’t what I was expecting: a middle aged, clean cut guy in new Doc Martins, crisp jeans, and a button-up shirt & sweater. But he proved over and over again during our tour that he was exceedingly knowledgeable about the street art and graffiti writing scene, the London scene in particular. Don’t judge a book by its cover right?
When I signed up I thought I would enjoy a pleasant walk around a new to me London neighbourhood and see some pretty pictures. But, in the end, I learned so much more. Dave’s knowledge and enthusiasm were truly infectious.
Graffiti…Street Art…It’s All the Same, Right?
We wasted no time in getting our learn on. First up…Street art…graffiti…it’s all the same thing right? Wrong! They are different crowds with different purposes and different audiences. The former is letter-based and meant for other graffiti writers (writers, not artists), not the general public. They really don’t care if you don’t get their tagging. The more skill shown and the more difficult the location, the higher the street cred for the writer. Street art, however, is meant for the enjoyment, education, and enlightenment of the general public. Street art can come in a myriad of different forms: paste-ups, stencils, spray paint, stickers, sculpture…it’s all part of the scene. We even saw one example by Dr. Cream of how street art and video can work together.
We discovered sculptures by Jonesy and Gregos, stickers by DeDe, subverted street signs by Eyesaw and Clet Abraham, paste ups by Arrex Skulls and Mr. Fahrenheit, stencils by Otto Schade and Banksy, paintings by Dreph and ROA, and so so much more. I felt like I was discovering whole new world that I had only glimpsed in my periphery before.
I loved Manyoly’s use of colour and the energy of Nathan Bowen’s characters. The futuristic portraits by Mr. Cenz and the simplicity of work by Stik. The instantly recognizable characters by Qwert and Keef that kept popping up on our tour. It was one great new discovery after another.
One of the best and worst things about street art though is that it’s temporary. I can tell you about the pieces I saw on my tour and how to find them, but when you go exploring they may all be different. That makes it more dynamic and exciting than a museum visit but can also leads to disappointment when you find out that a piece you wanted to see for the first time or revisit has been covered over. It’s all part of the ebb and flow, push and pull tension around street art. Being on the lookout for new art makes you acutely more aware of your surroundings. Never know when you might spot your next favourite piece.
Shoreditch: A Neighbourhood Revitalized
Shoreditch itself is much like Williamsburg, a formerly rundown part of town filled with warehouses where few people lived and even fewer visited. They’ve both gone through a renaissance and became trendy, hip places to live and visit. Some argue that they’ve lost their heart and soul. In both cases, artists have been priced out and had to move further afield to Hackney Wick and Bushwick, where the same gentrification is showing signs of happening again. Where artists go, so goes street art.
The thing that you might not immediately realize here is that street art actually plays a hand in the gentrification of a neighbourhood. When there’s more quality street art, the more esteem and interest a neighbourhood has, and the more people want to visit and live there (graffiti does not have this same effect). A developer in the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn recognized this and actually encouraged art on the walls around property he was developing. By spurring on artistic statements, he actually raised the value of his property.
I can see how this could be maddening for street artists who, historically have operated outside the law and aren’t exactly known for their capitalist tendencies. I guess the rule here really should be, don’t art where you eat if you want to be able to stay there.
Legitimizing the Illegal
In the past decade, there’s been a legitimization of street art. Many artists have gone on to sell prints, commercial design work, clothing lines, and more, with specialized galleries opening solely to bring street art to market. One-time vandals are becoming sought-after artists. Two good examples are Shepard Fairey, whose work was used in Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign and is the founder of OBEY clothing, and Ben Eine, who had a painting given to Obama as a gift from then-UK PM David Cameron. Some artists use public streets as a form of “free sample” while making their living selling prints and canvases. If your work is good, you can resonate with the public, and you’re everywhere, you’ll create a market for your product. Social media has sped this process along as now we can easily share photos of great pieces through a few clicks on a phone.
It is literally a breath of fresh air compared to the traditional art world. But it’s also a double-edged sword that can sometimes see art removed from the public’s eye to be sold at auction without the artist seeing any of the profits. When you don’t own your canvas, you don’t control what happens to it.
This newfound social exposure has given rise to the street art tour. And newly educated and enamoured folks, like myself, seek out artists they’d never otherwise have heard of. Limited edition prints can make art accessible to everyday folks and I like that. But the commercialization of it does lead to some uncomfortable questions. If you don’t have permission to paint, isn’t it just vandalism? Do we change our rules if we think the art is good? Is it only a crime if it’s bad or we don’t agree with the statement?
The more I think about it, the more I uncover some of my conflicted feelings about street art. Can you appreciate street art but still not condone vandalism? For the most part, I don’t like graffiti writing (Ben Eine’s work being my exception) and I don’t like the idea of people putting up art on someone’s wall without permission. I’m too much of a rule follower and if I lived somewhere with graffiti laws I know I’d be pissed if I got fined or had to pay cleanup fees because of someone else’s actions, even if I liked their art.
That being said, I’m all for commissioned and permissioned pieces. Bring it on! I think public art adds to a city’s character and there should be a place for artistic social commentary. I would love to see more private buildings and public spaces open up their walls for uncurated art, though I know this would probably take away from the subversive nature for some. But maybe it’s a bit like music and tv pirating… if you give people a legitimate way to do it, they’ll abandon the illegal. I think the key would be to not censor or curate, just provide the space.
Street art walks a fine line between political statement, marketable artform, and crime. Nothing summed it up better than our tour finale, a genuine Banksy. A piece of plexiglass protects the valuable “vandalism” so that it doesn’t get damaged. Oxymoron? You decide.