Street art in Shoreditch ranges from superb to slander to gummy miniatures, writes Rebecca Roche.
Who hasn't written their name on the beach with a stick, unperturbed by the temporary nature of the canvas? And who hasn't carved the name of their crush on to the underside of a wooden desk, or scrawled a message on a toilet door? Social media is criticised as a platform to validate our own existence, but these behaviours predate Instagram by a long shot. I remember going to an exhibition on Pompeii in Wellington's Te Papa about a decade ago, and one thing that stuck with me was the graffiti found there. It was the same as what we see on walls now: proclamations of BFFs 4EVA, political statements, or the eternal and heartbreakingly endearing "I was here" — look, there's my name.
All of this to say that I went to Shoreditch, London, to look at street art. It was my second time in London since moving to Europe nearly two years ago. The first time, I was left with the impression that London was extremely busy, mostly grey, and that the people stomping the pavement seemed almost wholly unhappy. I wondered, not for the first time, why so many Kiwis make something of a pilgrimage out of the place. This time around, I got out of the centre. While it's worth seeing the icons of the Big British Apple — the black cabs, the red buses, Big Ben, Tower Bridge… I suspected that, like many cities, the real spirit of London wasn't going to be found in the CBD.
Searching for things to do, my eye was caught by a Street Art Tour, run by Alternative London. My guide was the intelligent, insightful, and instantly likeable Kea (possibly a pseudonym), who showed me around the alleyways, doorways, and abandoned spots of Shoreditch, revealing the many examples of artists marking their existence on their grimy bit of the world.
What I saw was extremely varied: ranging from objectively beautiful paintings, which suggested formal training, to a piece of gum on the ground, lovingly illustrated like a miniature canvas (Google search Ben Wilson chewing gum man). Collages slapped on to walls with flour-and-water paste alluded to hurried missions under the cover of darkness, while tiny sculptures had been placed atop lamp posts by a man hiding in plain sight with his hard hat and fluoro vest. There were plaster moulds of broccoli heads stuck on to walls, near a football player who, on closer inspection, had his foot on a skull, and a stencilled cherub with a gun slung over a shoulder, spray painting a heart. One of my favourite pieces was an immense brick wall covered in the slogan "Tired of Life, Tired of London." Kea walked behind me as I took a picture and said: "That's one of mine."
The only street artist I was even vaguely familiar with before this tour was Banksy, so I learned a lot. Street artists make up an intriguing community, engaging with each other through their work — a strike through someone's existing work or painting indicates disrespect. Still, it's a community in which the members are unlikely to have met in person, and refer to each other with (often amusing) code names. Street art is, of course, mostly illegal and so a code of anonymity is necessary. We will never know, for example, who graffitied "ERICA HAS HERPES" in huge script along the interior wall of a pedestrian tunnel. I instantly wanted to know: Who is Erica? Has she seen a doctor? Does she need me? Why would someone publicly shame her like this? Poor Erica — this artist didn't give her the same name protection that they claimed for themselves.
From slander to miniature masterpieces, a recurring discussion was around what makes art worthy. Is the term "street art" purely descriptive, or does it contain a certain value judgment which differentiates it from simply "art"? And is street art the same as graffiti, or is the second term implicitly negative? And what about tagging? Is it necessarily vandalism if it beautifies an ugly space? If there is a difference between art and vandalism, what are the criteria for each? And are there some spaces which should remain untouched?
To this last question, Kea thought so. Approaching a little, tin-roofed trailer, I saw a sign on top of it: "Syd's: The Original Coffee Stall, Established 1919." Apparently, several generations of Syds have served locals from this trailer, one young Syd even being bought home from World War II because Shoreditch was in desperate need of a cuppa. Kea pointed to the tag "COSMO" sprayed across one of the sides. "I have a lot of respect for some of Cosmo's work," Kea said, "but most artists I know think this choice of placement shows an ignorance of history. There are some things you just shouldn't work on." It says more about my own pre-judgment of graffiti artists than anything else, but I was surprised and impressed to hear that there was a sort of at-least-partially-respected moral code in the community.
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I would certainly recommend this tour, even if — no, especially if — you have only ever used "street" and "art" in the same phrase to ask directions to a gallery. In Shoreditch, the streets are the gallery. It is sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, and often just plain weird, but the resilience of the artists is respectable. The longevity of their work is uncertain — other artists will soon cover it up, or the council will paint it grey again. And yet, much in the same way the incoming tide doesn't stop you from scrawling your name in the sand, they took the opportunity to claim a space and say what they wanted to say.
And on that note: I was here. I existed. And I have something to say… Be nice to Erica.
GETTING THERE: Qatar flies daily from Auckland to London, via its hub in Doha.
DETAILS: For information on street art tours, go to alternativeldn.co.uk