With chain stores and iconic sights, it's difficult to experience a city from an angle that doesn't seem well trod. Street art tours give visitors an angle on a destination that may have a few surprises.
At one time, tours of London ventured only cautiously beyond the West End and Soho, and certainly no further east than the Tower of London. But recently the East End has established itself firmly on the tourist map, thanks in part to its open-air gallery of international renown – its colourful street art.
London’s graffiti has become just as much of an attraction as the more conventional art in its galleries — and it can be almost as valuable, if the theft this week of Banksy’s Slave Labour, wall and all, from Poundland in Wood Green and its subsequent listing at £450,000 on a US auction site is anything to go by.
Street art is now a global tourism force. There are specialist tours in Berlin, Paris, New York and Melbourne, in several British cities – and astonishingly, about ten different graffiti tours in London alone.
To find out what the East End streets had to offer I contacted Gary Means of Alternative Tours, and a day later found myself standing by our rendezvous point, a sculpture of a goat in Spitalfields market.
Gary limits tour numbers to 25 and for ours he’d attracted a friendly crowd in trainers and Puffa jackets, including the Drilling family from Oakland, USA, and the photographer Dahlia Fouroutin from Los Angeles. “We’ve seen all the usual sights so we wanted to see another side of London,” she said.
Gary shook our hands. Any guide has to be a showman and when it comes to street art, authenticity is key. “I’ve lived here for thir’een years,” he said, sporting the East End’s requisite glottal stop.
Off we set, alighting in Fournier Street, beside Nicholas Hawksmoor’s mighty Christ Church, Spitalfields. “We will see street art,” said Gary, but I want to show it to you in the context of the East End.” He gave us a quick overview of the history of the area – the waves of immigration, the poverty, the Blitz – then led us down splendid Fournier Street for our first work — of what looked like spectral, x-rayed bones — by Shok 1 (most street artists have a nom de plume).
From there we turned into bustling Brick Lane. “These are what we call ‘paste-ups’,” said Gary, pointing to ready-made pictures that artists paste direct to walls and which, like stencils, have the advantage of being quick to put up.
Next was a piece across the road by ‘Stik’: so-called because he specialises in painting stick men. Astonishingly, this Lowry of the alleys was down and out until recently. “He’s amazing,” enthused Gary. “Eighteen months ago he was in a homeless hostel. Now he’s doing very well in New York.” Graffiti stories often have a redemption-by-art angle.
Feeling positively uplifted, we turned into Hanbury Street, a stretch of East London rife with Jack the Ripper tours. Gary loathes them. “We started out in 2010 as an alternative to these Ripper tours,” he says. “Serial killing or street art? No competition.”
From there we were taken to see an image by Ben Slow: an angst-ridden face, pace Munch. “Ben has had anxiety issues,” said Gary. “He has to make art, and here, thousands can see it.” Slow, now an acclaimed artist, ia also a guide with Alternative London. Hanbury Street, it seems, is the Royal Academy of street art and the site of the East End’s most famous graffito: a 30-foot bird by Belgian artist Roa.
It started as an ostrich,” explained Gary. “Then Mr Hussain, who owns the building, said it looked like a crane – a bird feted in Bengali culture. So a crane it became. Everyone loves it except Tower Hamlets council, who covered it up with a banner saying ‘Curry Capital’.”
The council should celebrate street art, Gary argued. “This part of town was in dire straits. Now it’s known internationally as a creative hub.” As if to prove his point we passed a tethered bicycle covered in a brightly coloured knitted cover by Polish artist Olek. “Her thing is ‘crochet-bombing’ “ said Gary (adorning or covering trees, statues and other static objects, with knitting or crochet work).
Next was a vast work by Conor Harrington spanning four storeys and depicting historical characters overlaid with shards of paint – and then came Ely’s Yard, an enormous car park and the Guggenheim of street art. Here was a piece by Shepard Fairey, whose most famous work is Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster. “The first street artist to make the cover of Time Magazine,” beamed Gary.
Other highlights included a battered car by Banksy, (whom Gary thinks is probably ‘several people’) and overlooking the lot, a mosaic version of an old space invader by a French artist called … Space Invader. “Because he invades space” explained Gary. Like Banksy, Space Invader has achieved the accolade of having his art stolen. And so, too, has street artist Cityzen Kane, who creates ceramic pieces of street art and has had to resort to stronger glue to foil the thieves.
“So Gary, how’s street art done” I wanted to know? “The idea that a street artist works in a hoodie at midnight is rubbish” he said. “You’d get nicked. Far better to work in a hi-vis jacket in the middle of the day.” Aha, the old ‘council workman’ trick.
But increasingly, he explained, street artists are commissioned; Ben Eine, for instance, whose big letters adorn shutters across the East End. In 2010 David Cameron gave an Eine picture to President Obama.
“Very cool,” sniffed Gary. “And it does mean that a British artist hangs in the White House.”
At the end of the tour we walked back past a Roa, an Eine and then to Alternative Tour’s double-decker-bus home in a graffiti-lined Shoreditch yard. The Drillings had loved it. “There’s a bit more to London than the things they normally show on the TV,” said 20-year-old Josh.
The street-art boom means that Alternative Tours has started selling prints from the bus and has plans to offer street art lessons to children. And as Gary remarked, “Hopefully these tours will make you start looking at cities in a different way.”
- To book, see www.alternativeldn.co.uk The cost is on a pay-what-you-like basis.
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Photo credit: Street art found in the East End of London. Steve Haslam / Flickr