Graffiti is no longer a four-letter word. In fact, it has garnered a huge following around the globe – not least in London.
There are many reasons for this. Street art promotes freedom of expression. It’s available to everyone. It doesn’t discriminate against the uninformed. Its very nature is to challenge the conventions of traditional art, so it is constantly evolving as a result. Street art also gives artists a direct line to the public. It’s a free platform for political and socially provocative content. What’s more – it can ignite a sense of surprise and wonder that’s hard to beat.
As we delved into London’s street art scene, we met everyone from street art tour operators to street art culture experts, who revealed how we reached this exciting point in urban art history.
London is packed with street art. From the walls of neighbourhood alleyways to the inside of ashtrays, the capital city is a gritty canvas for dazzling works of art that can stop you in your tracks. Once you start noticing such art, you may start to look at the city differently. Mark Rigney, founder of Hookedblog agrees: “I had stumbled upon this sub culture, and I started to discover works plastered across walls, doors, lampposts and street furniture. Once your eyes are open to it and you start to look around, you become hooked, and the city never looks the same again. It becomes this huge outdoor gallery.”
Hookedblog is a street art news site that’s been running since 2005. It covers everything from stencils and graffiti to illustrations and murals. We asked Mark, what does the term ‘street art’ actually mean today? “Street art is a constantly evolving visual art form that is created in public spaces, usually unsanctioned, but in recent years more and more of the works we are seeing are created with some sort of permission – be they large scale murals or institutionally commissioned works,” he explains.
So, quite a broad definition – which is arguably how it should be for any art form. It wasn’t always that way, though: “Back when we first began to document street art, the term was understood to refer to street stickers, stencils and wheat pasted posters,” says Mark.
Street art originally hails from the US, evolving from the New York City graffiti scene that blossomed in the 1960s and 70s. Since then, it has transformed from a criminal activity to a fascinating form of artistic expression. Lois Stavsky, founder of US street art site Street Art NYC told us how this change came to fruition: “Unlike graffiti, street art was not identified with vandalism and poverty. Much of it was visually appealing and intellectually provocative. And once businesses and commercial interests realised that street art can be a great promotional tool, its popularity soared, as artists began to get paid for what they’d once done illegally. In addition, museums began to accept street art as a legitimate art form and started to showcase and promote it.”
It’s certainly true that there seems to be a newfound appreciation for urban art and graffiti. Dave Stuart from London tour company Shoreditch Street Art Tours agrees: “Public tolerance of this art has increased dramatically: 10 years ago there were very few who considered it anything other than a crime, but now councils and businesses sponsor street art festivals where spectacular commissioned murals are painted by stars from the world of street art.”
The popularity of Banksy could also be partly responsible for the redefinition of street art. His work has helped expose the art form to the masses. “We can all enjoy street art now that – thanks to Banksy – we know what it is, and we no longer associate it with crime on grim housing estates and industrial zones,” says Dave.
“It has also become an academic discipline,” adds Lois, “with prestigious universities offering degrees and presenting conferences on the topic. In addition, the increase in social media such as Instagram and Facebook has made it accessible to millions and encouraged folk to document it.”
This all adds to street art’s accessibility. It’s available to all types of people, from all walks of life. “What street art has is a democratic appeal,” says Dave. “Enjoying street art doesn’t mean you have to be educated in art theory, or be rich, posh and clever. It avoids elitism.”
As street art aficionados, Dave and Lois have a lot in common (there’s only the small matter of a few thousand miles between them). This is the same for their respective home cities, London and New York. These are two of the biggest cities in the world for art, and in particular, street art. But why are these two destinations such a huge draw for street artists? “Street artists are always eager to paint in NYC, as they perceive NYC as the birthplace of graffiti – the forerunner to street art. And NYC is, of course, home to hundreds of cultural sites and centres,” says Lois. “As far as London’s popularity as a destination for street artists is concerned, its association with Banksy – although he is Bristol-based – is certainly a factor. In addition, London is one of the top – if not the top – tourist destinations in the world, so any artist who paints there is guaranteed exposure.”
And a Londoner’s perspective? New York may be the birthplace of street art, but the UK capital has kept itself one step ahead. “A system of galleries specialising in art by street artists sprang up in London several years before places like New York, Paris and Berlin managed to establish a critical mass of galleries,” says Dave. “So a lot of street artists came to visit London because gaining a reputation for their street art in London led to exhibitions in galleries, which in turn led to artists making money.”
It’s no surprise then, that London’s street art scene has been steadily growing for decades. With art concentrated in certain known areas, the scene is purpose-built for exploration. East London in particular is known for its striking street art. “London has always attracted artists from many different backgrounds and locations, which has contributed to it becoming regarded as one of the top cities in the world for street art,” says Mark. “The neighbourhoods of Shoreditch, Old Street, Brick Lane, Dalston and Hackney Wick also drew artists to the city, back when the rents were cheap in these then-unloved parts, where no one wanted to live.”
Today, street art tours are huge in this part of town, hence the success of Shoreditch Street Art Tours. Dave – who is also a photographer, writer and blogger – became interested in street art after being introduced to Banksy’s work. “It was a real ‘eureka’ moment,” he explains. “I realised that the stuff on walls that I had never paid any attention to was actually art. So, I went in search of ‘Banksys’ and found that there was way more to it than just Banksy.
“From that point, exploring the streets of East London to find street art became a hobby.”
There are many Londoners who can say the same. Street art has become part of the community in Shoreditch. It’s impossible not to be absorbed by the colours and patterns that adorn the streets. The works of art have a gritty yet charismatic edge that the street art of other cities has yet failed to replicate. It’s skilfully crafted work with a no-nonsense punk attitude.
Of course, all street art is temporary, and as such, is often hard to share and even track down. This makes the thirst for discovery huge. There’s something extremely satisfying about stumbling upon a jaw-dropping mural, only to find that it’s been covered with something completely different the next week. It’s as though you’re in on a secret with the artist. Moments like this are happening every day in London. It’s this dynamism that keeps street art fresh, exciting and progressive.
This fast turnover is also what leads many enthusiasts to record their finds. “It was due to the ephemeral nature of street art that I began to document what I was seeing,” reveals Mark. “I took to the streets with my camera, taking pictures on film at first (and switching to digital later), before the artworks were removed by the city council, faded by the elements or covered over by illegal fly-posters.”
Thanks to people like Mark, there are several street art blogs, Facebook pages and Instagram accounts thriving online – something else that has transformed the way the world regards street art.
“The increased use of mobile phones and applications such as Instagram now allow these artists the potential to reach huge new audiences instantly,” continues Mark. “An artist can finish a work in London and share it online for it to be consumed by an eager global street art audience who may have never set foot in London, but will be familiar with what new street art works have gone up in the city.
“These new technologies have also shaped how people consume and interact with street art, with many never seeing the work on an actual street, but instead viewing the work as a photograph on a screen.”
However, Mark agrees that nothing comes close to seeing an artwork in the flesh: “There is no way to replicate that magic moment you get when you turn a corner or wander down a side street and stumble upon a piece of street art or a mural that stops you in your tracks.”
This is potentially part of the reason that enthusiasts are also getting together in person to celebrate their shared passion.
Matilda Tickner-Du is producer and project manager (plus co-founder) of Endoftheline. She owns the company with large-scale artist Jim Vision, who creates cutting-edge murals and art installations. In Matilda’s words, “Endoftheline is a creative collective that produces murals, videos and events, originally set up to represent our collective skills in the business world. We curate underground art events and support artists through commissions and art installations.”
One such art event is Meeting of Styles, a graffiti festival that’s now hosted in 35 countries worldwide. “The original event was founded in Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, and has been running for 15 years!” explains Matilda. “It’s a global platform to put graffiti and street art on a public stage. It encourages interaction between artists from different countries and with the public of all ages.”
The festival has garnered a global reputation. It’s not only the perfect outlet for an exchange of ideas and skills, but a great opportunity for an intercultural exchange. There’s a feeling of unity between the international events, but also a strong sense of identity in each location. “Each city hosts the event in its own way,” says Matilda. “Endoftheline are the UK hosts, and this year we celebrated our 7th annual event, as well as our third event at the Nomadic Gardens.”
Festivals like these also give new artists the perfect platform to showcase their work, and further reason for the general public to appreciate street art as a true art form.
Meeting of Styles is free to attend, and budding street artists can soon apply on the website for the 2017 event. “We will be opening applications for the next London Meeting of Styles very soon and searching for the best British up and coming artists to paint next to world talent,” Matilda explains. “We really want to give everybody a chance to be a part of this community and support the next generation.”
Another beauty of street art is the mystery that often surrounds the artists. Thanks to social media, however, it’s easier than ever to have favourite artists and follow their work around a city. We asked Mark for a round-up of his favourite artists: “Some of the artists whose work continues to impress would include Os Gemeos – the Brazilian twins’ artwork just brings a smile to my face every time I see [it]. I love the vibrant colour palette they use.
“Other artists I like include New York artist Swoon, whose work I have enjoyed seeing on the streets of London right from the get go, when she was wheatpasting up black and white drawings, and now the elaborate large-scale paper cut-outs that she is known for.
“Faile, Bast, Invader, Paul Insect, Blu, Phlegm, MOMO, Sickboy, Alexone, Sheryo & Yok and Ever Siempre are among some of the other artists who feature on my list. I could go on but where does one stop? So much talent around!”
If you’re planning a trip to London and are thinking of researching a list of must-see works of street art, Dave has some good advice: “A list of ‘must see’ pieces of street art would be doomed to fail. Half of them may be gone by next week, but they will always be replaced by something which is hopefully equally exciting.”