I’ve been drawn to the colorful streets of Shoreditch in London. I love visiting this neighborhood when I’m in town. It’s always changing, with new art popping up as well as interesting shops and restaurants entering the scene. It never gets old to me, and since I never tire of exploring artsy Shoreditch, it’s what made me narrow in on this particular neighborhood to stay in last time I was in London this past April.
I think it’s safe to say one doesn’t need to go on a tour to see the street art of Shoreditch. Once you arrive, all you have to do is walk around. You barely need to be an observant person. It’s everywhere. But this last trip, I decided to check out the Alternative London street art walking tour. The tour is “free,” meaning that it’s meant to be accessible by all. The guides are super passionate about leading others around and exploring street art in London together, though they expect to be tipped in a way that reflects how one values the tour, or what one can afford to give. It seemed like a great way to learn more about this art that I love, and provide an introduction to Shoreditch to my sister-in-law and her friend who were visiting London with me, lest they thought I had chosen to stay in some strange gritty section of town far from “London proper.”
We walked down to Spitalfields market and met up with our guide, Doug. First stop of the tour was a little lesson on the making of street art - a topic that I often gloss over as I just admire the finished work. I suppose it’s self explanatory that much of the street art we see is illegally done - unless the artist has permission from the building owners to do so. Thus speed is an important factor to be able to create a piece and get away quickly. Enter in the stencil - a pre-cut creation that can be affixed, spray-painted, removed, and voila - a work is made quickly, and the artist can run off.
Next up was one of the few street artists I was familiar with by name - Stik. Looking at this work of his, you probably can gather how he got that name. He paints stick figures in this distinctive style. Yet for as simple as the figures are, they are powerfully emotive and moving. Even more interesting was to learn more about the artist. We found out that he had been homeless and began creating street art, which started to build his reputation. It’s opened up opportunities for him to display and sell his art in well-known art galleries - and to think his artistic career all started on the exteriors of London.
ROA was another artist we studied who has his own very distinctive style - his is the crane in the scene below. He depicts animals in a muted color palette of whites, grays, and blacks. Now take a look at that bird closely, and think about how long it might take you to paint. ROA? He made that in a matter of hours. (About 7 hours, if I recall correctly from the tour.)
When you ask me to think about street art, flat images come to mind - paintings on the sides of buildings, like I’ve shown above. One thing I don’t think about are 3D objects. 3D sculptures do have a place in the street art scene though - like these made by French artist Gregos. He takes leaving his mark on cities quite personally - by affixing images of his face.
Top left: One of Gregos' multicolored faces as seen on the tour, as well as an addition to a street sign placed there by another French artist. // Top right: Another face that I was able to spot on my own, after being more aware of them after the tour!
Up until this point, all of these works were things that I could have taken note of myself, though I wouldn’t have known the backstories. This next one I certainly wouldn’t have spotted. I know this because it was practically beneath the apartment building we were renting, and I had a solid four days of passing by this area without ever taking notice. But Doug encouraged us to look up, and there this little statue was, atop a pole.
Next we were encouraged to look closer at the figurine. “The wings look pretty realistic, no?” Doug commented. Yes, we agreed. Turns out, Jonesy discovered a dead pigeon in his work studio while he was making this. Like most people would, he took advantage of the find and gave a new purpose to the bird’s wings, since it didn’t need them any longer.
Even if you can recognize a street artist's work, you may not know the background of a piece. This Star Wars depiction is by French artist Space Invader - one that I know well, since his works can be found all over Paris. (And in fact, it’s not the first time Space Invader has popped up on a walking tour - he was recently featured on my tour of the Marais near the Picasso Museum!)
I remember back in middle and high school following the mantra of “walk with confidence, like you’re supposed to be there” if you were afraid of being stopped by a hall monitor. It seems like Space Invader took this advice to the next level, and then a level beyond that. He dressed in a neon vest, acted like some construction was in progress during the late hours of night, and put this up with the help of a cherry picker. No one questioned his civil duties.
At last, the two hour tour had to come to a close. But not before we took a look at this cowboy painted by a street artist who had a layover in London, and stopped off to leave a memento before jetting off again. And the piece nearby it was chiseled into the wall via...a jackhammer! (Though as Doug assured us, this was a pre-arranged and legal piece - one doesn’t jackhammer buildings without authorization, so don’t try it at home without clearance.)
If you’re looking for a fun and different side of London to explore, check out Alternative London! It gave me more of an understanding of this art form that I deeply enjoy, and breathed life into the streets of Shoreditch which are covered with the marks of these colorful personalities.
PLAN YOUR TRIP:
(As usual, this is a fun tour I found on my own and really enjoyed, so I want to share the love!)
Have you ever been on a street art tour? Would you go on one?
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