Street Art

Paul Stratford, Creative Director

I recently attended ‘Shoreditch Street Street Art Tours’ – ranked ‘Top 2 recommended things to do in London out of 670 activities’ by Trip Advisor.  It was part of a familiarisation program I was conducting for a new client and provided a real immersion into this controversial art-form. The main rationale for signing up was research, I wanted to discover the differences between Art Galleries and Street Artists and how to judge good from bad.

I also had a secondary interest which stemmed from school days when I, 30 years ago used to be commissioned by other pupils to graffiti their school Satchels. Armed with gold and silver pens, I would charge around 50p to deface other students property…

Firstly, I’d like to thank Dave at Shoreditch Street Art Tours for an informed and incisive narration of some of the best examples of Street Art in London. Dave’s passion is infectious and his liberal, inclusive mindset really emerges you without any produces. As Dave said:

“Most of us aren’t conditioned to see it”

  • Joining the tour certainly reconditioned my mindset and taught me to look for little details at a really granular level and filter out what I might previously have viewed as visual pollution or dirty urban decay.
  • We kicked off at Brushfield St, London E1 6AA (by the goat statue) and the first observation we made was sticker art – a kind of microform of Street Art which is witty, clever AND amusing. This was introduced through pieces by Clet Abraham – a French artist responsible for altering the iconic No Entry Signs with addition of birds pooping and men carrying the white bar.
  • Clet’s stickers are so subtle and yet a powerful subversion of the control the authorities hold over street artists – or try to. In fact, the theme of subverting control by authorities is strong throughout the tour as this is literally the message street artists are sending out. They risk heavy fines and sentences as well as criminal records… and for what?
  • The artists seem to be winning. In 2008, authorities scrapped graffiti removal as a non-essential service. Keeping up with demand was becoming too costly and the recession was a gift to street artists in a sense.
  • However, the volume of street cameras present on some of the most ‘graffitied’ streets is evidence they do take it seriously. In fact according to Dave, London has more TV surveillance then any other city in the world. Its clear street artists have balls – and I started to sense that if you see some art, someone may have taken great pains to get it there and for that, you at least have to appreciate the dedication.

So why would anyone risk that much?

I can’t answer that actually. An essential asset of street appeared to contain messages or statements. Artists seem to use it as a way of expressing important political beliefs through dramatic images. For example the tension between bombs and children in the same piece of art is extreme and sends a very powerful message. For other creators, it can be more subtle such as a small piece of type we saw a couple of centimetres high saying ‘99% of people will never notice this’. A stark reminder that it pays to look beneath what you initially see and study everything around you – it really can be interesting.

So for these people there is no financial reward – just satisfaction that you’ve entertained, expressed or brought attention to an important debate. This type of art is known as non-permission art. Dave taught us the tell-tail signs such as dripping paint streaks, Paste-ups (pieces of paper quickly applied to the wall) and typically stencilling where a template is created beforehand and simply sprayed through. Most iconically, this is Banksy’s style.

The day was neatly split into two types of street art really – non permission and permission-based.

Permission based street art

Permission based art has been an emerging form of street art. It’s more than tolerated – its celebrated or invited. Shops we saw in Brick Lane have benefitted from stunning pieces of art by excellent skilled artists such as Stik – notable for a brilliantly subtle piece of work in a doorway on the edge of the Bangladeshi community depicting two symbolic characters hand in hand, visibly from two different ethnic backgrounds. Most distinctively it hadn’t been destroyed by other artists, not had it been removed after 3 years – a lifespan well beyond most murals. Clearly locals had embraced the piece which now has ‘status’ amongst fellow artists and the local community.
With permission based art, the artist is allowed time to create and a supportive, relatively comfortable environment. We were shown an entire car park off brick lane where artists curate other artists work and only tolerate artwork of a certain standard. In return, they are afforded the luxury of laying out spray cans on the floor and maybe opening a can of beer before embarking on a 6-hour session of painting. There seems to exist a hierarchy or status within these circles – its clear looking at the quality of work. We saw work here by famous artists from Dolk, Mr Cenz, Otto Chard, C215, Jonesy and ‘Word to Mother’ – a revered number of artists who have transitioned to an elite group now profiting from their skills.

Moving through the streets I noticed that the highest quality work was isolated to certain areas. There are concentrated areas populated amongst very smart gentrified streets and I started to feel they lived side-by-side very well – each with clear identities and thats a good thing. Clearly I was being reconditioned to appreciate the art form.

Within the street artist community there exists great humility and respect. One artist ‘Citizen Kane’ had dedicated one spectacular 3D wall mural to his deceased son,, taking up to 12 days to complete – but he’d throughout the process he had preserved another artists work in one small corner of the wall – not because he had to, but because there is honour amongst the artists.

Perhaps most famously, we were shown a fantastic piece of letterform wall art on a huge scale by Hine. The story went that Hine was a former multiple offender who had appeared in court 8 or so times for his commitment to gratifying trains. It was at this point he began seeking permission-based commissions for shops and businesses. The locations of these art pieces became destinations for fans and the businesses themselves became landmarks. Eventually, his work became so famous a canvas of it was given as a gift to the Obamas and now hangs proudly in the Whitehouse. The only time a piece of art has hung there by a living person.

In the end, I concluded that without the Police and authorities treating street art seriously it would probably overrun our society. It would hit a critical tipping point where every street had the same extent of work and no identity. There would be no tiers of quality or respect for the best pieces of work.

In my view, the authorities provide a layer of thrill and governance that the public and the best street artists enjoy. It’s created an environment where good quality work stands out and is localised to areas of obvious quality.
I’d love to hear your feedback. Leave a comment below and I’ll respond within 24 hours or write join me on LinkedIn. Alternatively you can call on 0203 287 4910 – I’m really interested in hearing your views and opinions – good or bad!

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