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