I have a confession to make; in multiple stops in London I’ve never visited an art museum. The irony is that in London, a particularly expensive city to visit, many museums offer free entry. Nevertheless I’ve never managed cross the threshold of one of London’s world-renowned museums.
That’s not to say that we bypass all art when we are in London. When we visited in late February of 2012 we did as we have done in the past. We hunted down street art. Why look for street art in London, a city where art be seen inside museums for free? After all it is not like London is a permissive city for uninvited street art, not at all. Anti-“graffiti” laws are enforced. One artist, Tox, was recently sentenced to 27 months in jail for the unsolicited application of paint to a fixed vertical surface. And if there is a city with a higher density of closed circuit television cameras than London we haven’t seen it. It is not a place where a street artist can expect little hassle; London is not Valparaiso Chile
Our exploration of London’s street art began soon after our arrival. We had signed up in advance for the Alternative London Tour and needed to scramble to meet up with our 7:00 pm tour group in the East End. It always takes us longer to reach our destination on London’s Tube than we expect. The distances look so short on the small fold up subway map.
The Alternative London Tour is informal. Sign up by email, show up at the appointed time, and a pay as much as you want at the end. (Similar tours are available in other cities such as Berlin.) Gary, our guide, took a group of about a dozen around London’s East End relaying the area’s history and pointing out some of the ever-changing collection works by an international selection of street artists. At night Gary used a flashlight to illuminate works tucked away out of the glare of the streetlights. Bringing your own source of light would be a good idea.
Gary explained that the arts-oriented East End community is generally tolerant or at least more tolerant of street art than other places in London. Art on the walls persists longer. Some residents encourage and solicit works.
On the Alternative Tour we saw two more Space Invaders, the tile mosaics left by the French Street artist Invader. We had searched out Space Invaders on our last visit to London and we’d find even more this time through. At this point we’ve spotted over one hundred of these tile mosaics scattered across ten-plus cities on three different continents. (That of course depends on your definition of “continent.” Are there four or are there seven?). We’ve found that the process of searching for Invaders leads us to areas of cities rich with street art. It is likely no accident that Space Invaders and vibrant guerilla art co-habitat in the same urban areas. And now our searching has come full circle; we’ve found that seeking out street art leads us to find more Space Invaders.
Staying near Wateloo Station our morning trip to the train took us through Leake Street and the Banksy Tunnel. We learned of the tunnel through an off hand comment and a bit of web searching. The Banksy Tunnel is an extraordinarily popular “legal” street art area where the freshly painted works of art live for just days before being covered over by new ones. Inside the tunnel it is an ever-evolving mural. The brick walls are covered thick with endless layers of spray paint. In the tunnel the odor of fresh paint solvent lingers. If you don’t like the art you see, come back a day later. Many of the works will have been painted over and replaced by new ones. For an artist, wouldn’t this be frustrating? You work hard to create your latest masterpiece only to find it covered over by another, sometimes less ambitious work a day later.
“It’s all about getting a picture.”
Two separate artists we talked to told us exactly this. Aside from clutching an array of spray paint cans both artists looked like anyone you might find on the street, anyone you might find working at an upscale business. Though they take hours to complete, there was no illusion that their freshly painted murals on the walls of the tunnel would persist. They’d be lucky if their art lasted untouched for twenty-four hours. Most likely within hours their new murals would be tagged with graffiti and the graffiti would become an excuse to be painted over by another artist. Their pictures would be the only record that their paintings ever existed; the picture they snap is the only reward for their efforts.
“They’re just jealous,” said one of the artists said of the taggers.
Perhaps that is true. Perhaps others not wanting the competition quickly tag the best works soon after they are finished. But I suspect there is something more. Indeed, there is a fundamental schism between the extremes of graffiti and uninvited street art. The intent is different. Graffiti, at the extreme, is meant to mark territory, to dominate, to vandalize, to resist, and to control. In this sense it becomes scary and at least at the surface is anti-social. At the other end of the spectrum, street artists intend to amuse, beautify, express, and share their works. Though they are not afraid of annoying building and structure owners with their art, it is not their prime intent. The artists want their works to persist. They want their art to be seen not as an annoyance but as something that appeals.
Street art is frequently tagged with graffiti. Does anything do more to distinguish street artists from taggers? Indeed, it almost seems that a well-crafted mural is more of a target for a tag than a completely blank wall. And for that matter, a nice piece of volunteered art is a beacon for a posted advert. It is a clever ploy by the advertisers. A passerby’s eye is drawn to the area by the art and then wanders over to study an advert that would otherwise be ignored if it were posted by itself on a blank wall.
Distinguishing between street art and graffiti is hard. Drawing lines between the two is difficult if not impossible. What is street art after all? Banksy’s works peeled off a wall can sell at auction for large sums of money. The emotional appeal of Banksy’s art is apparent. The works are propaganda; they influence with a powerful message. Thus is Banksy’s work is art because of the emotion and the value? So then is yarn bombing art? (It is certainly funny and very reversible.) And so what exactly is graffiti? Is Tox an artist, a tagger, a vandal or some combination of the three? Who can, will, or should make that judgment? These are big questions with no easy answers.
Maybe what we can say is that there should be more places like the Banksy Tunnel. Places where street artists and graffiti artists can work out the distinctions without damaging other’s property or risking criminal consequences. Every city has some blighted spaces. Let’s turn part of these over to the street artists. Let them create what they will for free. Perhaps the freshly painted blighted area will have broad appeal and become a tourist attraction. And if they don’t, if the art sucks and there is no universal appeal, is it worse than what the place started from? If enough legal spaces are available the incentive to create art where it is not welcome and will not persist decreases. And who knows, maybe these repurposed rundown surplus spaces will be the spawning ground of the next great street artist, the next Banksy. Hopefully the next great street artist can have something more than a hastily snapped digital picture to prove the significance of their work!
Here’s a catalog of our Space Invader finds.
London street scenes uploaded to Google+ are here.
An album of London’s street art circa February 2012 is a Google+ album.