London street art: the early years
While your classic train-trashing graffiti can be traced back to 1970s Harlem and the beginnings of hip-hop, London’s street art has always had a more cerebral flavour. Inspired by the Paris student riots, anarchist slogans such as “Eat the Rich” were appearing in (then) gritty Notting Hill as early as 1968, as well as existential ponderings on the banality of life (the scene is documented in the excellent The Writing's on the Wall by Roger Perry). By the 1980s, though, this more philosophical style had largely been replaced by anti-Thatcher invective and “wildstyle” (ie illegible) tagging on the Underground network, the latter aimed solely at impressing other graffiti writers.
Banksy, D*Face and the backlash
Fast forward to the new millennium and a young Bristolian scallywag was busy applying a pair of jump leads to the capital’s street-art scene. Relying on lightning-fast “throw-up” stencils, Banksy’s subversive rats, chimps and flower-throwing rioters reintroduced a dose of satire to the street-art world and soon wound up gracing the covers of pop albums or the subject of money-spinning gallery shows.
Over the next few years a group of street artists coalesced in Shoreditch, sharing a punk-based ideal to reclaim public space for artistic expression. Genre-defining work began to appear including the pop-art inspired imaginings of D*Face, the “circus font” typographical murals of Ben Eine and the “nightmare” drip paintings of Pure Evil. Street art also became more visible to East Londoners when cash-strapped Tower Hamlets Council gave up removing it with high-pressure jets.
Hardcore graffiti writers collectively winced at this new wave of interlopers they dismissed as “toys” (know-nothing amateurs in graffiti speak), underground legend Robbo going as far to dub Banksy “the Tesco of the art world”. The idea that someone might profit from their work was anathema – especially when Banksy's art was being prised off the walls and flogged before the paint had even dried; the pair engaged in a tit-for-tat "graffiti war", overpainting each other's work until Robbo's untimely death in July, 2014.
Shoreditch goes global
The artistic ripples from East London quickly radiated across the world and artists including Shephard Fairy (of Obama "Hope" poster fame), Australian Peter Drew and Frenchman Clet Abraham (he of the witty road signs) arrived to hit Shoreditch, announcing their “residence” with logo stickers on lamp posts. Today, artists from Seoul to Sao Paulo can be seen working in broad daylight, often licensed to cover vast areas – look out for the giant animal murals by Belgian artist ROA, the beautiful multilayered stencils of Parisian C215 and the expressionistic brushwork of Spanish artist Borondo.
Featured image: paste ups on Fashion Street including a charcoal by Portuguese artist Furia ACK; above: a C215 window in a barber's shop, Brick Lane
London's outdoor gallery
Despite the artists and their hipster hangers-on being priced out of E1, Shoreditch remains ground zero for street creativity. Clandestine work continues to appear overnight (check out the video below by A.CE for an artist's eye view) and the art has become steadily more complex, incorporating sculpture, metalwork and multimedia. The scene has also shrugged off its macho “hoodie with an attitude” vibe with female artists such as Zina, Roo and Bambi attracting a strong following.
Banksy’s vision of a place where “every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring.” (Wall and Peace, 2005) now seems all the more prescient.
Need to know
For an entertaining, insightful look at the scene take a tour with Shoreditch Street Art Tours led by acknowledged expert and prolific blogger Dave (AKA nolionsinengland). For a suitably artistic place to stay on Shoreditch’s doorstep try the chic QBIC hotel in Whitechapel (rooms from £69).
All photos © Andy Turner except "Let's Endure and Adore Each Other" by ESPO and "Cheese" by Borondo © nolionsinengland; "Hitchcock" paste up © walkalondon