I had the privilege to experience the award-winning alternative London tour back in late July, which is a ‘pay-whatever-you-think-it-is-worth’ walking tour around East London.
Our tour guide, Ben Slow, is an aspiring young street artist himself. He led a group of about 15 of us around East London, explaining the cultural and historical background of the area versus the all built-up and commercialized City of London, as well as providing insights on the various famous pieces of street art around Bricklane and Shoreditch.
I was pleasantly surprised by the tour. Once again London has proven itself to be one of the most interesting and culturally diverse cities in the world. Bricklane features a range of fascinating street art and graffiti, and I learned today that a lot of the street art is in fact legal. Many street artists are gallery artists that get paid a decent amount, and many of them are asked to/volunteer to paint on walls on the streets, thus subsequently offering their work for ‘free’ to us all.
Moreover, the culture of street art is very interesting in the sense that all the amazing big pieces of street art are not expected to stay on the same wall for more than 5-6 months. They get painted over once past their short ‘expiry date’. I found this odd and counter-intuitive because it almost provides a disincentive to street artists when their work isn’t treasured and showcased for a long period of time. However, this allows the area to stay fresh, and gives way for other artists to take part.
The area that we explored is culturally rich – it was initially an area where the French asylums congregated, when the City of London still had walls denoting the clear boundaries and East London was outside the City. Later on it became occupied by the Jews, which meant that the area was severely bombed during WWII. Eventually it developed and became a ‘Bangla Town’, and is the heart of the city’s Bangladeshi-Sylheti community. There is a lot of irony in that the area is basically right next to the financial centre of London, Bank, but is almost opposite to what it is; not only is East London fighting with poverty problems, the community is also fighting very hard to allow it to stay the same. There has not been much appreciation for the street art in the area, despite it being such an amazing place to visit for both locals and tourists. It is often difficult for creativity to be appreciated when the council is constantly looking to knock down old buildings and build modern, commercialized blocks in their place. I found the contrast jarring – we found a spot where we stood literally on the ‘border’ – filled with older buildings with street art and graffiti all over the walls, and to your right the high rise glass buildings, where my office actually is as well….
When Olympics came to London, the council tried hard to remove the pieces of art from various walls. However, I think that such an act is almost the same as shamelessly trying to deny your own identity/cultural background. Although there is graffiti which is messy and rude, a lot more appreciation ought to be shown to the proper pieces of art work that are filling up the area. There is so much that one can admire even without being an artist herself. I was totally surprised and felt belittled while standing in front of the many amazing pieces of creative work in East London. The time and effort spent on these should definitely be acknowledged more, and they are not something that London should ever be ashamed of.
So much more to say but this will simply get too long. I definitely recommend this tour to anyone – tourists and locals alike!!