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Exploring London street art – a tour round the capital

Published 23 March 2013

Within the first two minutes, I was being asked to look at a piece of chewing gum.

Seriously? Barely distinguishable from the millions of dots splattered over the pavements, it was not until I shook off my apprehension and leaned in to get a closer look that I saw it. And there it was – a small, ordinary piece of forgotten gum, elevated in stature and beauty by Ben Wilson’s deft touch. He chose to depict the Old Street roundabout skyline and as our walk continued, we saw the variety in his other works.

ben wilson chewing gum art

The group quickly became torn between looking at the floor to spot more Wilson brilliance and trying to spot other pieces of street art along the four hour Street Art London tour. Rendezvous-ing at Old Street, Karim, our knowledgeable and charismatic guide, took us on a walking tour of the back streets of Clerkenwell, White Cross and Old Street before crossing into the more familiar street art territory of Shoreditch and Brick Lane. Zig-zagging our way across East London, we became immersed in a world where the lines between legal and illegal become blurred. Illegal graffiti writers jostle for space next to legal street artists and the battle between art and councils becomes readily apparent.

To make matters more complex, there is a steady increase in the number of artists who are gaining world wide recognition. Ben Eine, whose single typographic letters are a regular sight on shop shutters, also has his work hanging in the White House after David Cameron presented Barack Obama with a piece to symbolise UK and US relations. No street art tour would have been complete without the mention of Banksy; his work is protected by perspex and can be glimpsed several times during the tour. Don’t be short-sighted and come just for his work – the talent and array of pieces on offer will ensure that you find new street art talent to follow.

Stik’s stick people can be found looking down from many a building; his ability to convey human emotion with so few lines is amazing. His dedication to his work is apparent when we hear that he regularly maintains his pieces to ensure they remain free of other artists’ “tags”. El Mac’s technique of putting his spray cans on ice to lower the pressure inside the can before using them is mesmerising – his signature work (below) on Hewitt Street is a wonderful example.

el mac hewitt street cowboy graffiti

Belgian street artist Roa creates large animal pieces native to that country whilst Nemo, a female graffiti writer, creates large root vegetables in neglected places. Espo’s love letter to London (below) takes up a large chunk of Great Eastern Street, whilst Citizen Kane’s 3-D sculptures look like they are from another world. One of my favourites for its sheer skill is VHILS’ “relief” portraits, which he creates by covering walls in plaster before drilling away the details.

VIHLS street art portrait

This is a fast moving, temporary world which is fascinating to learn more about, and if you are anything like me, your language will quickly become peppered with street art references. A ‘throw-up’, a quick piece taking less than 5 minutes to complete, to ‘buff’, when the council removes your work by painting over it…we found ourselves armed with a new lexicon, along with an ability to identify some of the more prolific artists and writers across the streets of Shoreditch.

Love Letter to London 2

Had we stopped Karim at every piece of art that was of interest, the tour could have stretched on for days. He warmed up as we walked on, and his passion for his work and love of this culture was infectious. The ultimate test: could Karim recognise a hastily taken photo of a piece of street art on the canal last year? A quick glance and a big smile says it all – it’s a piece by New York artist Swoon.

This tour is an absolutely brilliant way to get acquainted with the London street art scene, and arms you with an ability to recognise and identify art on the streets. Whilst I am no expert, the large piece by Phlegm at the top of my street now gives me another reason to smile, and I won’t give up hope that Stik will create a piece on the front of my flat.

Street Art London Tours

Tours: Every Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday
Length varies between 2 – 4 hours
£12-15 per person
Booking: email tours@streetartlondon.co.uk
Website: www.streetartlondon.co.uk