Together Shoreditch and Spitalfields in the East of London constitute the most exciting place to be in London. The population is young, dynamic and imaginative; Friday and Saturday nights are a riot with a plethora of bars and clubs many with their own unique flavour. But what makes this area really special is that Shoreditch and Spitalfields comprise what one might call, ‘the square mile of art’; a de factor open air art gallery; with graffiti, posters and paste-ups being displayed on the main streets, down the side roads and in all the nooks and crannies of this post-industrial environ.
From Eine’s huge single letters being painted on shop shutters, to the haunting propaganda posters of Obey, to Cartrain’s political black and white pop-art; and to the one very small bronze coloured plastic circle, with the imprint of a dog shit and a man’s foot about to step into it, which I once saw pasted to a wall, there is an incredible diversity.
Being on the streets, the work can be destroyed, taken or painted over at any minute. It is fragile and transient. Furthermore the juxtaposition of different pieces of art is random and unpredictable both in content and its location, which means that each day throws up a new and unique configuration of work within the streets, which you can only experience by travelling through the city.
Street Art Beginnings
The reasons for why East London has seen the flowering of street art are manifold. The post-industrial legacy of Shoreditch’s crumbling low-rise warehouses, not only provides an environment in which the artists and designers can do their work, but East London’s proximity to the City of London provides an economic source of support for the artists and designers; and finally Shoreditch with its building sites, old dilapidated warehouses provides a canvas upon which those artists can display their work and increase their commercial value.
Set against the characterless nature of the steely post-modernity of the city, the autumnal colours of the terraced warehouses in Shoreditch, no bigger than four to five stories high; offer a reminder of the legacy of a thriving fabrics and furniture industry which blossomed in the seventeenth Century. Both Shoreditch and Spitalfields have industrial pasts linked to the textiles industry, which fell into terminal decline by the twentieth century and was almost non-existent by the end of Wolrd War II. The decline was mirrored in the many three to four storey warehouses that were left to decay.
The general decline was arrested in the 1980s with the emergence of Shoreditch and Hoxton (Hoxton and Shoreditch are used interchandeably to refer to the same area) as a centre for new artists. It is difficult to say what attracted the artists to this area. But it was likely to be a combination of the spaces offered by the old warehouses, the cheap rents, and the location of Shoreditch and Spitalfields close to the City of London; where the money was to buy and fund artistic endeavour.
Not just that but post-war Shoreditch dominated by tens of post-war tower blocks, built amidst the ruins of the terraced housing that lay there before, which was bombed during World War II; had the rough edge which might inspire an artist. Shoreditch hums with the industry of newly arrived immigrants but also of the dangers of the poorer communities which inhabit these areas. Homeless people can be found sat underneath bridges on the main thoroughfares on Friday and Saturday nights; and Shoreditch is apparently home to one of the largest concentrations of striptease joints and a number of prostitutes. So, Shoreditch is a crumbling dirty, dodgy, polluted mess but it also has money; and these two factors provide an intoxicating mix for artists, who can take inspiration from their environment, but also rub shoulders with people who have the kind of money to buy their work.
By the early nineties Hoxton’s reputation as a centre for artists had become well established. As Jess Cartner-Morley puts it ‘Hoxton was invented in 1993. Before that, there was only ‘Oxton, a scruffy no man’s land of pie and mash and cheap market-stall clothing…’ At that time artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin were taking part in ‘A Fete Worth than Death’ an arts based event in Hoxton. Gradually these artists began to create their own gravity, attracting more and more of their own like. Clubs and bars began to emerge, as did a Hoxton style, ‘the Hoxton fin’ being a trademark haircut. Many designers and artists located around Shoreditch and Spitalfields. Shoreditch has also become a hive of studios for artists, vintage fashion shops, art students and musicians.
At the same time as an artistic community was forming fuelled by money from the City, London was subject to a revolution in street art. According to Ward, writing for Time Out, the street art scene began in the mid-1980s as part of London’s hip-hop scene. Graffiti artists, emulating what was going on Stateside, began to tag their names all over London. According to Ward many of those pioneers ‘went on to paint legal commissions and are at the heart of today’s scene’. That is to say, from the community of artists congregating in East London, a number were inspired by graffiti, and because the East London, with its countless dilapidated warehouses, and building sites, offered such a good canvas; they went on to use the East London as a canvas for their work.
Little seems to have been written about the individual journey’s particular street artists have taken to get to where they are, which help illuminate some of the issues talked about in this section. Cartrain said that Banksy was a huge influence for him commenting that, "I’ve sent him a few emails showing him my work and he sent me a signed piece of his work in the post."
What created the East London street art scene may also kill it
The East London urban art scene is unlikely to last forever, being the symptom of a delicate juxtaposition of industrial decline and economic forces.
The irony is that the same factors which are responsible for the creation of the East London art scene are likely to destroy it.
Politicians from all parties, spiritual leaders for global capital, tell us of the unstoppable forces of globalisation. They say if Britain is to continue to dip its paw into the cream of the world’s wealth it needs to become a post-industrial service economy; suggesting a rosy future of millions of Asians slaving away co-ordinated by keyboard tapping British suits, feet on desk, leant back on high backed leather chairs, secretary blowing them off.
Art, which is feeble and dependent upon the financial growth of an economy for its survival, will have to shape itself around the needs and demands of capital.
The financial district of the City of London, lying to the south of Shoreditch, has been successfully promoted as a global financial centre, and its mighty power is slowly expanding its way northwards. Plans are afoot for the glass foot soldiers of mammon, fuelled by speculative property investment, to gradually advance northwards, replacing old warehouses with a caravan of Starbucks and Japanese sushi places and a concomitant reduction in dead spaces to portray the art, increased security to capture and ward off street artists, increased property prices and the eventual eviction of the artistic community. Spitalfields has already had big corporate sized chunks taken out of it, with one half of the old Spitalfields Market being sacrificed for corporate interests in the last five years.
So then the very same financial forces, and post-industrial legacy, which have worked to create this micro-environment for street art to thrive, are the same forces which will in time eventually destroy it. Maybe the community will move northwards, maybe it will dissipate, but until that moment lets just enjoy what the community puts out there, for its own financial interests, for their own ego and also, just maybe, for the benefit of the people.
Banksy is the street artist par excellence. London’s street art scene is vibrant and diverse. There is some good, cure, kitschy stuff out there, but in terms of creativity and imagination Banksy leads by a city mile. His stuff is invariably shocking, funny, thought provoking and challenging.
Banksy considers himself to be a graffiti artist, which is what he grew up doing in the Bristol area in the late eighties. According to Hattenstone (2003) Banksy, who was expelled from his school, and who spent some time in prison for petty crimes, started graffiti at the age of 14, quickly switching over to stencils, which he uses today, because he didn’t find he had a particular talent for the former. His work today involves a mixture of graffiti and stencils although he has shown a capacity for using a multitude of materials.
Key works in London have included:
•In London Zoo he climbed into the penguin enclosure and painted "We’re bored of fish" in six-foot-high letters.
•In 2004 he placed a dead rat in a glass-fronted box, and stuck the box on a wall of the Natural History Museum.
•‘A designated riot area’ at the bottom of Nelson’s Column.
•He placed a painting called Early Man Goes to Market, with a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping trolley, in the British Museum.
His work seems to be driven by an insatiable desire to go on producing. In an interview with Shepherd Fairey he said, ‘Anything that stands in the way of achieving that piece is the enemy, whether it’s your mum, the cops, someone telling you that you sold out, or someone saying, "Let’s just stay in tonight and get pizza." Banksy gives the impression of being a person in the mould of Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher or Lance Armstrong. Someone with undoubted talent and yet a true workaholic dedicated to his chosen profession.
Its also driven by the buzz of ‘getting away with it’. He said to Hattenstone, ‘The art to it is not getting picked up for it, and that’s the biggest buzz at the end of the day because you could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on roller blades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as it is when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t do. The feeling you get when you sit home on the sofa at the end of that, having a fag and thinking there’s no way they’re going to rumble me, it’s amazing… better than sex, better than drugs, the buzz.’
Whilst Banksy has preferred to remain anonymous he does provide a website and does the occasional interview putting his work in context (see the Fairey interview).
Banksy’s anonymity is very important to him. Simon Hattenstone, who interviewed Banksy in 2003, said it was because graffiti was illegal, which makes Banksy a criminal. Banksy has not spoken directly on why he wishes to maintain his anonymity. It is clear that Banksy despises the notion of fame. The irony of course is that ‘Banksy’ the brand is far from being anonymous, given that the artist uses it on most if not all of his work. In using this brand name Banksy helps fulfil the need, which fuels a lot of graffiti artists, of wanting to be recognised, the need of ego.
Banksy is not against using his work to ‘pay the bills’ as he puts it. He has for example designed the cover of a Blur album, although he has pledged never to do a commercial job again, as a means of protecting his anonymity. Nevertheless he continues to produce limited edition pieces, which sell in galleries usually for prices, which give him a bit of spending money after he has paid the bills. Banksy has said, ‘If it’s something you actually believe in, doing something commercial doesn’t turn it to shit just because it’s commercial’ (Fairey, 2008). Banksy has over time passed from urban street artist into international artistic superstar, albeit an anonymous one.
Banksy has a definite concern for the oppressed in society. He often does small stencils of despised rats and ridiculous monkeys with signs saying things to the effect of ‘laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge’. Whilst some seem to read into this that Banksy is trying to ferment a revolutionary zeal in the dispossessed, such that one day they will rise up and slit the throats of the powers that be, so far his concern seems no more and no less than just a genuine human concern for the oppressed. Some of what seems to fuel his work is not so much his hatred of the system but at being at the bottom of it. He said to Hattenstone (2003) ‘Yeah, it’s all about retribution really… Just doing a tag is about retribution. If you don’t own a train company then you go and paint on one instead. It all comes from that thing at school when you had to have name tags in the back of something — that makes it belong to you. You can own half the city by scribbling your name over it’
Charlie Brooker of the Guardian has criticised Banksy for his depictions of a monkey wearing a sandwich board with ‘lying to the police is never wrong’ written on it. Certainly such a black and white statement seems out of kilter with more balanced assessments that Banksy has made. Brooker challenges Banksy asking whether Ian Huntley would have been right to have lied to the police?
Brooker has also criticized Banksy for the seemingly meaninglessness of some of this images. Brooker says, ‘Take his political stuff. One featured that Vietnamese girl who had her clothes napalmed off. Ho-hum, a familiar image, you think. I’ll just be on my way to my 9 to 5 desk job, mindless drone that I am. Then, with an astonished lurch, you notice sly, subversive genius Banksy has stencilled Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side of her. Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America … um … war … er … Disney … and stuff.’ Brooker has seemingly oversimplified Banksy’s message, if indeed Banksy has one, to fuel his own criticisms. It is easy to see that for many the Vietnam painting tells us that the United States likes to represent itself with happy smiling characters, that hide the effects of its nefarious activities responsible for the real life faces of distress seen on the young girl. Something that we should be constantly reminded of. But then that’s a matter of politics not of meaninglessness.
Banksy’s ingenuity comes through in his philosophy on progression, ‘I’m always trying to move on’ he says. In the interview he gave with Shepherd Fairey he explained that he has started reinvesting his money in to new more ambitious projects which have involved putting scaffolding put up against buildings, covering the scaffolding with plastic sheeting and then using the cover of the sheets to do his paintings unnoticed.
Banksy has balls. Outside of London he has painted images in Disney Land; and on the Israeli wall surrounding Palestine. How far is he willing to push it? What about trying something at the headquarters of the BNP, or on army barracks, or at a brothel or strip club employing sex slaves, or playing around with corporate advertising a la Adbusters?
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