Tuesday, January 15, 2013

From Downtown to Main Street: The Hidden World of London's Street Art

By Beth Rehman
Beth Rehman is filling in for Kelly Raftery this Tuesday on the topic of street art.

Beth Rehman lives with her family in sunny Singapore. She has already lived her fair share of nine lives—in the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and now along the equator. After a career in financial services, Beth is now working on a novel. She also enjoys being a mother as well as the new president of the German European School Singapore. 

My friend, Judy, returned from London this summer with an interesting tale about street art. She had visited her daughter for a weekend, and they decided to take a different type of city tour. Judy’s daughter had booked a walking tour with an outfit called Street Art London Tours. This group of street artists lead walking tours around the streets of London’s East End.

The girl in this photo was painted
by her parents.  
She carries on the
family tradition, creating small
works of her own.
The tour took place in and around Brick Lane, and the guide gave detailed background on each of the pieces and the artists they visited. There were several striking pieces, which Judy shared with me.

The group saw a number of unique and striking paintings, when they looked carefully enough. Reminiscent of the children’s novel, The Borrowers, these little figures were tucked away along door frames or between other paintings. They are little treasures you feel lucky to spot. I won’t show you more photos; you’ll just have to visit London and find them yourselves. 

Many cities now offer such street art tours, and it is a lovely way to get to know a new town in a different way. Not so much as a tourist, but as one of the locals, familiar with the streets themselves but now taking the time to notices their little treasures.

Street art began as “tagging” in New York and other big cities. People wrote their initials or gang signs inside unusual places such as subway cars to signify their presence there. The movement evolved and began encompassing different purposes—tagging for its own glory, graffiti to mark gang territory, street art for self-expression and beautification—but all of these forms had their roots in spray-painting walls, trains, and doorways.

A Belgian artist named Roa painted
this crane in only nine hours.
Today, street art has moved indoors. But the tour Judy and her daughter took led them straight to the streets where artists create the art as well as guide visitors through these communities. This is what street art was meant to be—a form of artistic expression that is accessible to everyone—for both the artist and as well as the art appreciator. The art is not hidden behind closed doors, creating a barrier between you and it. Instead, it lives and breathes. And then is washed away again by the rain and elements, only to be replaced by something fresh and new in the future. Ephemeral. Transient. Having its own time and place, but not meant to last forever.

Now cities are displaying street art in gallery exhibits, and such buyers as Wall Street traders and officials with the City of London are buying street art on canvas. Why? Because they are looking for a good investment. Or maybe, like many of the artists, they too have come from these local streets and identify with the artwork?

Judy’s guide painted these screaming faces,
which gave the tour a very personal feel.
This move to bring street art into the mainstream—Main Street, as the case may be—means that artists who previously worked furtively at night, rushing to complete their masterpieces before sunrise can now create their artworks at leisure.  No longer walking on the wrong side of the law, artists no longer fear showing their faces in public and can proudly display their works in galleries.

Perhaps this movement indoors is a good thing. This change has given non-traditional artists a way to break into the mainstream and be recognized as the talented artists they are. But, somehow, I cannot help but think that the street art movement may have lost a big of its edginess and spontaneity in the process.

The next time you are in a new city, see if you can find a local street art tour. It may just give you a new perspective on your holiday destination—or perhaps even of your own home town. Seeing the art in its natural habitat is a bit like seeing a wild animal while on safari versus in a cage at the zoo.

So, take a stroll through new streets and look around you. Enjoy the show!


  1. Interesting idea for a tour! Thanks for guest posting with us, Beth!

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