Dave Stuart, a former banker, is possibly the perfect person to lead a street art tour of east London. Efficiency, accuracy, an eye for both detail and value, and a healthy dislike of the corporate world runs through his three-hour narrative, which takes me along the streets I have known and loved since I was a child here in the British capital in the 1980s.
There’s a lot more going on in these streets now. Brick Lane and Shoreditch are the creative heart of one of the world’s most creative cities, and I’m amazed, as we progress, at how much even I would miss if it wasn’t being pointed out. Today’s street-art scene is so dynamic that scenes change daily, with layer on layer of mostly striking painting, stencilling, sketching and stickering, on almost every bit of spare wall. The gritty history of the buildings provides the base layer.
For his part, Stuart led his first street-art tour 10 years ago after he and a friend, a fellow city-worker-turned-photographer now known as HowAboutNo, wanted to support an auction of the work of local artists. “He and I endured the nine-to-five tyranny in office treadmills a few hundred yards apart on the border of Shoreditch, and our therapy for many years was to hook up almost every day for extended lunch-break meanders photographing street art and playing pool.”
We start on Commercial Street, stopping briefly to look at a bronze casting, painting and sculpture by the environmental artist Jonesy, and a small tiled piece showing a jester emerging from a shell by Dr Cream, whose main job is as a Hollywood animator. Were it not for Stuart, you would completely miss it – it’s stuck to the bottom of a metal bollard at ground level.
We head along the aptly named Fashion Street, which was the centre of the French Huguenot community in Britain more than 200 years ago. Employed mostly in the clothing trade, their skills became woven into the fabric of the area, which was later, when I was growing up, colonised by Bangladeshis working in the “rag trade”. Now the area has become trendy, with street artists from all over the world descending on the area to make their mark and outdo each other.
Stuart seems to know them all. Via works by Austrian artist HNRX and a collaboration between “Shine, Quest and Ante”, he explains the difference between street art and graffiti. “Graffiti is done for other graffiti artists – showing off. Street art is art by anyone for everyone.” Either can be done with or without permission, but usually graffiti is without permission. “To paint with permission you need to have some skill and a reputation.” Elsewhere, the rule is that you can only “go over” someone else’s work “if you do something better”. Most work is signed by the artist, in one way or another.
Where there is no permission, Stuart says, artists take the precaution of painting or screen printing on to wallpaper-like paper, which is then pasted on to the wall “with no collateral damage”.
A huge portrait by Dreph, whose full name is Neequaye Dreph Dsane, is my favourite on this street.
As we turn in to Brick Lane, we see that several traffic signs have been defaced, edited or “subverted”, as Stuart likes to say, by Clet Abraham, who is based in Florence and produces clever stickers to turn signs into artwork all over the world. We see four or five examples, such as a British no-entry sign becoming a swimming pool, or a one-way arrow piercing a love heart. “This is defacing authority’s visual signalling system and subverting authority’s control over us,” says Stuart, who explains that they have been here since 2015. “The reason is austerity”, he explains. “It’s too expensive to remove. The council used to employ contractors six days a week removing street art and cleaning graffiti. But that was deemed a non-essential service thanks to the recession.”
This has also gone hand-in-hand with a greater appreciation and “tolerance” of street art in general, Stuart says. Many property owners appreciate the value of such works.
There are various anti-Trump and anti-Boris Johnson stencils, though I don’t find any of them particularly original. “We’ve seen Trump-related street art since the nomination in early 2015,” Stuart says. I’ve yet to see a single piece of pro-Trump street art – and I’m not holding my breath.”
After a coffee break, our group of about 10 carries on, seeing works by dozens more artists, including collages quoting Rumi, beautiful female portraits by French artist Manyoly and a very popular piece by London street artist Stik, which Stuart tells us has been voted Britain’s 17th most popular piece of art of all time. A veiled woman hand in hand with a man has such graphic appeal and touching innocence that I can see why.
Even after two hours, Stuart is not nearly done – and the group is still transfixed. Appropriately, the next work we see is by an artist called Endless. Then it’s Donk, one of Stuart’s favourites. Next it’s on to J_ace, City Kitty, D7606, Mr Cenz, Gregos, Jimmy C from Adelaide, Hungarian artist Qwert, Jim Vision, C215, Sell Out, Stenandoli, Envol, Uberfubs the “street jeweller”, Jean Peut-Etre, Airborne Mark, Ardif, Otto Schade, Falko, Sr. X, ROA from Belgium, Voxx Romana, Arrex and DRSCo from Portland, Oregon, Spaniard Jakuna Melata, Space Invader, Dan Kitchener, Reactivation Team, Ronzo, CityZen Kane, Conor Harrington, ALO and Tizer.
And there were even more, including two original Banksys and a piece that moves when viewed through the augmented reality app Gif-iti. I can fully appreciate, by the end of this tour, why Stuart has made this his full-time job.
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