by Erin Campbell
I took the Alternative London Tour on a brilliantly sunny day (a London miracle) leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics. Signs of the games were everywhere from freshly whitewashed walls covering up graffiti to posters proclaiming the East End the Curry Capital of the games.
London’s East End is known for its strong immigrant population and thriving artist community. It’s home to a diverse array of historical buildings, cultures and, of course, street art. To learn more about this vibrant community, I took the Alternative London Tour, which provides tours and workshops on street art in the area to promote creative freedom, social diversity, and to spread awareness about the neighbourhood. Tour leaders live in the area, and many of them are practicing graffiti and street artists who want to share their deep, insider knowledge of the community. While the tour is intended to be about the art and history of the East End, politics can’t help but enter in the discussion. The locals of the area are bitter about the infringement from the financial district of London and the Olympic ‘clean-up’ programs that are sweeping through the region.
“The issue with the games is that it makes the authorities think they have to clean up the city.” Our guide continued to explain, “A lot of the street artwork they’re covering up was commissioned by the people who own the properties!” He gestured to a sloppily painted section of wall with a lizard tail still visible. “Look at that. They didn’t even use the same colour to match the paint on the rest of the wall or fully cover the artwork.” Throughout the tour we saw several examples of attempts to clean up the area and each time our guide declared that it would have been much more beautiful if they had left the original artwork.
Street art, however, has always been an art form which thrives on its “criminal” nature and is constantly in conversation with the illegality of its own existence. The UK-based graffiti artist known as Banksy creates work that deals with the tensions behind this conversation. His work The Palestine Job (2005) is a direct commentary on the legality of both the political nature of graffiti and the wall being erected by the Israeli government in the occupied Palestinian territories. Banksy himself asks the question, “How illegal is it to vandalize a wall, if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice?” So while authorities refuse to recognize the legality of commissioned street art, artists such as Banksy thrive on and enforce the illegal nature of their own actions.
Do you think it’s valid for street artists to argue against government interference and clean-up projects in London’s East End? The answer is not an easy one.