If you want to go off the beaten track and see a different side of East London, sign up for the Alternative London Street Art Tour. It’s a 3-hour walking tour that explores the East End from the perspective of its colourful street art. I took a tour led by artist Ben Slow, who has lived in the area for years and is very passionate about ensuring that the area’s heritage is not lost as a result of London’s warp-speed redevelopment.
The tour started near the Old Spitalfields Market, about five minutes from Liverpool Street Station. It was pouring when we started, which was a bit of a bummer, but then the skies cleared. Ben gave an introduction to the heritage of the area and how it came to be a hive for street artists as a result of the Banksy effect. He cautioned that because street art is ephemeral and few pieces stay for long, there was no telling what we would see but that it was unlikely that we’d come across a Banksy.
Within minutes of the start of the tour, we realised that we really had to keep our eyes peeled to spot some of the pieces that dot the area. At one point, Ben told us to look up and see if we could spot something. It took us a while to realise that he wanted us to see this piece by an artist in his fifties who goes by the name of Jonesy:
There were also large pieces painted on the sides of buildings. Ben told us that artists in London don’t have many opportunities to do big murals in the city, so they travel to other countries such as Argentina to work on much bigger canvases. Four stories or so is about the tallest they get to work on in London.
Street art has been predominantly the domain of male artists, simply because it’s illegal and also physically risky. However, more female artists are coming on to the scene and making their mark, such as the one below. It’s covered in glitter and sparkles at night!
Famous artists do come to the area to work as well, among them French artist Clet Abraham, who’s renowned for his quirky hacks of street signs, such as the one below, which has turned a no entry sign into a dining table:
The artists find all sorts of ways to get around the laws against graffiti. They hide in plain sight by donning reflective jackets to look like workmen, which somehow makes them invisible to passersby. They also create pieces that aren’t technically vandalising surfaces, such as the installation below, which is quite similar to what you’d find in play areas in IKEA. It’s actually pretty amazing that they can get away with what they do considering the number of cameras trained on the streets to deter crime.
Of course, street art isn’t the only thing that’s fascinating about the East End. There were quite a few shops and eateries that I would have loved to have been able to check out, such as the row of curry shops along Brick Lane, the Cereal Killer Cafe, and vintage shops such as Rokit 101. Unfortunately, the Alternative London Street Art Tour is pretty intensive and there’s no time to wander freely, so it’s best to come early to explore the shops before the tour starts, so you can maximise your time there. I’ll definitely be back on my next trip to London.
The Alternative London Street Art Tour runs on a pay-what-you-like fee model, so you pay as much as you think the tour is worth. I think at least £15 is fair for the amount of heart put into making the tour a memorable and educational experience.
I couldn’t end this post without sharing a piece by Ben himself, which is a tribute to a man called Charlie Burns, who was a fixture in the neighbourhood until his death a few years ago. This is a portrait of Burns done on the facade of a shop owned by the family, who commissioned the piece.
Bookings for the Alternative London Street Art Tour fill up pretty quickly, especially in the summer. Dates open up three weeks in advance, so it’s best to keep an eye out for your preferred dates on the website.