The Alternative London Walking Tour was set up to showcase East London’s incredible creativity whilst giving insights into important historical and cultural events that have made the Spitalfields area what it is today. The beauty of this particular tour set-up is that the guides are artists directly involved in the culture of Tower Hamlets, and nothing quite compares to being introduced to a new subject by someone with a genuine passion for it.
Belgian street artist Roa’s bird on Hanbury Street is a Crane, sacred to the Bengali people and is a reference to Tower Hamlets’ rich history of welcoming different immigrant populations.
Our guide was Josh Jeavons, an auburn-bearded enthusiastic Londoner, whose engaging facts and in-depth knowledge of the local scene really brought it to life. As an artist, he describes graffiti and street art as a quest to reclaim public space and to use it as an expression of the artist or community. On a slightly more familiar note he invited the group to empathise with a common feeling many of us will have had early in life, as a pupil at school disengaged with the obligatory attendance and seemingly irrelevant teachings. For some of us at least this disillusionment can manifest as a rebellious scribble on a desk, perhaps of a nickname or a statement of intent, more likely a magnificent phallus. This same rebellious nature is what drives people to risk the wrist-slapping of the authorities and use walls that don’t belong to them as their canvas. It’s an expression of the artist’s creativity combined with a middle-finger aimed squarely at the establishment.
Graffiti writing – there are rules, you have to prove you can master each aspect (including taking risks)
Tower Hamlets became a real mecca of street art in the 1980s, when the main industries of the area, brewery & textiles were killed by the recession. Many of the existing buildings, such as the Truman brewery were listed and couldn’t be developed into modern, high-rent properties, instead being repurposed into low-rent, unusual spaces – the perfect environment for artists & creative types, leading to a burgeoning of street art in the area.
With the gentrification of Tower Hamlets, artists are being pushed out, Josh tells us. Nowhere is this more plainly demonstrated than on Sclater street, where opposites sides of road illustrate this divide – on one side is Shoreditch Junk, an independent art store set amongst a riot of colourful street art, on the other side, glass-fronted buildings of chain restaurants and million pound high-rise penthouse apartments, apparently designed this way so the bricks start above spray paint level, purely for the cost efficiency of removing paint. It’s an unusually sterile site, at odds with the aesthetic of London’s third poorest borough.
The tour introduced us to many of the local players, see a few of the photos to get a taste. We see work from the classic paint-and-run grafitti artists to the more intricate and grander pieces – painted with the permission of Brick Lane landlords who believe in the culture (or the extra tourism it encourages).
This tour comes highly recommended by us. Check out the available times and book yourself on.
Jonesy’s bronze sculptures adorning the top of many road signs (including the Angel of Sclater Street, cast from real pigeon wings).
Ben slow’s portrait of local hero Charlie burns on Bacon Street
Vhils – textural sculpture made with an air chisel (he also uses explosives)
Street art on Rockwell house by El mac
Shok 1- street art on private property with permission
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