Street Art Walking Tour around East London
One of the things that stun me about London is how one city can have so many faces. Walking through Mayfair you’ll find imposing red brick architecture and grand white pillars flanking doors to millionaires’ immaculate homes. Then jump on the underground for 20 minutes and you can emerge in a completely different world of colour and vivacity, where every surface imaginable has become a canvas for personal expression. This was my discovery of the weekend. I had been to East London before, as there’s the famous Brick Lane (the best place to find a curry in the UK) and the vintage clothes market at Spitalfields which is fun to browse on a Sunday. I had been to Poppie’s Fish and Chip Shop and to the beer garden at Vibe Bar before, but somehow my eyes had failed to notice the open air gallery that covers the walls, doors and shop shutters of the whole of Shoreditch. The nearest underground station is Liverpool Street, and this is where my friend Imy and I met Katrin, our guide from Insider London.
Insider London run various walking tours around different parts of London, and I thought the Street Art tour would be perfect as I hardly know East London, and I love discovering new art. They also give tours of the History of the London Underground, they do a tour of the History of Drinking and Pubs (very important in British culture!) and even an “Eccentric” Sightseer’s Tour. I was intrigued to learn more about our capital city so I jumped at their offer of a walking tour.
So off we set on our walking tour, passing through Spitalfields market and learning from Katrin about the history of the area, which has traditionally always been a home to a variety of immigrant communities, hence the rich and varied cultural heritage you find there. In recent years it’s attracted London’s art scene, and as such prices are increasing and while the area is being developed and becoming safer crime-wise, it’s pushing out the locals who can no longer afford to live alongside prominent and renowned artists such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George.
Katrin is a bit of an expert on street art and graffiti, having tried her hand at it in the past, and she gave us a detailed history of the art form and who its main protagonists are. She recounted “art battles” between rival crews, she explained the idea behind “tagging”, which is like leaving your signature on an area and marking your territory, and she really puts the street art into its social and cultural context. In my opinion, to appreciate art you need to hear the background of the artist to understand the meaning they are attempting to convey, and street art doesn’t exactly have a little placard to the side, as you have in conventional galleries, to explain a few points about the work of art. This is where having a guide really made the difference. Anyone can walk around Shoreditch by themselves, looking out for the street art, but without an expert to explain the context and give you interesting anecdotes and back stories, then it has no meaning and doesn’t truly resonate.
One thing Katrin was keen to point out was that the art we saw this weekend is constantly evolving and each time she does the tour, she stumbles upon a new piece of street art that wasn’t there before. Street art is alive – it doesn’t sit in a gallery gathering dust. It gets updated by other artists, it gets sprayed over, it gets removed by the authorities, it morphs and it adapts to the times and the events around it. Therefore the street art you see in my photos in this post may not even be there the next time you visit, and you’ll doubtless find new things that weren’t there on our trip.
We were fortunate to have a private tour just for us two, but the normal tours have a maximum size of 20, run every Thursday at 6:30pm and every Saturday at 2pm, and you need to book in advance. This tour lasts around 2 hours and costs £20 per person. They also have guides who can conduct private tours in French, Spanish, Italian, German and even Danish.
Have you been on a walking tour around a city? Do you think it’s a good way to explore a new place?