Hackney’s vibrant street art culture under threat

Turville Street, Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor
Turville Street, Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor

As another set of scaffolding comes off of a sparkling new East London tower block, Ben sighs.

“There used to be a really good wall here that artists used,” the 24-year-old street artist and blogger explains. “Street artists come from all over the world to show their art in this area of London.

“It’s bollocks,” Ben proclaims, pulling off his hat to reveal his shaggy brown hair. “Art isn’t meant to sit in museums and be peered at over a glass of fucking Moet. It’s here, for everyone. And thanks to these property developers and businesses, it’ll all be gone unless we fight to keep it.”

East London: A hub for alternative street art

The East End has long been a Mecca for alternative street art, from graffiti to huge, watercoloured murals. Artists from Argentina to South Korea come to adorn East London’s brick walls with their work. But this culture is in jeopardy, as more and more high rise buildings pop up across London, leaving the once vibrant art scene looking more like an empty room in the Tate Modern.

“Some of these buildings are at risk, and the landlords have always let us do our work on them,” Ben says. “It adds to the local area, it gives it its purpose.”

But with ever more generic steel structures popping up across the city’s once eclectic areas, street artists are worried. Once a big business rolls into town, they’re a lot less likely to give up a wall for a young artist to play with.

Grimbsy Street (off Brick Lane), Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor
Grimbsy Street (off Brick Lane), Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor

Ben and his friends run a ‘pay-if-you-can’ alternative tour of East London’s rich art heritage, in an attempt to keep its spirit alive.

“Sometimes we get the City boys coming on the tour in their suits. It’s hilarious,” he says, grinning. “They just don’t get it. But hopefully my ranting leaves an impression on them.

“The art is never here for very long. A new artist usually pops up within three or four weeks, and paints over it with something of their own. It’s a fast-moving culture.”

When the first influx of migrants arrived in East London, the area became the capital’s largest slum. But from French immigrants to Jewish and Bangladeshi communities, the East End soon grew into a melting pot of cultures and colours.

“There’s one building which is now a mosque,” Hans, another street artist, recalls. “As far as I know, it’s the only building in the world that’s been a synagogue, a Catholic church, a Protestant church and a mosque. You just can’t buy history like that.”

It’s not just the architecture that’s at risk, but the hundreds of tiny pieces of unique art that, if you blink, you’re sure to miss.

Star Wars mosaics, miniature unicorns sitting on top of lamp posts (one Chilean artist’s trademark) and facial impressions adorn the streets near Spitalfields market, not far from the skyscrapers that surround Liverpool Street station.

More street art, Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor
More street art, Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor

Manuela, a Spanish street artist, thinks it’s likely to end up the same way as in her hometown of Madrid.

“One day, lots of notices popped up telling us that buildings would be knocked down. We had to stop. All of our old spaces became horrible glass buildings.

“But it’s not graffiti. There is such a difference between artwork and graffiti. Our pieces speak about culture and acceptance and racism, it’s really important. It’s art that young people can connect with.”

Manuela is defensive about her art form, and no wonder.

Up until last year the 5 Pointz building, in the New York borough of Queens, was universally renowned as the graffiti capital of the world, with thousands of artists splashing colour upon its once dismal walls. But in November it was whitewashed amid plans to tear it down and develop luxury accomodation. Earlier this week, a large “Gentrification In Progress” banner was draped around the building in protest.

In Berlin the legendary Tacheles squat – an old mall where artists lived and painted for two decades – has closed, while in Paris luxurious real estate brands have bulldozed into the famous Piscine Molitor.

 Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor
Hackney. Credit: Tom Batchelor

“Street art isn’t vandalism”

“They say it’s vandalism,” Hans sighs. “But that’s not what street art is. It’s not even what graffiti is, graffiti is an expression of what’s happening under the surface of a community. It’s an important statement that young people make. It’s a universal message.”

London has even started to crack down on the art itself, painting over subversive messages and murals which mocked 2012’s Olympic Games.

As the developers move in, rent prices soar and the poorest move out, it’s unlikely these communities will survive, no matter how hard Ben and his team try.

“Do you know how many Subways are in two square miles of here? 17.” Ben looks disgusted. “You can get a better sandwich at the local deli anyway.”

The city’s street artists remain hopeful that their art form will continue to thrive in the East End, attracting huge names from around the world – no matter how many anti-Subway murals they have to paint.