From plumbing depot to music venue, Shoreditch artist reflects on 30 years of change

Sculptor, designer and bar-owner Paul Daly was one of a pioneering group of artists to move to Hoxton Square in 1988. Thirty years later he’s still there. Here he tells Will Horner the area has changed but he’s very much the same

Paul Daly in Zigfrid von Underbelly. Credit: Mark Odell.

When Paul Daly first moved into a derelict building on Hoxton Square, he and his fellow artists did not choose the area because of its reputation.

“We had no money! That’s why we came here,” he says, laughing.

Back then Hoxton Square was a dark part of east London. Few lots were occupied or even built on after heavy bombing during WW2 flattened large parts of the 300 year-old square. What’s more, the area had a bad name.

“Hackney was a dirty word,” he says. “There was a lot of crime round here.

“Hoxton square was very bleak, very dark. There was no street lighting so after 5pm in the darkest days of winter it was depressing. It felt like an empty, dark place.

“You’d walk through spaces very fast just to get out of the dark because if anything happened nobody would come to your aid.”

But 30 years later, according to Paul “Hoxton Square has become the Mayfair of Shoreditch”.

An area packed with bars, tech start-ups, hipsters and widely regarded as one of the trendiest parts of London.

In that time, Paul didn’t just witness the area’s dramatic transformation, he lived it and played a part in it, being among an early wave of artists to choose the area as a place to work and socialise who led to the square becoming the place it is today.

“It was September 1988 and me, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas squatted a building and started making art,” he says, dropping the names of two artists who went on to play a big role in the Young British Artists movement of the 90s that included the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

The building they chose was an old plumbing depot owned by Hackney Council and built on the site of a bombed-out church. They transformed the space into their workshops. Paul, a sculptor and metalworker, built his workshop in a large shed at the back.

“Because I had no money I used to wander through all the derelict buildings and take bits of metal, bits of wood for my sculptures,” he says.

Paul, originally from Dublin, had grown up in Ireland, Ghana and Zimbabwe. He came to London to study art at Goldsmiths where he met Lucas and Hume and, after graduating in 1987, he moved to New York but returned to the UK after the death of a friend in Ireland.

It was the combination of young artists working in the day and socialising at night that began to change the area’s reputation.

“Parties, as usual, are what bring people to an area,” he says. “People would work all day making art and then hang out at night; the minute it became sociable and there were artists and cool people here it became desirable.”

That was the build-up, Paul says, to the area becoming “uber-hip,” but the “explosion” came in 1993. That year Glasshouse Studios opened in the square and rented out spaces to artists, then in the same summer eccentric curator Joshua Compston put on ‘A Fete Worse Than Death’ in Hoxton Square, a parody of a village fair with art and live performance.

“That particular Saturday, Hoxton Square was the best place to be in the whole of London. It was just incredible.

“Damien Hirst was doing spin painting on the railings, there were artists all around and everyone was just hanging in the square and there was a big stage round the corner. Leigh Bowery did performance there; it was proper amazing.”

Paul worked as a designer and sculptor through the 90s. Hackney Council granted him a lease on the derelict plumbing depot, where he lived for 11 years, and he bought the land in 1999. The building was pulled down and in its place Paul built his bar, Zigfrid von Underbelly,which he opened in 2003.

Zigfrid von Underbelly in Hoxton. Credit: Oxyman.

Located just a few doors down from the site of the former Bass Cleff jazz-bar, Zigfrid is an eccentrically decorated bar full of Paul’s own statues and trinkets he has collected along the way. The basement (the “Underbelly”) is a live music venue.

Paul’s Hoxton ventures have proved a success and his next is a microbrewery in Hackney Wick.

“It’s been a fascinating journey, and to think that 30 years later I’m still here is utterly weird,” he says. But while the square has changed in that time, Paul says he hasn’t.

“The great thing about it is, I’ve stayed young all that time. In my head I’ve stayed young but my body has gotten older. I have more experience but I’m exactly the same person.”