If you think America has the lock down on street art, think again. The U.K., particularly London, is operating on a way more advanced level. Their national treasure BANKSY is known the world over and yet he’s just one artist in a mad sea of talent including Shok-1, Stick Man, and others you may still be unfamiliar with. But with all in mind, America is no small fish either. I mean, our powerhouse, Shepard Fairey, had an art opening during my stay in London that had a wait time of 4 hours to get inside and literally lines spread across multiple blocks.
And while London may be geographically small compared to most major cities in the U.S,, I still felt like I needed someone to take me around who was an insider into the scene. After all, street art for the most part is something done in secret, so there’s only so much I could possibly discover by walking around myself without a clue of what to look for. Because of this, a friend from the area recommended that I contact the guys who run the blog STREET ART LONDON to give me a personal tour of city. I did, and the next thing I knew I was waking up early in the morning to go on an epic adventure.
I took a cab down a narrow cobblestone street and pulled up to an office where I rang the buzzer. It wasn’t working, but luckily the last person out the door had forgotten to close it all the way so I managed to sneak upstairs to their headquarters where I was introduced to Karim, my guide for the day. Karim and I had been emailing each other and judging by his name I definitely wasn’t expecting him to be a giant Caucasian dude. He told me he was named after one of his Father’s best friends, who happened to be Muslim. However, I still had a great time jesting with him throughout the day with the reverse nickname of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, NBA all-star and Bruce Lee’s notorious opponent in Game of Death.
Besides being an encyclopedia of everything art-related happening in the streets, from tagging to wheat pastes, I found out that Karim is also a superstar on TripAdvisor where almost every comment involves a detailed description of how awesome he is. So, I truly feel honored that he was able to spare some time to take me around and I was able to absorb as much of his wisdom as possible. Especially, since we really went on an experts’ journey that would’ve gone way over the casual art fans’ head.
Their offices are located just steps away from iconic works by BANKSY and Ben Eine, an artist from England who gained a ton of stateside fame when one of his text paintings was gifted to President Obama during his first inauguration. But, to be honest, I wasn’t really interested in works like these because I could always see them on the Internet. And when I told this to Karim, I could see a spark of excitement light up in him, which led us on an initially planned hour long tour being stretched out to almost five hours with only one break for a quick coffee.
We swiftly took to a different route that led us to discover a piece that was 8 stories tall, yet hidden from plain site at the same time since it blended in with the environment. The work was made entirely out of electrical tape and placed on the inside of staircase windows attached to a parking garage. It was created by a young artist named AD/SO who I later discovered had been commissioned by the organization Anti-Slavery International to put the whole thing together.
The average person would be happy seeing it from the ground, but not being average, I pleaded with one of the workers at the garage to let us in to take pictures from the inside. He let us in under the constraint of only having 5 minutes before we would have to come back down and so we raced to to see AD/SO’s piece from the other side of the glass in order to get a better understanding of how he was able to accomplish such a feat as well as went up on the roof to partake in a view of pieces that would’ve been impossible to see from the level of the sidewalk.
I had seen a mystical looking set of characters by an artist on my drive to London Street Art’s office, but had no idea of its creator’s name until Karim took me past a playground with a wall done in the same style. It turns out the artist’s name is PHLEGM and he’s quite prolific when it comes to art around the city. Many of you may have even seen his art on blogs before, but as far as I know he only has one piece in America located in New York according to a Juxtapoz article from earlier this year.
There would’ve been no way in hell that I would’ve just stumbled upon PHLEGM’s piece by myself, since it was located off the main walking streets. And rather than simply stopping to stare at it’s brilliance, we continued on to an even more local’s-only experience. It was an abandoned yard filled with tags by various artists, similar to the ones you’d typically see in areas of downtown Los Angeles where the trains come in, including throw-ups by CBS and other familiar crews. However, there were also a ton of names that you don’t see in the States, like GEE, whose cursive script appears almost everywhere, including on top of substantial murals by people like ROA.
At this point, it’s interesting to point out that London is a hotspot of international activity, since it happens to be located within relatively close proximity to several other countries like Germany, Spain, and France. Because of this you get artists like ROA, who is from Belgium, doing a ton of pieces in the city. Whereas in America, with our tighter controls on borders, it’s only on very special occasions that we get artists from Canada or South America coming in to paint walls. However, even though America is somewhat of an isolated palace when it comes to street art, it’s still a HUGE cultural influence on the rest of the world. Particularly, Wild Style graffiti, which is what we now refer to when talking about 80’s hip-hop influenced letterings.
We walked back to more commonly traversed ground and into a small hidden parking lot, where I first saw the work of Shok-1. No other local artist made a bigger impact on me than his work. His use of spray paint is on a skillset level equal to that of El Mac, an American artist who uses a proprietary gestural technique that allows him to produce intricate patterns within a realm of photorealism. The major difference between the two being that El Mac can paint a photorealistic portrait, whereas Shok-1 can paint the essence of a ghost.
As much as I love Shok-1’s work, the fastest rising star in the local scene is an artist with a completely different aesthetic named Stick Man. Like his name sounds, he paints a stick figure character all over the place — from huge commissioned works to smaller hidden gems. There’s something very playful about what he does that can be appreciated by a much wider audience than the typical street artist and simply put it made me feel happy wherever I saw it. There are also a couple other artists I really thought were doing cool things, like HUNTO who is taking his major influence of Picasso and bringing it to the streets, Christiaan Nagel who is placing spray foam mushrooms atop various buildings, and CZK [short for CityZen Kane] who is making elaborate sculptures and glueing them to the walls.
I noticed one major trend going on in London that’s also rapidly growing in Los Angeles as well. It’s the idea of street artists being commissioned by brands to make murals based around their products, whether it’s Anthony Lister painting a Rise of The Planet Of The Apes piece on Melrose or Pez doing a mural solely featuring ATARI characters in the East End. It’s a topic of constant debate in the street art community. Is it selling out? Is it better than the ads we currently see? Is it sustainable? I can’t answer these officially, but in my opinion it’s not selling out if the artist still keeps the work in their style. But on the matter of the work being better or worse than current ads, I’m not so sure. I guess it depends on the artist. Especially, since I think ads have their own kind of beauty, even if everyone wants to hate on them every now and again.