The writing on the wall: Dom Joly explores street art in east London
East London has one of the biggest collections of street art in the world. Comedian (and Banksy owner) Dom Joly joins a local walking tour to discover its urban gallery, before wielding a spray can himself
Pictures: Jon Challicom
Words: Dom Joly
Banksy and I have a lot in common. When I was making Trigger Happy TV, back in the early Noughties, I found our paths would often cross. Every time I’d set up a scene somewhere iconic, I’d find a stencil on the wall reading: “This is not a photo opportunity.”
Banksy had already beaten me to it. We were both working in the same streets and shared a certain guerilla attitude to our crafts. I even bought an early Banksy signed print. I spotted a series of his Happy Choppers for sale in a pop-up and grabbed one. If only I’d bought the whole lot I could probably now retire to the South of France and leave the poor British public alone. Street art has become big business, despite the obvious problem for dealers in monetising the pieces.
So I was intrigued to join a tour of the East End’s street art. Was there any left? I live in Cheltenham and when Banksy gave the town our very own piece – spies listening in around a real-life phone booth (a dig at GCHQ) – it quickly descended into farce. Within days someone had scrawled all over it. Then the owner of the wall started trying to remove the whole structure and sell it to someone in LA. It was all very depressing, particularly as the piece only worked because of its juxtaposition with real objects.
I’m not a fan of the guided tour. I’m a bit contrary in that way. I like to be a traveller, an explorer. Nobody tells me what to look at… until now.
I met Gary Means outside ground zero for hipsters – Shoreditch Railway Station. I seemed to be the only person within a mile without an excessive beard and an extensive palette of tattoos. I felt very alone. Gary hails from the Isle of Wight and initially moved to London to work in the music business. He soon left however, because of the “X-Factorisation” of the industry and his attention turned to the world of street art – a medium that felt a lot more energetic and subversive. He set up Alternative London as an “off the beaten track tour provider” about ten years ago and they have gone from strength to strength, catering to visitors looking for something that little bit different.
We started walking but stopped no more than two hundred yards from the station, in Sclater Street. Gary pointed to the top of a signpost. A small sculpture was soldered into the top of the pole. It was a tiny figure with large wings. It’s sometimes called The Angel of Shoreditch and is by an artist called Jonesy who works in a bronze foundry. “He came across a dead pigeon – snapped the wings off and cast them, before sticking them onto the figure…” enthused Gary as though this was the most logical thing in the world. I have to say, from that moment on I was hooked. I would never have spotted the piece without his help. The excitement of discovering this public, but hidden art gallery was a total rush. We were now stopping every hundred yards or so. Gary pointed out another miniscule masterpiece.
A little concrete figure (a suicidal financier) perched right on the edge of a rusty steel girder. It was by Isaac Cordal, a Spanish artist who had made Follow The Leaders – a wonderful sculpture of the partially submerged heads of politicians in Berlin – to highlight the issue of global warming.
Spotting a rather intricate mould by the artist Cityzen Kane stuck to a wall, I asked Gary whether there was a problem with people stealing the art (as I wondered whether it would fit into my bag and whether I could nick it without him spotting me). Gary told me that this was a problem and that Cityzen Kane had actually developed a special resin that made his works almost immovable. I put my penknife back in my bag and reluctantly moved on.
The sheer amount of stuff to see, once you knew where to look, was extraordinary. One moment I was marveling at a large illustration of a pig in Bacon Street (by Belgian artist Roa), the next I was trying to spot one of Christiaan Nagel’s hidden mushrooms. Like the original of this stunt technique – urban artist Space Invader – this South African likes to place his large mushroom sculptures in weird and wonderful settings.
Gary not only showed me some great art, but he was also incredibly passionate about the area itself, with its complex social history and inevitable struggle with gentrification and economic takeover. He explained how activities such as tagging and graffiti are often the only way for local youth, priced out of their own area, to cock a snook at the invading architecture of new money.
I particularly loved an enormous Mandala by French artist Lily Mixe that consisted of 102 bits of illustrated paper wallpapered onto the red brick wall. As Gary was explaining the complexity of the task, a random passer by cheerfully chipped in with “took her three days”, and kept walking. It seemed that locals were both proud and knowledgeable about their urban gallery.
We finished up at Unit 5 – both gallery and headquarters for Alternative London. Gary wanted me to try my hand at some street art. I was confronted with a tray of spray cans and encouraged to go for it on a large paint-splattered wall. I was rubbish, but help was at hand. Gary had made a couple of stencils of my own face. These not only help a street artist in a hurry, but also allow endless perfect repetitions of your ‘brand’. Pretty soon a snazzy image of my face was on an East London wall and a new Adulte Terrible of street art had been born. I absolutely adored this tour and intend to return with my family… and we didn’t even see a Banksy.
Fancy yourself as the next Banksy? To join a Street Art Tour and Graffiti Workshop, visit alternativeldn.co.uk. Nearest station: Shoreditch High Street. Book your train travel through Greater Anglia’s website to get the lowest price, guaranteed, at greateranglia.co.uk
More walking tours across the Greater Anglia network:
The foodie one
The Twilight Soho Food Tour will take you away from the tourist traps to some of Soho’s best-kept foodie secrets.
The historical one
Follow in the footsteps of Emperor Claudius and Queen Boudica on a walking tour of Colchester’s Roman past.
The fashion one
Billing itself as a day that will “knock your socks off”, the I Love Fashion Tour combines retail therapy (Harrods, TopShop et al) with a whistlestop tour of the V&A Museum’s famous fashion collection.
The pub one
Discover the history of Norwich through some of its oldest pubs! Choose from the original, gruesome blood and gore, or delicious pub-grub tours.
The spooky one
Join paranormal author Richard Jones – aka the Master of the Macabre – on a chilling tour of the city for supernatural stories and the lowdown on recent ghostly activity.