Beyond the spray can: A street art tour of East London

GCAK moth mural seen on Street Art London walking tour

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I like street art but I don’t much like graffiti. I get a small thrill from noticing colourful murals and clever stencils peeking out of unexpected places of the cities I live in and visit.

Mostly I appreciate their political statements and thought-provoking messages. But the black scrawl of graffiti provokes a negative response in me. Graffiti seems destructive, angry and almost pointless.

I joined a street art tour to learn more about the origins and development of the scene in London and the role graffiti plays.

Street Art in London

Since the late 1970s in New York where the graffiti and hip hop scene emerged, cities around the world have developed their own street art culture. London is no exception.

A collision of factors including access to cheap rail travel and art materials such as spray cans meant youths were able to express themselves visually on a larger, more public scale.

Different styles and favourite pieces of street art from a walking tour of East London

Fast forward to the 1980s and 90s and street art hero Banksy emerged on the scene in the UK with his insightful art pieces. This encouraged more creativity and more daring illegal placement of art on walls and property around the city.

Once considered vandalism these days it is not unusual for London businesses and local authorities to commission pieces from street artists for commercial use.

Street Art London tour

Our tour took us on a fast paced journey down the alleys and streets of Shoreditch. Our guide Karim, a well-known artist, shared his passion for the medium and his perspectives on how the street art scene has developed in London.

From him we learnt about the language and subculture of the street scene. From tagging to throw ups and gradually more complex pieces, artists grow as they learn or create new techniques to express themselves.

Street Art London walking tour guide Karim's work from Oct 2015

The most despised form of graffiti is undoubtably tagging. This seemingly thoughtless and destructive activity was explained in a different context by Karim. Artists earn their stripes by tagging in difficult to reach places and perfecting their typography.

The placement of tags generally goes unnoticed by the public who see this format as pure vandalism. On the tour I learnt that tags can be complimentary to fellow artists when placed in an area of white space within a piece. The opposite is true when placed over the details of original art.

Karim explained the ultimate goal of the street artist is to create something that no one wants to paint over or tag. So there is a constant drive to extend creativity beyond standard mediums and to places that are hard to reach.

Some artists use different materials such as wool, packing tape and even chewing gum to express themselves. Others extend themselves physically to place their art on unlikely and almost impossible locations.

Artist C215 stencil portrait of accordion man in East London

Favourite pieces from the Street Art London tour

On the Street Art London tour we saw many examples of recent and older art that showed artists commitment to creativity. Here are three of my favourite pieces spotted along the way.

French street artist Zabou’s mural reminded me of my cheeky twins

Zabou’s work was among several female artists featured on the tour. This was a pleasant surprise given I had assumed (correctly) the scene was dominated by male artists.

Street art in London by French artist Zabou

Disgarded chewing gum is the preferred medium of artist Ben Wilson

Thousands of his tiny works are found all over London particularly on the Millenium Bridge. They mostly depict the people, places and events of the city and provide a welcome pop of colour to the grey concrete footpaths.

Ben Wilson chewing gum art in East London

An ingenious mix of street and digital art by INSA

The mural below in Redchurch Street is brought to life using animation and is best seen in the GIF format below.

INSA Mural for GIF Redchurch Street Shoreditch

About Street Art London tours

I chose this tour having followed Street Art London on social media and their blog for some time. The group works with street artists across the city and plays a vital role in documenting and encouraging the street art scene in the London.

Our guide Karim shared his honest and unique insight as a street artist on all the pieces he showed us. I lost count of the number of pieces we saw but we discussed well over 30 artists and their techniques. What fascinated me most was the insight into the subcultures and politics of street artists and the movement’s shifts and changes over time. The tour was a unique insight into modern London culture.

Green car mural Tyzer - London Street Art tour

‘I like street art but I don’t much like graffiti,’ is a statement I am sure Karim hears each time he takes a tour. If you want to go on a street art tour please keep an open mind. I am still no fan of urban scrawl but I now appreciate its context a little more.

 Street Art London tour practicalities

The tour goes for about 2 hours and costs £15. Book the London street art tour online

This is an outdoor walking tour so check the weather forecast and wear appropriate clothing and comfortable shoes as you cover a bit of ground.

By its very nature street art is impermanent. So it is best to approach the day with the mindset that you are going to discover something new. Some of the pieces in this post may already have disappeared having enjoyed only a brief moment of  physicality.

Check the Street Art London website for further details on all the tours they offer.

Book the Street Art London tour online

London Street Art tour - review of a walking tour of London's East End. Discover the artists, mediums and subculture behind the street art scene in London

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46 thoughts on “Beyond the spray can: A street art tour of East London

  1. Mandy says:

    As a fan of street art, I love this but agree that there is a fine line between vandalism and art. I recall being quite disgusted with the tagging of all the beautiful buildings in Bologna.

    • Katy says:

      Mandy my parents had the same reaction in Bologna. I’m yet to visit that city but I am sure I would have a similar response. I saw some stunning pieces in Venice recently that I thought really added to the fabric of the city.

  2. Oonagh Grace says:

    The street art in London looks great. I am usually only there for short trips and go back to my favourite places each time but would love to do the street art tour. I am currently living in San Francisco and there is some amazing street art here also.

    • Katy says:

      Oonagh I was first exposed to street art in San Francisco as a teenager. That was a while ago – ahem – but I’ve been back since and saw some incredible pieces. This tour was fantastic and insightful. I think you would enjoy it

    • Katy says:

      Link up opens at 8am London time so that would be 9am for you I think.. thanks for joining in. I’m looking forward to reading your post!

  3. Phoebe | Lou Messugo says:

    In general I like street art and I think it’s come a long way in the last few years, but I think I’d appreciate it even more if I actually understood it! Thanks for explaining about tagging. #farawayfiles

    • Katy says:

      Thanks Phoebe – I asked a lot of questions of our tour guide but stopped short of questioning him as to whether he tagged himself. I’d like to ask that question if I met him again. It was a fascinating tour

  4. wyldfamilytravel says:

    Reminds me of melbourne and the street art scene there. There is still sometimes a fine line between graffiti and art but there certainly is some talented people out there with spray cans

    • Katy says:

      I agree, it is very much like Melbourne. The council and businesses in Melbourne have really embraced street art as a key part of the city’s culture. It’s funny because some of the anti-establishment subculture that has helped street art evolved is really put off by collaborations like this. It will be fascinating to see what comes next both in London and Melbourne.

  5. Alex Muir says:

    Wow – the cycle of futility is amazing, I’ve not come across that one yet. A couple of years ago when my daughter finished her year 6 SATS I took her to London as a treat and asked her what she wanted to do and she said she wanted to see some Banksy. So thats what we did. A well researched trip but I would love to do this tour too. #farawayfiles

    • Katy says:

      Your daughter sounds fabulous Alex. I love talking about street art with our niece who is in her early 20s. It has been a big inspiration for her to study graphic design. Actually the synergies between street art and advertising is an interesting discussion but perhaps for another day. I think your daughter would love this tour – lots of Banksy discussion as well as other high profile artists like Space Invader.

  6. Clare Thomson says:

    Fascinating post, Katy. I think some street art can be beautiful and inspiring. I think a tour with an artist has to be the best possible way of seeing it and putting it into context, as with any art. I’d love to do something like this and I really like the pieces you’ve highlighted – how ingenious to use rubbish like used chewing gum and create something worth looking at. #FarawayFiles

    • Katy says:

      Thanks Clare, the chewing gum art is my favourite as well as the etching of the man playing the accordion as it looks like my late father in law who also played the accordion

  7. Nell (the Pigeon Pair and Me) says:

    What dedication it must take, to paint something 8 times! I live in London and am often impressed by the skill that goes into street art. Round here (south London), street artists have been commissioned by building companies to paint murals on boards covering long-running building works. I think that’s a great idea.

    • Katy says:

      Dedication and patience! I admire that too. Whereabouts are you in South London? I’m in Lambeth near Oval and there is a lot more the council and businesses could be doing to brighten things up in my opinion! With the added bonus of fostering creativity and a sense of community.

  8. differentshoresblog says:

    Sorry – finger slippage! Meant to finish that! ….There’s some really quality street art here. I also hate graffiti but do appreciate photogenic street art especially when it means something. The one on Mundy St is very intricate and quite beautiful; I also love the poignant one of the old man playing his instrument…. #FarawayFiles

  9. fifi + hop says:

    Fascinating. What a great idea for a post. I have your same view on graffiti but am intrigued by the different mediums, the tagging, etc. It’s a whole world I know nothing about. Makes me want to go on a tour in NYC now! #farawayfiles

    • Katy says:

      Corey have you seen ‘The Get Down’ on Netflix? It is a series about the hip hop and street culture of the 1970s/80s in NY. It is a bit of fun or as our guide implied sanitised but I really enjoyed watching it. Baz Luhrman (Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Great Gatsby) is the director. Our guide pointed us to the ‘Style Wars’ documentary for a more accurate representation of the street scene in NY.

  10. Allison says:

    I had no idea that there was an entire culture behind the graffiti art. I’m not a fan myself but it is fascinating how that world works. #farawayfiles

  11. daisythebus says:

    Absolutely fascinating. I love the transient, vulnerable nature of this type of art. And I had absolutely no idea that “chewing gum art” existed at all…

    I adore your blog articles; truly inspiring! Thanks for these, and for the #FarawayFiles community.

  12. MummyTravels says:

    How great to have the tour led by a street artist who can actually explain the techniques and the culture behind it. I’d agree with your first statement that street art can be wonderful but graffiti always seems so mindless, so it’s unusual to be told just what people are often trying to achieve. Some is incredibly creative as well. #farawayfiles

  13. Hilary says:

    Ever since visiting Lisbon, a city covered in graffiti and street art, we’ve been on the hunt for street art in every new city! I’ll be looking for some of these the next time I’m in London!

    • Katy says:

      Lisbon is such a cool city with so many creative people. I loved the street art there so I am sure you will enjoy seeking it out in London

  14. aandj8804 says:

    This looks like it was a great tour of the street art in London. It’s cool that you learned so much and were able to pass it on through your blog post. I knew a bit about what you share, but I also learned a few things too – like why street art is often created in hard to reach spaces. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 #farawayfiles

  15. Elizabeth says:

    I’m a big fan of street art and how it can bring life to certain parts of a city. That gif you shared is incredible — just think of all the work that went into creating that piece. I also really like the sneaky piece of the man near the lock of a door picture above. Great details. #farawayfiles

  16. Vlad says:

    I feel the same way as you, I love street art but I despise random graffiti. The later is everywhere around my city, so annoying. But I’m always on the lookout for quality street art when I visit a new city.

  17. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    I have always looked at Street Art and liked it but didn’t know it was actually such a big scene or that other people sought it out when travelling until I started reading blogs! Now, well, I love it, so I was fascinated by your post! I love the background information you have provided and giving us a better insight into what goes on, fabulous! Because of this post, I am also now following Street Art London on Twitter so thank you for bringing all of this to my attention. #FarawayFiles

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