It is easy to march down Brick Lane in search of a decent samosa without pausing to appreciate the numerous works of art nearby. But the Undiscovered London tours will make you consider the depth of the art you pass.
The East end of London, around Brick Lane is teeming with street art. They cover the walls and signposts; some are small and some thirty feet tall. Several are by well-know artists such as Banksy but the majority are by people I had never heard of. Some are quirky and humorous. Many are pertinent comments on contemporary issues of politics, race and gender.
Undiscovered London is a tour company that focuses on revealing the lesser-known or overlooked parts of the city. Each tour is guided by someone who is or has been homeless. As a consequence, they have an unparalleled knowledge of the area. Pete, our Mancunian tour guide, despite arriving 45 minutes late, did indeed know his area well; during the two hours we were walking with him, he greeted at least five people.
He gave us a whistle stop tour of some local history including the etymology of some street names. Aldgate is apparently where the ‘old gate’ of the Roman City wall was. Brick Lane is so-called because of the old clay pits nearby. He then talked about how the original Rock against Racism concert was held in the area and helped to challenge hate crime violence. He also showed us a few homeless shelters and health centres and told us of the valuable work they do.
We spend most of the tour, however, peering at tiny painted details on the walls and analysing them as though in a gallery. He talked about how some of the racial history of the area and how the East End has long been home to different groups of immigrants, from Jewish to Muslim. He links this to many examples of street art that we pass. Pete talks passionately about some pieces by his favourite artist Stik. He paints socially conscious artworks of simple black and white stick figures on buildings in the East End of London. One of his most famous was mural of a woman and child looking out across their condemned tower block home.
The piece we looked at showed a couple holding hands. At first glance, it appears to be commenting on the power relationship within a mixed-race couple. You might expect the white male figure to have the power over the woman hidden behind the burka. But Pete suggests that the image is very ambiguous. The dynamics are not clear; the man appears slightly hunched, cowed even and, because of the style of the figures, may not even be white. He is looking down at the ground, whilst she looks directly at him, unafraid. Alternatively, since the figures are so androgynous, it may be that the second figure is also a woman. The piece certainly challenges the audience to reconsider their initial stereotypes of interracial romances.
We pass other images that comment wordlessly on police racism and brutality.
There are plenty that focus on capitalism and consumerism.
This one pictures a break dancer who, upside down, reverts to one of the guards of Buckingham Palace.
His talk highlighted the transitory nature of this area; its racial makeup has changed dramatically and the street art comes and disappears even more suddenly. One of the pieces we viewed had only just been painted the day before. Others have been stolen and sold for close to £50,000. This is a really valuable trade and artists are increasingly aware of where they paint, for fear of it being extracted and sold without their permission. One piece we saw was on a wall strategically chosen because it is overlooked by three security cameras. But, despite these precautions, street art is easily damaged, tagged and stolen, meaning that it rarely remains the same for very long. Pete talks about this with no hint of sadness or loss in his voice, however. These changes are what keep the area alive and vibrant.
You can book tours through here: https://www.undiscoveredlondon.com/things-to-do/walking-tours/east-end-and-street-art-walking-tour/
Youth Hostel Association hostels are also partnered with Undiscovered London and so can offer better prices.
Trigger warning: Please be aware, this tour provided us with an unwelcome and horrendously graphic account of the Jack the Ripper murders and rape.