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Last updated 17 June 2019
The changing face of Shoreditch
When I first visited London in the late 1990s, Shoreditch wasn’t somewhere high on the list of ‘must-visit’ locations. It was a grungy area on the periphery of central London. It wasn’t considered to be part of the inner city, despite it being only 6.4 kilometres (four miles) from Buckingham Palace. Many residents from those days would probably still be amazed at its changing face, and the speed at which this has happened.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, Shoreditch had a strong textiles and furniture industry. Cultural activities also featured prominently, with many theatres established in the area. Eventually, the industries were abandoned as competition and the cost of production made an impact. The area fell into disrepair and became synonymous with poverty and crime.
Shoreditch street art
Fast forward to the early 2000s and the area really started to show signs of increased investment. Today, Shoreditch is still true to its roots, still grungy and industrial looking. Look closely though, and you will see the luxury apartments that are now dotted around the streets, and the warehouses and other industrial buildings that are sporting renovated lofts and living areas. Cafes and restaurants fill spaces in between decades-old convenience stores, furniture stores, curry houses and internet cafes.
Shoreditch also lays claim to being integral in the origins of the term street art, as we know it today. During its less salubrious years, the wanton defacement of buildings with graffiti was prolific. The walls of the desolate brick buildings became the canvas of people wanting to make their (illegal) mark under the cover of darkness.
Where to see Shoreditch street art
Enter Banksy, an anonymous British street artist, who emerged with some of his early works in the streets and lanes of Shoreditch. Artists took courage from his work and gradually the area started to see the vivid colours on the walls morph from tagging to pieces that spoke to their cultural and political beliefs. The images started to mean something to those who would stand and observe it.
The local regulatory authorities saw this in a positive way and encouraged it by establishing legal zones for the art to occur and sought to protect the finished artwork.
At every turn in Shoreditch, there’s street art to be found. Brick Lane is at the centre of it all. These are some of my favourites, but there is so much that is not documented here. For the best way to see the street art in Shoreditch, arrive here ready to walk the streets and find it all yourself.
Seven Stars Yard
A walk through the streets of Shoreditch uncovers a wide and varied portfolio of murals and paintings. If you’re lucky, you can find an artist in action. We found these guys below in the Seven Stars Yard, a nondescript laneway that comes off Brick Lane between Fashion and Fournier Streets. It’s a place where normally I wouldn’t venture, and still wouldn’t at night, but the flurry of activity heading into this laneway had us intrigued.
Some of the art is just a pop of colour and fun without any clear message (well to me anyway, but I don’t profess to be anyone who knows anything about art).
Many however have clear social and political undertones, giving a voice to each artist who paints them. The most enduring paintings have been those below by artists Dreph and Carleen de Sozer, painted on garage doors at the end of the yard. Dreph has been street painting for over 30 years and largely depicts women of African and Caribbean descent. All of them represent the people he knows and loves, people who are inspirational to him. Carleen is an airbrush artist whose paintings also have a strong African influence.
These days, it’s also not hard to find something Donald Trump related!
The world of street art is dynamic. As a testament to the ongoing gentrification of the area, the Seven Stars Yard and surrounding property, once the site of an East End pub, has now been purchased by developers. They have subsequently prohibited the use of the area for street art purposes. Street art, whilst being encouraged in certain circles, is still a “dark” occupation, and crossing the line from officially accepted and sanctioned street art sometimes has a very blurred line in terms of its legality. My understanding is that street artists continue to defy the new owner’s rules and new pieces of art are popping up in this area.
In Hanbury Street, a giant crane is projected off the side of a red-brick building. Roa, a Belgian-born street artist paints mainly birds with his preferred mode of black and white. He has been commissioned by authorities and associations in other countries to complete artworks for festivals and galleries. On the left, the handstanding man has been completed by artist Martin Ron.
Walk down the entire street with its walls almost completely covered with competing murals in many locations. Immediately below the crane, at street level, this brightly painted wooden gate contains another surprise, a cafe and even more street art, including a Carleen de Sozer special.
Dale Grimshaw’s image of a tribesman from Papua New Guinea is full of colour and bursts out from the wall.
In El’s Yard, an outdoor area that now serves as the gathering space for Brewdog Brewery is also home to Banksy’s Pink Car and a sculpture crushing a car. The pink dinosaur looks on in the background.
Ex-chemist Shok-1 now paints x-rays as his defining genre. These can also be found here.
Commercial Street turns up another Dreph masterpiece.
In a street occupied by the GCU University, Fashion Street is also well covered in street art. It’s worthwhile taking the time to traverse the entire street as there is some really cool pieces here.
Dreph rears his head again and the mural with the man and child is made entirely from drips of paint. Up close, it’s incredible.
In Pedley Street, Trafik’s black and white mural of a chimpanzee playing chess was striking.
The street art of Shoreditch will continue to change. Street murals will be painted over and some areas will become difficult to operate in. In return, street artists will find new areas in existing suburbs or move to other suburbs, spreading their colour, not always where it is wanted or appreciated. In an area such as Shoreditch, it seems to peacefully co-exist most of the time and adds value to an area once lacking interest to visitors.
There’s so much more to Shoreditch, and visitors should plan to spend an entire day here. It’s the heart of a burgeoning street food, art, bar and markets scene. There so many things to do here in Shoreditch. Add it to your London list.