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By Nina Derham in London—
London’s famous art galleries are just half the story when it comes to the city’s art collection. Some of the world’s best street artists come to London to leave their mark, turning the city into a vast open gallery for all to admire free of charge—providing you know where to look of course…
Enter Street Art London, a small operation run by some incredibly passionate guides who seem to know all there is to know about the city’s best street art. Tours are currently running on Saturdays and Sundays and cost £15.
Street Art London
I decided to give it a go and went along to one of the Saturday tours which start at Old Street station in East London at 11 a.m. I was surprised to find another 25 people shivering away and waiting for the tour to start, a testament to the fact that London’s street art really is worth seeing.
The tour changes, of course, depending on whether new pieces of art have gone up, if works have been buffed over by the council or even painted over by other artists.
A sticky start
I must admit, our tour didn’t start as I’d imagined. Our guides herded us across the road and we huddled around to squint at a new piece by Ben Wilson, a street artist who solely focuses on painting miniature artworks on chewing gum stuck to the pavement. Even if you needed a magnifying glass to see the minute detail, it was pretty incredible.
The tour wound its way around Hoxton and into Brick Lane, stopping at pieces by some of the UK’s biggest street artists like Stik, who’s simple yet strangely emotive “stik” people hover in doorways and high up on billboards all over the city. We even caught a glimpse of a few perspex-covered artworks by Banksy.
We were left open-mouthed as our guides explained that while the legendary Banksy has the support of the council, he has ruffled a few feathers with other graffiti artists who set out to deface his work as soon as a new piece goes up. It was these stories that really added color – finding out where an artist is from, what their background is and what their work stands for really brought it to life.
Bastardilla’s lively pieces really stood out, but more so when our guides explained they were a commentary on the diamond trade in her native Colombia. Australian-born James Cochrane’s multi-layered portraits of locals and people he has met on his travels perfectly illustrated the high quality of the art you can find on the street.
We were also treated to numerous pieces of awe-inspiring artwork by Belgian artist, Roa. Roa’s somewhat fantastical and larger-than-life monochrome animals grace the sides of derelict buildings and peer out of forgotten corners of the city, as though London’s underworld was being run by oversized storks and snoozing warthogs.
Making the streets fun (and fun of the streets)
Beyond these big statement pieces, the tour also opened my eyes to previously unnoticed humorous ideas that make walking the streets of London a lot more fun. Pablo Delgado’s miniature characters that reside on the very bottom of walls, Christiaan Negal’s mushrooms that sit on top of buildings, and the mysterious ceramic pigs that have started to appear in the city… They all seem to be smirking at the busy pedestrians, who mostly pass by without noticing. They brighten up the streets and, if you spot one, will make you smile.
In the end the tour lasted five hours instead of four, giving us our money’s worth. This was largely because the guides kept thinking of more things to show us. (It might be worth taking a snack with you as there is no break for lunch.)
Most importantly, the tour lets you in on a secret. It opens your eyes to what’s right before you in the streets of London.
For more information visit Street Art London.
Also in our guide: If you’re wandering the streets of London looking for a great affordable place to sleep, check out our London guide. All of our recommended hotels have been visited, inspected and reviewed by our editors.