I’ve always thought that London is best described in black and white, or at the very most, shades of grey. The monotonous grey of a sultry winter sky; The obtrusive dark pouter of satellite dishes strewn across rooftops like ugly, mismatching ornaments; The mottled brownish-grey of 1960s cladding adorning pallid concrete buildings and the quilted greys of pedestrians’ coats as they screw up their faces into a steady, grey December drizzle.
Yet London remains one of my favourite places. People brushing past me chatter in a myriad of accents and languages. Some have their heads down, decisively bulleting to their local pub, shop or underground station. Others meander through the crowds at a slower pace, finding their way to a future hangout, undeterred by the hurried lives that buzz in frustration around them. This was my London: cosmopolitan, exciting, bustling, but grey.
Enter Ed. Ed gives over his free time, come rain or shine, to lead alternative tours of the capital that offer ignoramuses like myself a glimpse of the history and street art culture that are so prevalent in certain areas of the city. Unlike some London attractions, this tour is cheap, or to be more specific, it’s as much as you are willing and able to give. The geek in me was drawn to the free learning, and the wannabe culture vulture in me was eager to explore this post-Banksy world of clandestine creations.
First up was Jonesy, a Welsh bloke in his sixties who spends his nights welding tiny figurines to the top of lampposts in Brick Lane and beyond. Some would say this was crazy behaviour for an older gentleman who should probably spend his days playing golf or pruning his begonias. I disagree. I embrace living in a world where someone takes time to mold the mundane into a piece of art. Second was Stik, an artist who rose to fame through his depiction of, you guessed it, stick men. Quite the contemporary rags to riches story, Stik was homeless when he came up with his bountiful brainwave. He now travels the world with his exhibitions and people pay top dollar for his pieces.
As the tour continued, so did my amazement at what some very clever people can do with a brick wall. I found myself gawping up at three story high storks, surrealist elephants and emotive political etchings that, much like Monet, you had to step several meters away from to grasp the full scene. As we rounded the final corner on our two-hour escapade and the bitter cold did its best to deter my photographing fingers from leaving my pockets, I was confronted by what appeared to be the dilapidated, crumbling render of an old office building. “For this last one guys we’re going to have back up across the road” Ed instructed. What I had mistaken for flaky concrete was Vhils’ latest masterpiece. I don’t use that term lightly. The Portugal-born artist is quite the expert with a pneumatic drill and had created an incredibly beautiful portrait by chiseling away minute pieces of plaster. Ed had succeeded in unveiling a new London, one full of unapologetic, multi-dimensional colour.
After dipping my toes into this new world, I found myself peering curiously into every little urban niche. It wasn’t long before I was rewarded with Chewing Gum Man. Bent over on Millennium Bridge as if in prayer to the Thames, this well known artist creates works of art out of the general public’s disgustingly strewn secretions. I was lucky enough to chat with the artist himself, so I asked how the transformation took place. A blowtorch and several layers of acrylic paint did the job apparently. Turning horrible grey putty into tiny, vivid compositions.
Consequently, I’m a convert. My recent adventures have not only shattered my grey-tinted glasses, but have replaced them with 3-D specs. And just like a scene from Mary Poppins, I have been encouraged to hop into a brighter, more vibrant and imaginative version of the city I love.