The Hunt for London Street Art

This week’s post, written by USC professor Michael Owens, describes a walking tour taken by students in his Rhetoric of London course, a unique learning experience offered through the ACCENT London Study Center. The tour explores and analyzes the city’s often overlooked street art scene. Led by their guide, Elousie, the group learned not only about the hardships and legal struggles of the street artist, but discovered the hidden joys London provides its visitors and residents.

Elouise is a Masters student in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. A recent research report commissioned by the Mayor of London indicated that thousands of artists like her leave London’s prestigious fine art courses each year but find themselves unable to afford the rent on studio space and therefore are unable to develop their professional practice here in the capital city. Elouise came from France to study in London; she now faces a choice of returning to France or moving out of London to a provincial town or city; places where former industrial spaces still lie empty and available for occupation and conversation into artists’ studios.

But for now, Elouise supplements her income by working as a tour guide with Alternative London. On a cold February afternoon, she set off from the respectable edge of the Spitalfield Market with 20 students from the University of Southern California, bound for the back streets between the commercial city and the neighborhoods around Brick Lane, an area with a rich demographic mix and a high street full of Bangladeshi restaurants and hip cafés. During this London safari, we were hunting for street art. Scouring the walls for Banksy, we had already missed our goal. Our untrained eyes had overlooked some miniature bronze statues atop the street signs, at least until our guide encouraged us to gaze upwards. With practice and some appreciation of the tricks of scale, we picked out a mushroom statue above a railway wall, echoed by another on the roof of a distant tower block. Was this a deal between an artist and a property developer seeking authentic “cool,” or were we witness to the product of a midnight break-in through a lift shaft? We couldn’t tell.

In Hanbury Street, we gathered opposite some dilapidated buildings that had been  transformed into a gallery, layers outbidding each other as they clamored for our attention: Heron by ROA, the Sumo Wrestler, Alex Face’s Three-Eyed Babies series, and Lily Mixe’s Sea Creatures. We were beginning to catch on to the playful interactions between the artworks, and the multiple ways street artists respond creatively to their environment. There was a community here: bonds based on the necessity for trust among people working fast. Friendly exchanges with locals offered evidence that they were welcome in the neighborhood,but there was a constant risk that their illicit work would be cruelly expunged.

Another corner turned. We paused beneath a huge mural by OBEY, a Californian street artist who had been found in breach of copyright and forced to change his brand identity. We discussed the ambiguities of artists, outsiders working in the city’s liminal spaces, who sometimes choose to convert their work into major commercial opportunities and transform their lifestyles. Do street artists need to stay true? True to what?

Inevitably, thoughts returned to Banksy. One more corner, and we gathered around a Perspex box, a shroud for a pink car. Why the Perspex? …because it protected the Banksy. Or, strictly speaking, it protected an abandoned car that once held a window featuring a Banksy. The artwork was long since removed, but its memory means the car’s iconic value must now be protected.

Thanks Elouise, and good luck finding that studio space! We learned much from you: especially that we need to keep our eyes and minds open when we are out on the street!ACCENT networks span academia and industry, and include dynamic and unforgettable experiential learning opportunities for our students. If you’re faculty or a study abroad office and ready to collaborate on a new program, contact us at prog-dev@accentintl.com.