I’ve never been asked to meet at a place so unremarkable as a statue of a goat. I was directed there in an email from Alternative London Tours, where I had signed up for a walking tour to the area around Brick Lane, East London. I was to look out for a guide with a pink folder. He didn’t have it in his hand when I arrived, but there was what seemed to be a pagan gathering around this white goat, so I assumed I was at the right place, albeit a little wary.
When my tour guide, Ben Slow, pointed out little men tiptoeing on top of signs and mushrooms on rooftops, I was weighing my options for a stealthy exit, which incidentally occurred just as he made his announcement about how his freelancing as a guide paid for his rent (which was to be at the end of the tour, with a price of our own discretion), so guiltily, I stayed.
What is there to street art, then? Is it just about a can of spray paint, a few pints too many and a wild spurt of inspiration? Possibly. They could have enlightening messages or amusing tag-lines, or you might see a cat-inspired woman placed strategically behind metal-bars, (more regressive than enlightening in my opinion, but I won’t delve into a feminist discussion at this point), which some might claim to be aesthetically pleasing, or just good enough for a laugh.
You do, however, get to see amazing murals like the one below, by Guy Denning, which reminded me of the novel, Brick Lane. Written by Monica Ali, a young Muslim girl from Bangladesh enters an arranged marriage and moves to London to live with her husband on Brick Lane. The protagonist develops from being an uneducated, small-town girl to a woman with agency and a voice. It is a story of empowerment, which Denning’s painting seems to embody.
The beauty of the area is that it allows you to carve your own space, even upon another’s place of worship, without the having to involve a holy war. The building below is now a mosque, but was previously a synagogue, when the Jews sought asylum during the second world war. Prior to that, it was a Catholic church and when it was first established in 1743, a French Protestant church.
The transience of street art seems to mirror the lives of the immigrants who have lived there. Just as the French and the Jews carved their own space and renewed their lives, each wall is yours to stake your claim upon. There is no telling how long the art will remain, just as there is no stopping a graffiti artist from tagging it. Perhaps that is the what the artists seek to achieve-the idea that beauty is temporal, that creative expression knows no boundaries, and even if is it is here today, gone tomorrow, one should still seek to create.
The likes of Banksy, Roa and Alexi Diaz have all put the paintbrush to the wall, but who knows who else might come along tomorrow and change things? Does this mean that graffiti artists have had their territory usurped by fine arts graduates? That would depend on whether art itself could be defined by the parameters of streets, buildings and locations. I’d like to come back again and see what else is in store. Maybe I’ll be asked to meet at the foot of a statue of a cow instead, the next time around.