What is it that pops into your mind at the mention of : “London” ?
It might be the iconic Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the abundant museums, the Thames river, the immobile Queen’s guards, or the many red double-deckers that dot the streets.Quite shamefully, I have yet to truly discover any of these and after 6 weeks of being here, today was the first time, I actually caught a glimpse of Big Ben.
This past weekend, nevertheless, I finally embarked on a touristic attempt : taking a tour. This wasn’t your conventional double decker sight-seeing tour, but an aptly and appealingly named package called “The Alternative London Walking Tour“ . A 2- hour walk on a pay-what-you-like basis, this tour won’t bring you through the regal city centre , but instead, will weave you through the lesser-seen backstreets of London’s East End.
Here boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse street art scenes in the world
It serves as an urban canvas for famous artists like Banksy and Ben Eine. The tour guide (pictured above), a graffiti artist himself, leads our group of 15 through street branches and alleyways off of Brick Lane – the prominent vein of East End.
You might think of street art as the hiphop culture-inspired type of modern graffiti. In Vietnam, I know that many consider it vandalism and the farthest thing from being art. But London’s East End, opening its wall (legally) to the imagination of many, offers so much more than just graffiti and perhaps, even redefines the concept of graffiti altogether. Its walls are plastered with everything from detailed fine-art masterpieces to massive stick figures, using every artistic influences you could possibly think of: spray-paint cubism, stencil art, …mere scribbles! It is an urban gallery and for me personally, as visually engaging and even at times more exciting than a stroll through an actual museum.
Our artist tour guide noted something very fascinating to me, and that is, East End is an open gallery, in every sense of the word. It’s open to interpretation, it’s open to the simplest to the wildest of ideas, and it’s even open to modification. Once you set your art onto the streets, it’s for the world to ponder on, love, hate and even change.
This neighborhood, the guide shares, owns its bustling and multi-faceted nature to a history dotted with different waves of immigration.The French Huguenots first came in 1650, commencing a lively textile and crafts industry in the area. 200 years later, the industry would be inherited shortly by the Irish and then prominently by Ashkenazi Jews. The end of the World War II era saw the British government opening up its immigration policy as a revival tactic, through which Brick Lane became home to generations of Bangladeshis until now.
Fun fact: Brick Lane is curry capital of the UK, with a total of 52 curry shops on a single street.
The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is perhaps the most concrete proof of the area’s diverse history, being the only building in the world that has, in its history, been a protestant church, a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a mosque.
A multi-cultural centre of communities developing and struggling through their settlements in the UK, the streets here in East End, by the 80s amd 90s, had become a space of expression, where generations of people addressed their feelings, discontent or the social challenges they face in society – with the most obvious being issues of racism and discrimination. From being an outlet of social stress, it now has been branded as an artistic venue – where street artists from all over the world, inspired by their urban environments, come to play.
It was an overall visual treat and a tour that, more or less, revealed the backside of London’s portrait – a side less common to the world, you could say. On a side note, it did take place on one of the coldest days I have experienced in London of yet and we had to give up 2/3 of the way after walking in the painstakingly rainy and humid cold for over an hour. I’ll save more on the tour in our next attempt in the spring and also the amazing vintage markets and gastronomical variety in the area for another post. For now, I leave you with some snapshots of East End’s colorful street art. Enjoy!