Street art in the East End

For the final field trip for my British Life and Visual Media class we went on a tour of Brick Lane, a neighborhood in the East End of London with a lot of history, and a lot of street art. Our personal tour guide took us around the neighborhood and taught us about the history, process and artists in street art. 

I have always had an appreciation for art, and especially for street art because of how accessible it is, when historically it has been made by the privileged for the privileged. 

In recent years, street art and smaller artists have been gaining appreciation. But art has traditionally been appreciated in museums or in the homes of wealthy people, neither of which are accessible. Although London’s museums are majority free to enter, the US is not the same. Besides entry fees, there’s another overwhelming reason why. 

Museums display paintings of white people, painted by white people, commissioned by white people. You see scenes from the Bible, or portraits of heterosexual couples in fancy dresses and beautiful, large homes with lavish gardens. They are for a specific audience: wealthy, straight, Christian, white people. 

Google the most famous artists in the world: you get Da Vinci, Monet, Pollock, Michelangelo, Warhol, Matisse—all white men. Now do the same for the most famous paintings in the world: The Mona Lisa, Creation of Adam, The Birth of Venus, The Girl with the Pearl Earring—all white people. And who commissioned them? Royalty, popes, European noblemen and wealthy merchants. 

Street art on the other hand is for everyone. Made in public spaces for everyone to see and enjoy, without the potential intimidating environment of a museum. 

It’s not strange to see billboards, bridges or subway cars covered in graffiti or posters, but before the 60s and 70s this type of art was uncommon. Our Brick Lane tour guide told us that graffiti and eventually street art really began after the Vietnam war. Soldiers in transport would scribble their names or messages on the walls of ships, and as veterans started to return home, graffiti really started to take off in Philadelphia. Black veterans who had fought for their country just to return home to the same racism and discrimination, started tagging public spaces with their names. 

But now street art is a respected art form popular worldwide. Brick Lane, a street in a now prominent Bengali neighborhood, is particularly famous for its street art. Our tour featured a huge variety of subjects, artists, mediums: 

There was a vibrant piece taking up the side of a building, commenting on society’s new addiction: social media. Art by a man who was previously homeless, became famous for his street art and now uses his profits to combat homelessness in London. Art that played with the effects of neon and three-dimensionality. Tiny little statues placed in the hardest to find spots, like on top of a lamp post. There was even an artist who paints the flattened pieces of gum littering the sidewalk. 

I highly recommend visiting the East End if you are ever in London, but if you do, make sure you do so with a tour guide, because I would have missed so many of the amazing pieces if he hadn’t pointed them out. 

A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:

The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.

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