Wednesday, 28 January 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and like EC2

About a year-and-a-half ago I moved to a new job in Shoreditch. For the previous decade I had been based in the centre of London, and daytime EC2 contrasted pretty poorly: expensive delis, few convenient shops, and empty bars. It comes to life when the nightshift clocks on and jobbing hacks have gone home.

Whereas in the past I could browse record or book stores in my lunch hour, now I was at a loose end. It one day struck me that I was in a perfect position to document the area’s street art, and the graffiti artists’ ongoing battle with the borough’s street cleaning department. I could capture the latest additions to walls, doorways and shutters in daylight and before they were erased from view.

An unexpected bonus of this project, usually conducted in lunchtime walks between Brick Lane, Redchurch Street and Rivington Street, was that I grew to like the area. I came to know its passageways, recognised artists’ themes and styles, and learnt the spots that were particularly favoured for stencils, stickers, sprays or posters.

In April I will have documented these city markings for a year; it’s tempting to put something together at that point, to document changing trends in the art, and the changing nature of Shoreditch. Many of the most popular sites have been redeveloped or are more closely monitored than before.

One night I noticed some posters that had just gone up but I couldn’t get a clear photo because of the camera flash. I decided to try again in daylight. When I returned early the next morning, it wasn’t just the posters that had disappeared – the whole side of the building they were on had been demolished. It was a salutory lesson.

Another, very simple, tip: be aware of your surroundings. Residents may not be thrilled about you taking pictures of some rundown building next to their home (the old poverty tourism, which I may return to some time). And watch out for traffic, it’s all too easy to step off the kerb for a better picture and nearly get run over (a lot of Shoreditch’s side streets serve as shortcuts).

In the autumn, I noticed a lot of these now-familiar signatures have moved into the centre of town, notably Covent Garden. There hasn’t been much new work over December and January; it may be that the artists are conceding the wallspace war, or maybe they’re too lazy to go out over the holidays in the cold.

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