Taking a London street art tour is an essential experience in the city. Which is why we wound up signing up for not one, but two street art tours through the London neighbourhoods of Shoreditch and Brixton.
You can tell a lot about a city by its artwork. If done well, it is an expression of the community’s character, vibe and spirit. Whether through paintings, statues, sculptures or fountains, people connect with art in everyday life on multiple levels.
But sometimes that art isn’t entirely welcome. Perhaps because it wasn’t put past any censors. Perhaps because it shows something not everyone wants to see, but should be seen.
Fortunately (in my opinion) not everyone asks permission to express themselves in public places.
I didn’t necessarily know any of this, though, when we signed up for a London street art tour through Shoreditch.
Deciding on a London Street Art Tour
When we discovered Dope Art Tours, we thought it would be a good way to get a better understanding of how and why street artists go to the lengths they do to get their pieces seen. And also see some cool Shoreditch graffiti.
Shoreditch street art is a staple of London counter culture, making it the perfect alternative travel experience for us – as well as the ideal choice to take a street art tour of London.
I expected to see some awesome displays in places I wouldn’t necessarily think to go to by myself. What I didn’t expect was that my preconceptions would change in a way that completely alters how I look at a city.
Unaware of this impending revelation, we headed off to meet our first London street art tour guide …
Like all of our content, this article is in NO WAY sponsored. We legit paid for both of these London Street art tours, and genuinely loved them so much that we would pay to go AGAIN the next time we’re in London.
SHOREDITCH STREET ART
We meet Gregory outside a cafe near Aldgate East tube station in Shoreditch. Once everyone has arrived he takes us around the corner for a brief introduction to Shoreditch street art and graffiti. To begin our street art tour of London’s most alternative neighbourhood, Gregory touches on something that was probably on everyone’s mind when they signed up. I know it was on mine.
Unapproved/uncommissioned street art or graffiti is illegal in London (and the rest of the UK). In addition to this, the UK penalties are much more severe than the rest of Europe for this crime. Throw up your tag in France or Germany, and you might get a small fine or maybe some community service work. In England? Paint on the wrong wall and you could get up to 10 years in prison – if caught.
The stakes are much higher here. Which makes what the street artists put up in London even more meaningful. You wouldn’t risk so much if it didn’t matter to you. I wasn’t aware the penalties for illegal graffiti were so much higher in this country, and I’m from here!
A DIFFICULT JOB
As we head towards Shoreditch’s famous Brick Lane to check out all the famous street art, Gregory advises us that yes, he is a street artist. We don’t go into whether or not he’s had any brushes with the law. He doesn’t discuss his own work on the tour, and keeps it about other artists. At least, so far as we know. Gregory doesn’t tell us his street name, so we could well see one of his works without knowing it.
As we trek through the streets of Shoreditch in the (unusually) warm October sun, we stop by a shop wall. “Aha,” we all think. “This is street art!” Immediately everyone whips their cameras out, and we start taking pictures of the colourful mural below.
But this is why Gregory is leading this London street art tour; once everyone gets the perfect shot, Gregory points out that we’re all probably looking at the wrong thing.
Next to the painting are a series of tags – quick, simple initials and symbols all overlapping each other. You know what I’m talking about. Usually we see them on bridges, in parks and on walls in alleyways. Occasionally you might catch one quite high up on a billboard. These are graffiti, as they’re written words, as opposed to street art, which tends to be picture-based.
I’ve never paid much attention to tags. Quite often I can’t read them (though that may be the point). And why would someone want to spray their tag so many times in a row on the same wall? The answer is simple (and I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of it). Artists who want to get good need to practice. So if you want to get up to the standard of the mural, you have to start somewhere. Might as well be with something you’re going to put on everything you do.
Something Gregory emphasises on our tour is that a key aspect of street art is respect. The quality of your work is one part of it. How many tags you’ve placed is another. If you can go “all city” and get your tag all over where you live, you’re more respected. And in a city the size of London, that’s quite an achievement.
Where you place your tag is also important. At one point during this Shoreditch street art tour, we arrive in a large open square. As we enter, Gregory tells us that there are a few pieces here; several good and one bad. When we look around, immediately there is a large mural covering the whole side of a four storey building. It depicts a very realistic, hand-painted portrait of a woman in a red polo shirt. Again, everyone whips out their cameras and starts snapping.
However this is another deliberate misdirection from our tour guide. “That’s the bad one,” he says, and he points out a small detail on the side of the piece. It reads: “GUCCI”. This is product placement – something no respected street artist would put their name to (and we’ve not included in the article). Gregory instead points us to a much smaller mural on the side of another building.
This is the third part of being a respected street artist. The more dangerous the effort, the more respect you receive. This placement is called the “heavens”. “To do this,” Gregory advises us, “all you need is a rope and your best friend. And hopefully you’ve made your peace, because you may well be going to heaven tonight.” Your friend holds onto the rope (and, by proxy, you) while you abseil down the side of the building and create your art. That’s certainly not something you’d do if you weren’t committed to the cause!
There’s even a Banksy in this Shoreditch alcove. It is a painted car, and one of the few protected street art pieces in London.
IT MIGHT NOT BE THERE LONG …
One issue with painting on an outside wall is that others are free to do the same. Even if you’re as famous as Banksy, no matter what you throw up, someone else can always paint over it. In a lot of cases, this would be the local council or the disgruntled owners of the wall. But sometimes, it’s other graffiti or street artists who do this.
The general rule, according to Gregory, is it’s acceptable to paint over another piece, as long as what you paint is better than what you’re painting over. But if you’re not putting up something new, sometimes you might just want to add your own tag. This is called fame-bombing. If you do this, you should not cover the main part of the piece, to show respect.
However, if you’ve got a grudge with a particular artist, you might just put your tag wherever you want. Unfortunately, this includes spraying right over the main part, as below.
Personally, I don’t like it when a piece is (haha) vandalised like this. They may have a good reason, but it’s a shame to ruin some really accomplished artwork.
Fortunately, the artist came back and painted back over it again (and added some necklaces for good measure).
SOMETIMES IT’S ALLOWED
We move from the streets to Allen Park (locally nicknamed Alien Park); a public park next to the train line. Here there are whole walls which are free to be painted on, as agreed with the local council. As we arrive there are already a few street artists working on different sections of the wall.
In addition to Allen Park, most of the Brick Lane street art we’ve just seen is also legal. The man who owns the majority of the shops on Brick Lane (whom Gregory also knows and introduces us to) is happy for street artists to use the buildings for their work. Many of the street art pieces on Brick Lane are even commissioned.
Gregory is well known on the local Shoreditch street art scene, and he says hello to a few people. He even points out someone who painted one of the pieces we saw earlier on the tour.
This is the advantage of taking a street art tour of London as opposed to just taking a walk. Not only were we getting an in-depth journey into the reality and the history of Shoreditch’s street art, but we also saw pieces we wouldn’t know existed otherwise!
BRIXTON STREET ART
Our second London street art tour is with a man named Ivo. This time we’re in Brixton, and we meet right across the street from the tube station. Immediately it’s clear why: on the wall, behind a sheet of protective glass, there’s a huge, colourful mural.
It’s a tribute to David Bowie, which became a memorial following his death in 2016. David Bowie grew up in Brixton, Ivo advises us, and fans come to pay tribute to their idol. In fact, this mural – painted before his death – became so important to the community, it is one of the few street art pieces in the city that is protected by the council. The whole thing is created with little multi-coloured dots of paint! Isn’t that cool?
The tour turns out to be not just about Brixton’s beautiful street art (of which there is a lot). Ivo talks in depth about the local history of the area, its culture and its community. He himself is Portuguese and moved to London 13 years ago. Once he arrived, he fell in love with Brixton and says it’s the best part of the city. It’s easy to see why.
In fact, Brixton values street art so much, the very streets themselves are painted!
Not only does Brixton showcase some epic street art, it’s also a landmark for cultural change in London.
Did you know that Brixton had the first street to get electricity in England back in the 1880’s? That’s why it’s called Electric Avenue! There: mind blown! For context, that’s the same time that Jack the Ripper terrorised another part of the city.
Did you know that the Brixton Academy, one of the most important music venues in London, was originally bought for just £1? They’ve held gigs for The Smiths, The Clash, The Beastie Boys and in 1994 Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre played there.
Brixton witnessed its share of difficulties though. In 1981, mounting tension between the police and the general public gave rise to the Brixton Riots. Hundreds of people were injured, vehicles were destroyed and buildings were looted and burned.
However, Brixton has come a long way since then. Ivo tells us he hopes that people’s preconceptions of Brixton don’t prevent them from coming to experience it. There’s a strong feeling of community here, and a rich culture developed by various ethnic groups over the last century.
High up above the street, a mural commissioned after the riots shows children of all races playing together. Painted by Stephen Pusey, it’s the largest mural in Brixton, and the only one no other street artist will touch. In fact, the council even had it retouched since the original went up in 1982. It also divides opinion; some people like it, some apparently hate it. Art is wonderfully subjective. What do you think?
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
On the tour, Ivo takes us to a project that community members set up for free use on a nearby council estate. Inside, there’s a gym, climbing equipment, and a book exchange over by the street.
The whole project is run locally, and is there for the public to use for free to encourage community activity. It’s a fantastic place, and the kind of project I would have greatly appreciated growing up with.
In a nearby park, there’s more street art to finish off our tour. There are pieces by various artists in one corner, following the wall round into an alleyway leading to the street.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING
I’m very glad these tours exist. Because of them, I now have a much greater appreciation for something I previously overlooked. Now wherever I go, I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting street art. I peek into doorways and down alleys. I crane my neck to check the tops of buildings for the “heavens”.
If I spot tags, I take a moment to appreciate their shape and complexity. To see if they look like kids messing around, or a budding artist practising their new identity.
Graffiti and street art tells you a lot about a place. For Shoreditch and Brixton, it speaks volumes.
A LITTLE SIDE-NOTE(/DISH)
Along with David Bowie and electrified streets, there are a few other things of note that originated in Brixton. You may be familiar with the restaurant chain Franco Manca, but did you know it all started here? We popped into the flagship pizza parlour in Brixton market, and boy, are those pizzas tasty. And filling! We also discovered our new favourite fizzy drink: green cola! Check it out if you’re in dire need of being satisfyingly full.
SOME KEY FACTS ABOUT DOPE ART TOURS
Who: Gregory and Ivo started Dope Art Tours in order to introduce people to Brixton, the neighbourhood Gregory grew up in and Ivo fell in love with. They also want to educate people about the importance of Street Art!
What: They run two tours – the Shoreditch Street Art Tour and the the Brixton Culture Tour. We, of course, went on both. Gregory also runs a Graffiti workshop.
Cost: The tours are both ‘pay what you think it’s worth.’ This allows for anyone to enjoy the tour. However, as a rule of thumb, if you’re truly skint, we recommend you pay a minimum of £5. If you can afford more, pay more! Remember that this is how they make a living and London is expensive! (Contact Gregory to find out the cost of his Graffiti workshops as it varies based on numbers)
Contact Info: You can reach them on their facebook page here. They are always very quick to respond and very friendly and accommodating. Alternatively, you can also book these and many other London walking tours here.
Why take a London Street Art Tour with Dope Art Tours
We thoroughly recommend both of their London tours. The Shoreditch street art tour gave us invaluable insight into the culture of street artists, which we’ll keep in mind whenever we see street art now! And the Brixton culture tour introduced us to a fascinating part of the city that we would probably not have seen otherwise.
If we need to put a number on it, they get 5/5 (or whatever the maximum is). If you thought this was interesting, you’ll learn even more on the actual walking tours! This article only scratches the surface of Shoreditch street art and Brixton’s history and importance – there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself. Plus, with Dope Art Tours, you can ask endless questions about the different pieces and artists, inquire about Brixton food and drink recommendations and just hang out with some really cool people. After all, street art is constantly evolving and changing; you never know who or what you’re going to find – and their expertise is invaluable!
LOOKING FOR MORE THINGS TO DO IN LONDON?
– Dark and Unusual Places to Visit in London
– Pub Crawl of London Pubs with Haunting Histories
– An Incident at the Old Operating Theatre
– Walking Tours to Explore London’s Dark History
WANT MORE STREET ART?
– Sheffield Street Art Will Knock Your Socks Off!
– Wandering the Walls of Warsaw
– Street Art in Krakow: Colourful, Cultural, Controversial
– When the City is a Sketchbook: Street Art in Ljubljana
Do you like street art? Would you go on a London street art tour? Did you prefer Shoreditch street art or Brixton street art? Let us know in the comments!