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More paint please. Photo: Oliver Martin
More paint please. Photo: Oliver Martin


London street art

Love it or hate it, graffiti has always been part of both ancient and modern cityscapes. Today, London in particular serves as an incubator for the ultimate in street art.

“The police used to chase me away if they found me painting on a wall – now they leave me alone since they know street art brings business to the area.” Cult graffiti artist Insa has agreed to a rare interview to air his views on the exploding street art scene in London and introduce his latest work The Cycle of Futility. Determined to remain anonymous, he peers at us from underneath a large hood and occasionally darts off to avoid being caught on camera; an eavesdropping photographer who’s realized the Insa has come out in daylight circles us persistently.

London’s grittiest districts have been transformed by a splash of color here, a social comment there. Tour and see more: londongraffititours.com. Photo: Oliver Martin

The Goldsmiths’- trained artist, who comes from the North of England and has collaborated with the likes of Nike, is humble but amusingly cynical. “Graffiti used to be an underground thing, now it’s become so mainstream, it’s turned Shoreditch into a street art Disneyland,” he says, rolling his eyes.

The authorities’ softening on what used to be considered nothing but plain vandalism has made London a more colorful place. East London’s Hanbury Street, Brick Lane and the walls along Shoreditch’s Rivington Street are particularly attractive to street artists. In the courtyard of Cargo, a hip café and nightclub on Rivington Street, two plexiglas protected works by Banksy sit alongside a slew of paintings by other notable talents from Europe and beyond; Italy’s Ozmo and Israeli collective Broken Fingaz are among the current contributors, while images by Stik, Eine, Bastardilla and Thierry Noir appear elsewhere on the street.

Photo: Oliver Martin

London is crawling with top-notch street artists but some stand out more than others. Here are four from the current crop of top talent, along with an iconic piece that helped put them on the map

Insa: Pop culture & consumerism

Covering half a building, The Cycle of Futility is an eye-opening painting, if only for its sheer scale. Unknown to the casual passerby is its ability to move. The work, which took graffiti star Insa two weeks to complete, comes to life with the help of a smartphone and an innovative app called GIF-ITI. Insa painted eight different versions of the image, shifting each layer a fraction before photographing each stage to create a classic animation.

Download Insa’s GIF-ITI Viewer app on iTunes, point your smartphone towards the image in a magazine, or head to London and point it at the actual painting. Photo: Oliver Martin

The piece charts life from biological inception to the grave – with the assault of authority appearing in the shape of baton-wielding policemen scurrying round and round without achieving anything. Insa says that the high-tech element also has meaning.

“Street art has to be renewed to remain relevant – that’s why I started experimenting with animations and GIF-ITI,” he says. “The act of eradicating one layer and replacing it with another reflects the perishable nature of street art; it’s only a matter of time before a kid comes along and covers the picture in scribbles or spray paint – unless, of course, it’s protected by Plexiglas. I wanted to speed up that process and not be too precious about it.”

28 Redchurch Street

Bambi: Feminism & street culture

Also keep an eye out for Bambi’s famous Amy Winehouse mural on Bayham Street, Camden Town. Photo: Oliver MartinBambi has been called the female Banksy and she’s just as elusive as her male counterpart, although some insist she is pop singer Paloma Faith.

While most of Bambi’s stenciled pieces have been statements on royalty and Hollywood stars, the new darling of London’s street art scene has taken on a political bent. In December last year, a mural reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s repetitive pop art series appeared on Rivington Street in Shoreditch.
But instead of a quartet of Elvis figures, Bambi lined up a row of identical boys with one hand in the air, feet resting on a skull rather than a football. Each figure is accompanied by blood red stenciling with the words ‘Don’t Shoot’, a   reference to the fatal ­police shooting of 18-yearold Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. ­Nike’s signature tick adorns the youths’ sweatshirts, alongside an alternative slogan, ‘Don’t Do It’. A damning poem calling for justice appears to the right of the line-up, underneath which Bambi’s signature is stenciled in black.

76 Rivington Street

Banksy: Politics & hypocrisy

Mythical graffiti artist Banksy is a big reason prices for street art have soared in recent years. Having managed to remain anonymous since first surfacing in the early 1990s, all that is really known about the guerrilla artist is that he – or she, or perhaps them – hails from Bristol in the UK.

Satirical and darkly humorous, Banksy’s work is created using stencils and spray paint, and has cropped up in every imaginable public space across the world, from New ­Orleans to Melbourne.

Graffiti Painter aka Velasquez by Banksy. Photo: Oliver Martin

There have been a great many Banksy casualties over the years; some have been cut out and passed on to any auction house or dealer audacious enough to sell them, while others have been eradicated the way graffiti usually is: out with the old, in with the new. In 2007 Transport for London famously painted over a key work featuring Banksy’s humorous take on a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta wielding bananas instead of guns.

The few works that still exist are protected by Plexiglas. One of Banksy’s most iconic works, Graffiti Painter aka Velasquez, can be found on the ­corner of Acklam and Porto­bello Road in Nott­ing Hill. The image pokes fun at the divide between graffiti artists and those with a more classical training by showing a grand master painting the word ­“Banksy” in a red font. The work has reportedly been sold for £200,000, although it was still intact behind a sheet of Plexiglas as we went to press.

Acklam Road

Stik: Society & change

When wandering around London’s hipster enclave Shoreditch, you won’t go far before coming across Stik’s distinctive figures. Gangly and with curiously expressive faces, the simply executed characters have formed part of the London-based artist’s repertoire for over a decade. A tiny one peers down from a billboard by the Old Street roundabout, while another stretches out across a beautifully ramshackle townhouse on Pitfield Street, just a stone’s throw away. Another two lurk on Rivington Street.

East London may be Stik’s natural stomping ground, but his most significant work was completed in November 2014 on the other side of town. Figuratively called Big Mother, it depicts an enormous woman and her child, solemnly looking out over their surroundings. Painted with a bright yellow background, the towering mural covers the entire side of Charles Hocking House, a 38.2-meter-tall building within a social housing estate in South Acton that is visible from the Heathrow flight path. It can also be seen when whizzing past on the ­Piccadilly line.

A decade of living rough developed Stik’s artistic voice and honed his social conscience. Photo: Oliver Martin

It’s an uplifting image, though the meaning behind it is rather more downbeat. “My role as a street artist is to recognize what is going on in society and reflect it as art,” says Stik, going on to explain that Big Mother, for which he was commissioned and painted for free, brings attention to the fact that the high-rise block of apartments he used as his canvas is to be demolished in 2016 to make space for luxury flats – an all too common scenario in London today. “Social housing in Britain is under threat. This piece is to remind the world that all people need homes.” Poignantly ­re­inforcing Stik’s message, a tiny stick family of four huddles underneath the mother and child at the foot of the building.

Big Mother is part of a wider project brought about to brighten the area around the estate. ATM is among the other participating artists; he has opted in by contributing with two intricately rendered large-scale birds, chosen on the grounds that they are on the brink of extinction.

Charles Hocking House, Bollo Bridge Road, South Acton

Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon 

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