Culture in a spray can: London’s underground art

11 Mins read

Back in the 80s, the break-dancing scene from New York had moved across the ocean to Britain bringing with it a new and exciting subculture for much of Britain’s youth to immerse themselves in.

These break-dancers carried around ‘linos’ (made from linoleum) that were used as floor covering while dancing.

Each break-dancer would have his or her own lino, which he or she would tag it with his or her name to claim ownership.

Many of these break-dancers would then go out at night, tagging the same name that was on their lino onto trains, bus stops, and alley walls – pretty much any flat surface they could find, the riskier the better.

This is, essentially, how graffiti – also known as tagging – started in London.

But it’s slightly more complicated than that. The taggers got better at what they did, they began to experiment with style and abilities, and they began to write things other than just their name: crew names, political messages, defiance statements.

It was from here that graffiti artists in London began to emerge. Known as writers, these artists were getting better and the art was getting bigger.

One of the areas in London that became notorious for graffiti in the 80s and became one of its central hubs was Westbourne Park, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Part of Westbourne Park

Part of Westbourne Park [Photo by Tania Beck]

In this area, graffiti gangs would patrol their artwork, making sure nobody was taking any pictures and trying to steal their style.

Steam156, a graffiti artist since the mid-80s and founder of London Graffiti Tours, has been documenting graffiti in London by taking those pictures since he started.

“Back then [the writers involved with gangs] didn’t like people taking photos of their work because everybody had this idea that if someone’s taking photos of your work they’re going to bite your style. So they would hang around and they would wait and as soon as they caught you taking photos of their work, that’s it, they would take your camera, your trainers, your money, your wallet, absolutely everything you’ve got.”

Steam156 got robbed three times while trying to take photos of the artwork. He admits that this was out of his own naivety, for example, a group of guys once approached him telling him there was even cooler artwork around the back in one of the alleys.

He cheerfully followed them and, when he reached the alley, was confronted with knifes, rocks, and bats and asked to hand over all he had.

One of the earliest artists, Drax. [Photo by Steam156]

An example of one of the earliest artists, Drax [Photo by Steam156]

It didn’t take long for Steam156 to get smart though: “I would leave my house around six o’clock in morning in Croydon to get up to Westbourne Park for maybe about eight/nine o’clock. I would get my photos and then get out of there as quick as I could.”

This was how he documented what nobody outside the scene seemed to care about at the time.

About 20 new pieces of artwork were being painted a week and it seemed he was the only one photographing them. These were the days before the internet and, he says, things were significantly harder.

Nowadays the scene is far less hostile and if you visit Westbourne Park you need not be afraid of getting your phone stolen if you decide you do want to take some photos.

The heyday

Westbourne Park. [Photo by Tania Beck]

Westbourne Park. [Photo by Tania Beck]

Battles among graffiti crews began as soon as graffiti did. Everybody wanted to challenge everyone else to see who was best.

In 1987, six members from Nonstop art and No Limitz crew got together to create the biggest battle that London had ever seen. They wanted to challenge every artist in London to see who was best.

So they chose a wall called Earth’s Edge in Westbourne Park and they took their ladders and spray cans and painted the entire wall.

The goal was to keep it as quiet as possible to begin with but the work was so big and so impressive that everybody soon knew about it.

And the moment everybody knew about it, nobody challenged them.

Part of Earth's Edge wall. [Photo by Fade2 Nonstop art]

Part of Earth’s Edge wall, done in 87 [Fade2, Nonstop art]

The full length of the wall today. [Photo by Tania Beck]

The full length of the wall today [Photo by Tania Beck]

They had won the battle with no question and no competition; a few years later several of them had stopped painting altogether.

“They decided ‘there’s nobody better than us, we’re just going to stop’. If they carried on I couldn’t imagine the standard they would be painting these days, they were incredible,” says Steam156.

Although Steam156 argues that the standard of graffiti in London is still better than anywhere else in the world, it isn’t the same as  it used to be.

With gangs like Nonstop arts leaving the scene and the difficulty of painting on such a grand scale, nowadays the scene, he feels, isn’t as exciting.


Despite the skills of some of the artists, much of the public remained hostile towards graffiti, viewing it as nothing more than vandalism.

Partly because of this and partly because of a desire to explore other styles of art, many graffiti artists started dabbling in other forms and different artists began to emerge, experimenting with different styles of art.

Banksy appeared on the scene as one of the first artists to use stencils and focus on art outside of writing. Other artists began to experiment with block letters.

Suddenly the public began to be interested in art that was popping up on the street. It began to tie in to what the public thought looked good and interesting.

It didn’t stop there. More and more artists came out of the woodwork and pushed the boundaries for what defined art on the streets. C215 started using stencils to add multiple layers and created intricately detailed pieces like the one seen below.

Artwork by C215

Artwork by C215 [Photo by Joshua Potter]

To accomplish these pieces, while also hiding from the watchful eye of the law, he would carry around all his stencils, quickly paint one layer on the wall of his choosing, walk around the block while it dried, and then come back.

He would do this as many times as needed, sometimes working on multiple pieces at the same time.

Gregos, who started as a graffiti artist, began experimenting with moulds and, if you look carefully, brightly painted moulds of his face can be seen around London and particularly in the East End. Each is different; some are just for fun while others have a political angle.

Space Invader decided to experiment and use bathroom tiles in his art, in some cases abseiling down in the middle of the night to put up a retro image that looked strikingly like a creature from Gallaga; Jonesy, who has worked in the bronze industry in London for years, melts down the metal in his spare time, creates small sculptures, and stands them on the top of sign posts for anyone aware enough to notice.

Artwork by Space Invader. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Artwork by Space Invader [Photo by Joshua Potter]

With the emergence of artists like these, what was happening on the street didn’t seem to fit into the definition of graffiti. Street art seemed a far more appropriate title.

Unfortunately, the line between street art and graffiti isn’t as clear cut as many would like.

Tagging a bus stop is definitely graffiti and sticking a mushroom on top of a building (Christiaan Nagel) is definitely street art; but what about writing in block letters?

Well, technically, that’s street art too. Although there is no technical way to categorise art on the street so maybe it isn’t.

Gary from Alternative London has a pretty good way of distinguishing between the two: “If you like it, it’s probably street art. If you don’t, it’s probably graffiti,” he jokes as he conducts his tour of street art in London’s East End.

Artwork by Jonesy. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Artwork by Jonesy. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Gary has been running street art tours for several years now and he has an interesting way of looking at how to wrap your head around it.

“What’s happened over the last few years is I think it’s actually split up. When record companies started to sell music [they] branched out into different genres and I think that’s what we’re getting [with street art].”

Several artists now hold gallery openings, where customers can check out and buy their work; Christiaan Nagel recently put up a new mushroom on Brick Lane that stands about three to four foot tall and would have sold for about £1500; and David Cameron even gave Barrack Obama a painting by the street artist Ben Eine, saying it was because Ben was one of his wife’s favourite artists.

Artwork by Ben Eine

Artwork by Ben Eine [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Street art stems from and is closely connected to graffiti and, unless the artist is given permission, it is still illegal.

This, Gary mentions during one of his tours, raises a few questions: Someone caught painting on a wall can not only be fined but face jail time as well. Very often, he says, the street artists caught are either given a warning or ignored completely, and the graffiti artists are given far less leniency.

Christiaan Nagel has said something similar. He’s been caught three times by the police but never fined. The first two times he was given a warning and the third time the officer recognised him and said he was a fan of Christiaan’s work.

Gary personally knows artists who have gone to jail for their art. Ben Eine, he tells us, almost went to jail for doing graffiti. He stopped because he was warned that next time he was caught he would face jail, and then started back up with a style more akin to street art. He’s now one of the most famous street artists in the world.

Artwork by Christiaan Nagel. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Artwork by Christiaan Nagel [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Second heyday

Graffiti had its heyday in the 80s and early 90s, with graffiti artist Steam156 saying “you look at what [graffiti artists] were doing in 1985-86, it beats anything they are doing today.”

Street art, it seems, is currently experiencing that heyday.

“I think we’re in the golden age,” says Gary. “I think that street art is going to struggle [in the future] because the reason it’s in areas like Shoreditch is because it’s taken years for the area to get to the point where it can be a canvas for artists and it has become what it is.”

Part of this struggle is due to what Gary ironically calls Boris Johnson’s “literal wholesale vandalism of the East End,” where old buildings perfect for graffiti and street art are being knocked down to make way for new skyscrapers.

This is not the first time Boris Johnson has been accused of such a thing; in 2014 The Guardian called Boris’ control over planning permission at Mount Pleasant, Farringdon, an “assault on democracy”.

With the ‘secret’ plans to build London’s new tallest skyscraper and Boris’ unveiling of the “City in the East”, the East End is set for a significant amount of change.

Artwork by Stik. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Artwork by Stik [Photo by Joshua Potter]

As this occurs, street art in London “becomes less about the community [and] purely about going on to the social media platform”. It’s now, Gary says, about getting the most likes and having the most popular images.

“It’s a tricky one. If an artist can get paid to sell art then that is an amazing thing and that’s what most artists strive towards. Also, there have been companies around for years doing advertisements with street art and graffiti because companies have always wanted to buy into cool and it means that artists get paid to do paintings.

“But now what we’re starting to see is an advert that doesn’t look like an advert. Everyone realises that artists have to live and make money but it comes to the detriment of the scene and all the hard work that everyone’s put into maintaining an organic street art scene.”

Artwork by Gregos

Artwork by Gregos. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Ultimately, it is about making a living as an artist, and several of the artists on London’s streets have been able to do that; but Gary believes there is something more important than that to keeping the scene ‘organic’ and real.

Gary sees the importance for artists to go out and tag their name or their views on a wall, believing it to be a crucial form of self-expression that many people, especially teenagers, in some of London’s East End don’t have.

In fact, he thinks “that graffiti is more important than street art at the minute,” and not only that but also “the only way that real street art is going to survive is if people still go out and do stuff illegally.”

Street art and graffiti, for Gary, are ways of giving voices to those who currently don’t have them. In a coffee shop on the edge of Old Spitalfields Market, he speaks with passion and caution about the changing East End.

“I think what would be really beneficial for the scene at the minute is to get a lot more young local people to use their creativity as a platform to talk about problems that they have within their own communities.”

The borough of Tower Hamlets, which covers a large part of the East End, has the second highest unemployment rate in London according to the London Poverty Profile, and though this figure has fallen in the last few years, nearly a third of all young people live in families that claim tax credits.

The profile also states that the cost of housing is unaffordable for many who call it home.


Gary believes that graffiti and street art can play a big role in turning the lives of these young people around, and in fact Alternative London run workshops in the East End for specifically that reason.

“If there’s one aspect that we can try and promote into street art scene it will be trying to give young people the tools, the confidence, the ability to use their voice and talk about a lot of the issues they’re facing.”

These issues, Gary says, “are hidden from view in council estates” behind the fancy coffee shops and nice buildings.

As the London landscape changes and more and more skyscrapers start spewing outward from the centre of the city, graffiti and street art in London is going to change.

As has been occurring over the last 20 years, it will continue to be pushed outward, but also the styles and techniques will change, as will the focus.

People have been writing on walls for thousands of years and buildings made of glass and steel, it seems, aren’t going to change that.

Artwork by Citizen Kane. [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Artwork by Citizen Kane [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Citizen Kane, another prominent street artist, puts up elaborate sculptures on the sides of walls, calling them 3D street art. Initially these were pulled off the wall and thrown away but over the years he has become more expert in glue, developing stronger adhesives and better moulds so that these sculptures prove very difficult to remove.

In a similar way, the artists of the street will most likely evolve their methods to continue painting, moulding, and shaping the streets near which they live.

Whether it’s a mushroom on a rooftop, a big painting on a wooden wall surrounding a building sight, or a strangely written name tagged on the corner of a newly painted wall, it’s all connected.

Some of it may not look as pretty as other parts of it, but it all plays a key role in society and comes from a rich history of rebellion, community, and self-expression.

[Photo by Joshua Potter]

Another example of street art, or graffiti, depending on your point of view [Photo by Joshua Potter]

Featured image by Joshua Potter





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