I was surprised to hear that this piece by Stik has been up since 2014 because similar works are under the constant threat of being buffed or tagged. While this piece wasn’t immune from the latter when I saw it in February, the artist will regularly touch it up to remove tags. Stik has also been an arts advocate for residents in uprooted communities.
Perched high on top of a street sign in the middle of a sidewalk near Shoreditch, a small bronze angel peers over the bustling street below. Its outstretched wings point to two very different sections of this East End borough: on one side of Sclater street, old 2-story, arched masonry buildings are adorned with tags and vibrantly colored murals, while on the other side of the street, a large crane looms over a modern high rise with windows that reflect the cool toned hues of sea glass. The upscale building houses the “Privilege Apartments”, and for me, the irony of this juxtaposition was just too obvious to ignore.
I was visiting the area on a food tour, and when I asked my guide about the angel I was told that the tiny sculpture is by Jonesy, an elusive London street artist who has placed these small patinated bronze sculptures all over London’s East End for years. The wings on this particular piece were cast from those of a dead pigeon that the artist found near his studio. Despite its perspective high above the bustling street below, the angel remains dwarfed by the advancing construction and skyscrapers. This guardian angel of the neighborhood has become a de facto totem for the “old” Shoreditch.
In this case “old” is relative. East London has a complicated history of cultural and economic turnover that dates back to the late 1600s when religious persecution drove the Huguenots from France to London, and the borough has experienced waves of immigration from numerous religious and ethnic groups ever since. Tower Hamlets, which sits north of the Tower of London and east of the Spitalfields market, is currently part of a regeneration effort that bears similarities to the gentrification taking place in Los Angeles and Oakland. In this section of London, working-class communities are being displaced as social housing communities are dismantled under the guise of “regeneration”.
In the early aughts, design firms were lured to this East London neighborhood by the creative, edgy, aesthetic created by the artists, photographers, musicians, and fashion designers that moved into the area in the 1980s. At that time, the area resembled the blighted East Village of New York in the 1970s, where cheap rents drew transplants who were looking to jumpstart their artistic careers. In 2010 David Cameron introduced an ambitious development plan to turn East London into a technology hub that would rival Silicon Valley and since then, the artists that were the creative staples of East London have been slowly pushed out, along with immigrants who have called the area home for decades.
As a tourist it’s too easy to get caught up in the vibe of a “new to me” neighborhood—I audibly groan whenever transplants to L.A. talk about how cool Echo Park, Silver Lake, Boyle Heights, and Venice are without ever acknowledging the generations of residents that preceded the influx of development capital that transformed those areas.
These thoughts raced through my mind as I walked the streets surrounding Brick Lane– I was constantly struck by the glass and steel skyscrapers encroaching on the area, and I kept thinking about that angel. For many “redeveloped” cities, street art is the cultural conduit between a neighborhood’s past and its future. These murals become beacons that both beckon and warn- they summon us to explore the area’s creative core, but they also foreshadow the impending development and displacement that’s sure to follow.
Anyone with some basic knowledge of street art will recognize the majority of the artists behind the murals, stencils, and 3D sculptures that line the streets of Shoreditch and Hoxton, but when I looked more closely at the stories behind some of these works, they reveal much more about the people who call Shoreditch home.
In 2014, Stik created Big Mother, a towering mural that spans the entire length of the Charles Hocking House council tower, a social housing unit that’s scheduled for demolition. The mural, which is the largest in London, provides a subtle commentary on social housing and displacement including the social, political and economic issues that revolve around regeneration. The mural features a child that sits on their mother’s hip looking over a new, posh apartment building next door. While the fate of the residents of Charles Hocking House is unknown, the child’s gaze directs the viewer toward the class inequities the two buildings represent. While the building awaits demolition, the artist partnered with Christie’s to sell a limited edition print of the mural, with proceeds supporting the MyMural project which encourages London’s council residents to curate public art projects on their estates.
Neequaye Dreph Dsane, “Dreph” for short, created a series of portraits that feature black women who reside in the neighborhoods where their murals are located. These portraits are part of his “You Are Enough” series that reveals the many everyday heroes that walk among us and live with us. The women Dreph features are largely involved in educational, advocacy, design or creative work that benefits underrepresented groups. Through these murals, Dreph invites viewers into their lives, activating the community in a more thoughtful way by celebrating his subjects through their stories, experiences, and extraordinary work. I came across a couple of his murals both in Shoreditch and Soho where he beautifully captured these women. Their stories are even more remarkable.
In Shoreditch, another potent symbol of the ever-changing demographics of the neighborhood is found at a church that sits in the center of Brick Lane. The church has been converted into a Mosque that now serves the borough’s large Bengali community. It was formerly a Synagogue, a mission, and a Protestant church, all centers for worship for the generations of residents that call Shoreditch home. Above the entrances, to the building, the phrase Umbra Sumus, is etched above a rendering of a sundial. Umbra Sumus translates from Latin to “We Are But Shadow”, another prescient reminder of the temporality of not only the art found in the streets but of the residents inhabiting them.