One of my favorite afternoons in London was spent in the borough called Tower Hamlets, which is east of central London. Reputedly the most diverse neighborhood in all of Britain, it is home to many former Bangladeshis (hence its nickname of Banglatown), the old Truman brewery (no longer in operation), many curry houses, and the popular Spitalfields Market. It was once considered a slum and was the turf of Jack the Ripper but is now a more transitional neighborhood with houses fetching millions of pounds. (Kiera Knightly has a house in the area.) It’s also gone through changes in its population, symbolized by one particular building that was once a Catholic church, then a Jewish synagogue, and now a Muslim mosque.
We took an unusual walking tour sponsored by an organization called Underground London, in which you reserve a spot but don’t pay until it’s over. Our wonderful tour guide, Kier (pronounced Kee-uh), holds out his hat at the end and you pay what you think the tour was worth.
A street artist himself, Kier knows lots of other artists and many secret locations where most folks wouldn’t know to look. One such artist is Jonesy, who measures the dimensions of certain public poles that are open on top, creates artwork back at a studio somewhere, then returns and inserts mini-sculptures in these various spots around London.
Kier defined commissioned art (the artist gets paid) versus “permission art” (the artist is allowed to create the art but is unpaid). Mr. Hussein, who owns much of the property in the area, grants artists space on his buildings so they have the time to create beautiful artwork and not have to worry about getting caught in the act of what the authorities would label “vandalism.” Some art is done late at night when nobody is looking, though that’s becoming less possible because of the omnipresent cctv cameras everywhere. But artists are resourceful and wily–they find ways to leave their marks.
There is certainly a wide range of artwork–some political, some whimsical, some more aesthetically pleasing than others–but the diversity makes for a most colorful walking tour. And now that I’ve been made aware of the more hidden art, I find myself searching in places I wouldn’t have before, and this encourages me to be more observant of my surroundings. And that is a tour worth at least £15 in my book.