If you search online for the best street art cities, London appears near the top of most lists. Amazing street art can be found throughout the city with a variety that includes abstracts, portraits, cartoons, and political and social motifs.
With roots in the 1970s New York graffiti art movement, modern street art, including the street art you’ll find in London, continues to encompass a wide range of media and techniques. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your time exploring street art in London.
1. Start In Shoreditch
Shoreditch in London’s East End is a creative hub filled with pubs, cafes, nightclubs, edgy art galleries, and colorful street art. It is a short walk from the Old Street Tube station. Head east on Old Street and look for street art as you walk down Great Eastern Street, Bethnal Green Road, and the side streets off these two major roads. Streets known for good selections of art include Rivington, Whitby, Chance, and Redchurch.
Shoreditch was once a popular spot on a southern coaching route with streets dating back to Roman times. It became an entertainment hub in Tudor times. Shakespeare's plays were performed at The Theatre, thought to be the first playhouse in England, and the Curtain Theatre, both located in Shoreditch. By the 19th century, though, Shoreditch was a poor, overcrowded, crime-filled area. It suffered significant bomb damage during World War II. Rebuilding began in the 1950s. Today’s Shoreditch street art scene has its roots in the 1980s and 1990s when visual artists and other creative types moved into the area and Shoreditch started making a comeback.
Old Street Station, where you can begin your street art crawl, is a five-minute Tube ride from London Bridge on the Northern line.
2. Continue Down Brick Lane
Brick Lane, which runs through the heart of Spitalfields south of Shoreditch, and the side streets running off it abound with an overwhelming amount of street art. Streets of note include Fashion, Hanbury, Fournier, Princelet, and Buxton, but art isn’t limited to those streets. Make a point to check out and explore the various side streets. Although you’ll find plenty of street art right in front of you, look up and into nooks and crannies to find even more.
Brick Lane got its name because local earth was used by brick and tile manufacturers in the 15th century. By the 17th century, it had become a popular location for breweries. When French Huguenots arrived in the 17th century, the area became known for weaving and tailoring. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the area was best known for its Irish and Jewish populations. Today, immigrants from Bangladesh have made Brick Lane the place in London to go for curry.
There are also a number of coffee shops in which you can take a short break from your tour of street art. For something stronger with a bit of quirky history, head to The Ten Bells pub on Commercial Street. In the late 1800s, this popular pub was the place where some of Jack the Ripper’s victims were last seen.
The nearest tube station to Brick Lane is Aldgate East on the Hammersmith and City line.
3. Get To Know Banksy And Other Famous Street Artists
Banksy may be the most well-known and controversial street artist because of his powerful images and the mystery surrounding his identity. Banksy’s artwork has been seen around the world. Although there have been a number of theories about who the artist really is, almost 30 years after he began doing graffiti art in Bristol, his identity is still not publicly known.
Banksy relocated to London in the early 2000s. His work, which ranged from hard-hitting political commentary to comical pieces, was regularly seen in London for more than a decade. However, finding a Banksy in London today requires hard work and time. Many of the originals have been removed or painted over. One of the more well-known remaining pieces is Designated Graffiti Area, located in the outdoor courtyard of the Cargo Club on Rivington in Shoreditch. The black-and-white stencil piece features a policeman holding a dog on a leash with printing on the wall above the dog stating “This wall is a designated graffiti area.”
Another well-known Banksy piece, Shop Till You Drop, is located high up on the wall of a building on Bruton Lane in Mayfair. Originally painted in 2011, it is still visible despite being very worn. You can search the internet and social media postings for other locations, but unless the information is recent, you may discover the piece is no longer visible.
Even if you don’t see a Banksy, the good news is that there are many other well-known street artists whose work can be seen in London. Stik, ROA, C215, Eine, Bambi, and Jimmy C are just a few of the best London street artists to look out for.
4. Find Graffiti Art In A Pedestrian Tunnel
Although street art and graffiti art may be sanctioned or commissioned in some places and celebrated in districts such as Shoreditch and Brick Lane, graffiti is generally illegal in London. There are a few places where “free walls” have been created for graffiti artists to use without fear of punishment. One of these legal walls is in a pedestrian tunnel underneath London’s Waterloo Station. Leake Street Tunnel has come to be known as Graffiti Tunnel.
In 2008, Banksy organized a festival that brought together 30 artists who decorated the walls of the tunnel with graffiti art. The event attracted international attention. London and Continental Railways, managers of the tunnel, have now designated the tunnel as an authorized graffiti area. Colorful graffiti art covers the walls and ceiling. The smell of spray paint greets you as you enter the tunnel. You’re likely to see artists at work. Former railway arches adjacent to the tunnel have been turned into a community of independent restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues known as the Leake Street Arches.
Leake Street runs off York Road under the platforms and tracks of Waterloo Station.
5. There Are More Places To Find Street Art In London
Regent’s Canal runs through Camden, a lively community with colorful street art. Camden is located four minutes from King’s Cross Station on the Northern line. You’ll find a collection of murals in Brixton, the birthplace of David Bowie and the location of Britain’s first cultural center devoted to black heritage. Brixton is a seven-minute Tube ride from London’s Victoria station.
A little off the beaten track, Hackney Wick is an emerging area for street art. To get to Hackney Wick from Victoria Station, take the Tube to Highbury and Islington Station and then the London Overground to Hackney Wick. The journey from Victoria Station will take approximately 40 minutes. Keep your eyes open for more street art as you explore other areas of the city as well.
6. You’ll Find Street Art In Galleries
As street art evolved from its graffiti-vandalism roots to a trendy art form, galleries arose to support and market street artists. There are many street art galleries in London where you can view and purchase original pieces or limited edition prints to take home. A few of the top galleries include The Brick Lane Gallery, Lazinc, Nelly Duff, Hang-Up Pictures, and Graffik Gallery.
7. Street Art Is Constantly Changing
The paintings in Leake Street Tunnel generally last only a couple of days to a week before being painted over. Although the pieces on the walls of Shoreditch and Brick Lane may last longer than that -- some have endured for years -- you could be disappointed to return and find a favorite piece no longer there. You may also be delighted to come across new gems. The transient and changing nature of street art means there is always something new to discover. It also means each visit to a street art area may feel like charting new territory.
8. Guided And Pay-What-You-Like Street Art Tours Are Worth Your Consideration
If you wish to have someone else guide you through the constantly changing street art scene, take a guided street tour. Street Art London works closely with street artists to keep up to date. They offer a Shoreditch tour and a Hackney Wick tour. Expert street artist guides with Alternative London take you on a graffiti and street art walking tour of East London followed by a workshop where you can create a piece of spray can art for yourself.
Free Tours by Foot offers a tour of East End street art on a pay-what-you-like-basis and a tour of Brixton that includes street art among other Brixton attractions. Another pay-what-you-like tour offered by Strawberry Tours takes you down Brick Lane and its side streets. Guides at Shoreditch Street Art Tours are expert street art photographers and can make suggestions on how to capture the best shots while Camden Street Art Tours guide tourists through the graffiti and street art in Camden.