Emma Bryning is a PhD candidate at the University of York. Welcome Emma! She’ll be publishing 18 viewpoints next month on historical and contemporary graffiti. Can’t wait for these:
Prison Graffiti in the Beauchamp Tower, Tower of London
The Tower of London is home to some of the most well-known historical graffiti in the city, located in the Beauchamp Tower. The Beauchamp Tower was built between 1275-1281 during the reign of King Edward I and was later used as a state prison, housing high-ranking prisoners including Lady Jane Grey and her husband, Guildford Dudley. This former prison contains over three-hundred graffiti inscriptions which were created over four centuries by the imprisoned inhabitants to help alleviate their boredom during their confinement and to make sure they would be remembered.
Sex Pistols Graffiti, No. 6 Denmark Street
6 Denmark Street is a Grade II* listed private building located in the West End of London built between 1686 to 1689 by Samuel Fortrey and Jacques Wiseman. During the 19th century it was part of an area notorious for prostitution and poverty but by the early twentieth century it was home to a number of music publishers and shops, and became known as Tin Pan Alley. During the 1960s and 1970s, Denmark Street was at the heart of the British music industry and between 1975-1977, no.6 Denmark Street was occupied by the English Punk Rock band, the Sex Pistols. The site gained notoriety in 2010 after graffiti left by the band’s lead singer, Johnny Rotten, was recorded by archaeologists John Schofield and Paul Graves-Brown and the marks were later given special protection by Historic England in 2016.
Myddleton Passage, Clerkenwell, Islington
Although they may be easy to miss, Myddleton Passage in Clerkenwell, Islington, contains a unique historical record as a series of numbers, letters and dates can be found carved into the brickwork, many of which were scratched onto the wall by officers of the Metropolitan Police. The practice started at some point around the mid to late 19th century and continued until the First World War, with many of the carvings referring to personal collar numbers and divisions.
Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural, Tower Hamlets
The Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural, located on Hale Street in Tower Hamlets, was created by Mark Francis in 1990 without any official permission. The mural features four panels which tell the story of the Labour Councillor and one time Mayor of Poplar, George Lansbury, who led a local council rebellion against an increase in local rates in 1921. Lansbury was among thirty councillors jailed for six weeks for their actions and the campaign attracted significant public support. The mural also references the campaign in the 1990s against poll tax introduced by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The mural was restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian.
Romeo and Juliet Mural, New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch
On New Inn Broadway in Shoreditch you can find a mural paying homage to two of Shaespeare’s most famous characters, Romeo and Juliet, located at the site where the play was believed to have been first performed. In 2018, a team of archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology excavated the site of Shakespeare’s playhouse, The Theatre, building on evidence uncovered in their 2008 excavations. The street art piece on the outside of the building depicts the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet in a fresco-style mural and was created by the Global Street Art Agency.
Squatters’ Graffiti at Sutton House
Sutton House is the oldest domestic building in Hackney, having been built in 1535 by Tudor Statesman and Secretary of State to King Henry VIII, Ralph Sadlier. The history of the house is complex as it has been a Tudor manor house, a Victorian school, a Men’s Institute during the First World War, a Trade Unions Office in the 1960s-70s and a punk squat in the 1980s. The house was restored in the early 1990s by the National Trust and opened to the public in 1994. In order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the squatters’ arrival to Sutton House, the National Trust converted the Squatters’ Room to recreate how it would have looked in 1985 with the help of some of the squatters who had lived there. In the room, visitors can see some of the original graffiti art left by the squatters which includes anti-fascist, anti-Thatcher and feminist political slogans.
Graffiti at Hampton Court Palace
A variety of graffiti marks can be found across Hampton Court Palace, the Grade I listed royal palace located in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames. Historical graffiti at the site includes marks left on the King’s Staircase including dates, names, initials and even an engraving of a shoe! Further graffiti marks can also be found in the Cumberland Suits (including marks from the 1730s, 1880s and 1980s), in the Tudor Kitchens and in the Processional Gallery (also known as the ‘Haunted Gallery). The marks left behind on the royal palace give a further glimpse into the lives of those that worked and lived in the palace across centuries of its history.
Wellclose Prison debtor’s cell at the Museum of London
Wellclose Prison, also known as Neptune Street Prison, was located off Wellclose Square near to the Tower of London. The 18th-century small prison was run on a commercial basis and the majority of inmates were insolvent debtors who were either imprisoned until they could repay their debts or were awaiting transfer to Newgate Prison. The prison was below a public tavern which was connected to a courthouse, where the tavern’s landlord acted as gaoler. By the 1790s, the prison was empty and in a state of disrepair. The prison was finally closed in the 19th century and the building it was housed within was turned into a lodging house. When the building was demolished in 1911, two cells from the prison were dismantled and transferred to the London Museum at Kensington Palace and elements of both cells can now be found on display in the Museum of London. Prisoners in the cells were known to scratch and carve their names and initials or write messages or draw pictures onto the walls of the cells and many of these marks can still be seen today.
St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney,
St Augustine’s Tower is the oldest building in Hackney which can be found in the gardens of St John’s Church. This Grade I listed tower is managed by the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust and is usually open on the last Sunday of each month. The church became redundant following the completion of the Church of St-John-at-Hackney in 1792 and the tower is all that remains of the 16th-century church following the demolition of the rest of the building in 1798. Although the tower was also due to be demolished it was kept in order to house the church bells until they could be moved to their new location. It is also reported that the tower stayed after the contractor employed to demolish it found it to be too difficult of a job.
After climbing the narrow staircase to the top of the tower, visitors are treated to a view of the City of London whilst a variety of graffiti can be found throughout, including marks left by those visiting the tower in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and drawings of houses.
Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel
Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel, found underneath the platforms and tracks of Waterloo Station, is London’s largest legal graffiti wall at 300-metres in length. The site gained fame after famed British street artist, Banksy, held a street art festival called Cans Festival (a play on The Cannes Film Festival) in the tunnel. Banksy had recognised the potential of the tunnel which had formerly been used as an access road for taxis to pick up passengers from the Eurostar. From the 3rd-5th May 2008, forty street artists from around the world – including Blek le Rat, Ben Eine, Sten & Lex and Vexta – transformed the grimy tunnel into a street art haven. Graffiti and street art are legally permitted in the tunnel meaning that artists can create works without fear of getting arrested by police. This ever-changing gallery now attracts street art tourists and graffiti enthusiasts from around the world and arches adjacent to the tunnel were recently transformed into bars and restaurants. The site was even home to a temporary cinema, The Lambeth Palace, to celebrate the release of Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop in 2010.
The Southbank Undercroft is a space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre that has been a very popular with skateboarders and graffiti artists for over four decades. The Undercroft was completed in the 1960s and became popular with skateboarders in the 1970s. Over the years it has been covered and re-covered in graffiti and contains work created by thousands of artists over the years. The history of the Undercroft was made famous by Winston Whitter’s documentary Rollin Through the Decades (2005) which focused on the history of UK skateboarding from the 1970s to the mid-2000s. In 2013, the planned redevelopment of the area endangered the Undercroft but skaters and local enthusiasts fought to safeguard the site through the non-profit organisation Long Live Soutbank (LLSB) campaign and won.
Dulwich Outdoor Gallery
The Dulwich Outdoor Gallery is a unique London street art project which was started by the late Ingrid Beazley, art museum curator and art educator, in collaboration with the street artist Stik. In 2011, Beazley invited Stik to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where she worked in the education department, and they decided to create a project that would try to break the barriers between urban art and street art. Stik subsequently created six murals at various locations in Dulwich re-imagining the art from the permanent collection of Baroque Old Masters in the gallery. Beazley and Stik later organised the Baroque Streets festival in 2013 where street artists from around the world were invited to choose a painting from the gallery collection and interpret it in their own style on one of the chosen walls near the gallery, recreating the Old Masters on the streets. Beazley and Stik hoped that the project would bring the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest art museum in England, to a wider audience whilst also introducing those unfamiliar with urban art to the street art genre.
‘G. DAVIS IS INNOCENT’
Under a railway bridge on Salmon Lane in the Limehouse area of East London is an inconspicuous piece of graffiti left in large white letters, ‘G. DAVIES IS INNOCENT’. The graffiti is one of the few remaining pieces painted in the 1970s as part of a grassrootspublic campaign to have the bank robber, George Davis, freed from prison. In 1974, Davis was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the robbery of the London Electricity Board in Ilford. After family and friends raised questions about the evidence used to convict Davis, the phrase ‘George Davis Is Innocent OK’ began appearing all over East London and the rest of the country. The campaign paid off and in May 1976 Davis was released under the royal prerogative on the advice of the then home secretary, Roy Jenkins. However, only 18-months later, Davis was caught robbing the bank of Cyprus in Holloway and pleaded guilty to his involvement in the armed bank raid.
Lord Napier Graffiti Pub
In the past twenty years, not a single pint has been pulled in The Lord Napier pub located near to the Hackney Wick overground station. The pub was licensed in 1868 under the name The White’s Arms and was then advertised for sale, whereupon its news owners changed its names to The Lord Napier. During the twentieth century the pub appeared in the local and national news as the site of numerous robberies and assaults. After its closure in 1995, the former pub attracted squat parties, became known as a destination for illegal raves in the early 2000s and began to be covered in graffiti. In 2016, artist Aida Wilde commissioned 29 local street artists as part of a 48-hour takeover of the building as a ‘symbol of protest against [the] gentrification’ which was happening in the local area. The pub has been attracting tourists to its ever changing exterior ever since it was reimagined with its iconic graffiti makeover. After attracting new ownership, the pub is expected to go through an extensive programme of refurbishment.
‘A Couple Hold Hands in the Street’ and ‘The Crane’, near Brick Lane
Brick Lane, in the heart of the East End, is often considered one of the most famous locations in the UK for graffiti and street art. Whilst international street artists aspire to paint on Brick Lane, it is kept fresh by local artists who change the graffiti on a weekly basis. Works can be found by famous street artists from around the world, including Phlegm, Ben Eine, Banksy, Noriaki, C215, ROA, Vhils and Shepard Fairey, to name just a few. One of the most popular works of street art in the area is that of ‘A Couple Hold Hands in the Street’ on Princelet Street by local artist Stik. The piece, created in 2010, shows a woman in a niqab holding hands with a second stick figure and was voted the nation’s 17th favourite artwork in a poll in 2017. One of the other long-standing pieces in the area is The Crane on Hanbury street which was created by Belgian street artist, ROA. The work was originally intended to be a heron but was changed to a crane after ROA learnt that they were sacred to the Bengali community, who make up a significant portion of the local population.
Camden Lock Bridge
The graffiti piece on Camden Lock Railway Bridge is considered to be the oldest surviving pieces of street art in Camden, having been created by John Bulley in 1989. Whilst working on a number of new shop signs in the area, Bulley was asked if he could come up with an idea for the Camden Lock Railway Bridge as it was about to be refurbished and repainted by British Rail. Knowing that he wanted the design to be visible from a distance and have some humour in it, Bulley used a bold typeface and photographed two men he was working with to include in his design. The resulting work features the two men who appear to be constantly painting the bridge. The work has been repainted in recent years to freshen up the paint but using the same iconic design. Having lasted for over thirty years, the piece is considered an icon of London’s oldest pieces of street art.
Stockwell Park Graffiti Pen and Hall of Fame
The Stockwell Park Graffiti Pen, known as ‘The Pen’ and the ‘Stockwell Hall of Fame’, is another legal graffiti site in London which has become a destination site for some of the best graffiti and street art in the city. It has been used as a graffiti pen for over forty years and can be found in the sunken basketball courts of Stockwell Park Estate on Aytoun Road. It was originally built in the 1950s to be used by children from the estate to play sports but attracted graffiti and later became known as a legal graffiti site. The site was transformed in 2019 as part of a £200 million refurbishment of the Stockwell Park Estate by Network Homes: the refurbishment of the pen was designed in consultation with local residents, graffiti artists and architects to provide a space to showcase the ever-changing graffiti artwork and to create interior wall spaces which would allow artists to continue working.
Trellick Tower Graffiti Hall of Fame
Trellick Tower is a Grade II* listed tower block on Cheltenham Estate in Kensal Green which was designed in a Brutalist style by architect Ernö Goldfinger and opened in 1972. The base of the tower is renowned as a centre for urban arts and is another example of one of London’s legal ‘Halls of Fame’, where graffiti artists can paint without the risk of arrest and, consequently, have a safe space to hone their skills. In the Autumn of 2020, it was revealed that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council were taking steps to implement a new development onto the grounds of the Trellick Tower which would leave the graffiti hall of fame at risk of destruction. In response to the plans, Anna Gudbrands created a documentary film, ‘Trellick: The Writing is on The Wall’ highlighting the importance of both the tower and the Graffiti Hall of Fame.