At first it seemed like every other street near London’s Brick Lane.
Murals were sprawled across the crumbling walls and shop fronts, the aroma of spices were wafting from the many curry restaurants and the gaudy outfits you had always tried to forget were hanging in the windows of pre-loved, vintage clothing stores.
But as I looked a little higher, I learned there was more to this eclectic street than I first realised.
“Look up,” our Alternative London street art walking tour guide Doug said.
A small statue sat atop a street sign. Inconspicuous and subtle, this was a piece of artwork waiting to be discovered.
“Look even closer.”
We had let this gem go right over our heads as we walked through the alleyways of London’s east end — literally.
Dubbed the Angel of Scalter Street by street artist Jonesy, the wings of this bronze statue were cast from a real pigeon.
This small, curious piece was just one way artists make their mark on east London.
The English city has one of the biggest collections of uncommissioned street art in the world.
Countless local and international artists have used the streets, sidewalks and buildings of London as their canvas, but not all work is brought to life using paint and stencils.
Every day the colourful area of east London, particularly the district of Shoreditch, is changing.
New artists come in, new works are created, while others are destroyed or painted over. And it starts all over.
Developed on the back of immigration and industrial manufacturing, Shoreditch is now the beating heart of London’s alternative scene.
It has long been a hub of creativity, starting in the 1960s when artists invaded empty warehouses in search of cheap rent. The influx helped reinvigorate the derelict area and fostered the burgeoning street art scene.
Nowadays, an open ‘gallery’ of brightly coloured street art, often with socio-political messages, lures tourists to the area. Over the past 20 years, artists such as Banksy, Invader and Stik have help put the district on the map.
We moved through the streets in a group of about 20 on windy London December day, with a bitterly cold chill to the air.
We rugged up and get going, stopping every 100 metres or so to find out more about the street artists who say so much through their work.
We stopped at a red painting depicting two stick people holding hands, with the woman wearing a burka. It’s a piece by the artist Stik in his trademark style, painted behind a mosque on Brick Lane.
“It’s circles, four lines and dots, that’s it. And people say, ‘Oh, but I could do that’, and you probably could, but you didn’t, Stik did it first,” Doug said with a cheeky smile.
Stik is a high profile street artist, yet rubbish and a broken television was leaned up against his work.
Brick Lane is still a functioning series of lanes and streets where people live and work, with the art serving as the colourful canopy to a ‘hipster’ district. It’s no fancy art gallery, that’s for sure.
At every corner of this busy district there’s colour, stencils, sculpture and paint. Some small, some large scale. Others a simple vinyl sticker on a lamp post.
Then there’s a 10-metre-high mural of a crane that stretches the length of a brick building.
It’s piece from animal-obsessed Belgian artist Roa, who painstakingly painted each brick over seven hours.
“In one year he did 100 pieces of street art,” Doug said.
“They call him the ‘fastest hands in the game’.”
As artists continue to embrace their creativity, developers have spied the rising popularity of the district and swanky, glass finished apartment buildings are quickly taking over the brick industrial buildings.
“2015 was the tipping point for social and physical change for this area,” Doug said.
The struggle between the new and the “old” continues, but the street art remains and is now a drawcard for tourism.
In an ever-changing outdoor gallery that is east London, no two walks down Brick Lane will ever be the same.
Getting there: Once you land at either Heathrow or Stansted airport, the best way to reach Shoreditch is by tube. Grab yourself an Oyster travel card at any station and head east towards the newly revamped Shoreditch station. Street art begins the minute you walk out the gates.
Tours: Alternative London runs two-hour walking street art tours Monday to Saturday by appointment. Groups of up to 25 people with cost by donation at the end of the tour. Local street artists and those in the creative community run the tours in all weather conditions. For more information visit alternativeldn.co.uk.