Bored of expensive, uninspiring tours? Think tours are for tourists? Forget the freezing open-top buses, the droning guides shoving through crowds with their umbrellas aloft and the same dry old monologues about Big Ben or Tower Bridge; what if a tour could give you an insight into today's real and living London, the chance to discover the East End's most incredible street art alongside enthusiastic local guides - often street artists themselves - and even the chance to (legally) try it for yourself?
Alternative London (beware of bandwagon imitators) offers pay-what-you-like walking tours as well as great value bike tours and tours with hands-on workshops, making this a really different and affordable London experience. I took my teenage niece with her mum for a birthday treat and it opened our eyes to a whole range of incredible art in the maze of East London back streets.
Our guide, street artist Josh Jeavons, was fabulous - friendly, knowledgeable and really happy to explain how graffiti and street art began, how the pieces were created, what kind of techniques were used, and the individual artists' backgrounds and inspirations. http://joshjeavons.co.uk/ Here is just a taste of the things we saw and learned on our day.
Cranio is a Brazilian artist from São Paulo, in town for a recent exhibition at the Red Bull Studios. His distinctive character paintings highlight the tension between the indigenous people of Brazil and the commercial pressures that are leading to deforestation, seriously endangering the rainforest. He was one of the first artists to help decorate the new Alternative London bus, which is the tour company's headquarters and their workshop - a very cool place to work on your stencil skills!
Artists like Mobstr and Ben Eine focus more on typographical pieces; Ben Eine is probably most well-known for his transformation of the shutters in Middlesex Street with huge brightly-coloured letters - or perhaps for the fact that David Cameron gave Barack Obama one of his pieces as a presidential gift.
We saw his fabulous monochromatic Anti Anti Anti graffiti in Ebor Street; apparently the morning after he painted this he was asked if he wanted to paint something on the other side of the street, this time with permission. Keen to have made his mark on the whole street, he painted the contrasting Pro Pro Pro in bright circus font along the opposite wall.
Mobstr specialises in stencilled messages which challenge the inexplicable love of those in authority for a dreary blank wall. The eternal nemesis of the street artist, council employees will post warning notices of prosecution - hence Mobstr's retort 'Didn't Get Arrested' - and will paint over existing art with neutral-coloured paint, known as 'buffing'. Often they only cover as far as they can easily reach, leaving a far uglier dull wall with the remains of the art still visible at the top; this prompted Mobstr to stencil the taunt 'Buff This . . . And This' high up on a wall in New Inn Yard. So far, they haven't.
I guess no London street art tour would be complete without a Banksy or two - nowadays they are covered with Plexiglass. This one has an Anthony Lister version right next to it, the Australian artist making his point by adding 'Lister is over stencils'.
Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop collaborator Shepard Fairey (for more on this, see my August blog post on Mr Brainwash) also figures on the tour; we saw his 'Shoplifters Welcome' indictment of corporate greed dominating a huge wall space.
I could go on, but you know what? Book yourself on the tour and find out for yourself. The workshop option is fabulous as after the tour you get the chance to create your own stencil and/or wield a can freehand, spray-painting your own design onto pieces of board, or the bar.
Here's my London skyline . . .
. . . and my niece's finished piece for her to take home. I'm setting up a board on Pinterest (check it out with the link at the top of the page) with more pictures and artists but street art is ephemeral, so your tour could look totally different. I'm already booking my next one for a couple of months' time; maybe I'll see you there. Trust me, you'll love it. http://www.alternativeldn.co.uk/