So then the motif of twenty-first century London is an attempt to make London a if not the global capital of finance, investment and speculation, that is of unregulated capitalism. In many ways one could argue that this ambition is a continuation of a historically contingent but enduring dynamic, first established by the Roman Empire. Two thousand years ago the Romans had established a small port and market town, which grew in size as it became the hub for goods sucked out of the country and channelled to Rome and the rest of the Empire. In this way, the Romans created a psychogeographic space, one which both helped realise but also celebrate the avaricious ambitions of the Roman Empire, one in which material goods abounded and washed around. They created a honey pot, to which anyone interested in material gain gravitated reinforcing its pull on the resources from all around. With the decay of the Roman Empire came the decay and ruination of London, but it didn’t take long before the banks of the Thames were once again considered a good site for the location of a temple of prosperity, the area rejuvenated by the Hansiatic League in the Middle Ages and ignited in the eighteenth century by the fact of London being the capital of the global British Empire. That is to say there has long been a desire, often realized, of making a market town out of this place, if not the market town, a burning sun of avarice and consumption, a black hole for goods and resources expropriated from and produced in many sites dotted all around the world.
One can see this in the more recent redevelopment of London as a global financial market place, under Thatcher and then under successive British administrations ever since. Wanting to emulate the Roman’s achievements, she attempted to revive the town’s fortunes as one of the world’s great trading centres, this time for financial, accounting and investment instruments. Inspired by the Roman’s aquaducts, she wanted to harness a previously untapped power, electronic rivers of cash, which she was able to engineer through deregulated banks, competition and untrammelled risk taking. Inspired by the Roman’s appropriation of foreign labour and the Hansiatic League, which allowed traders from all over northern Europe a berth by the Thames, she invited international bankers and financial businesses, from the United States and Switzerland in particular, to create such bridges. Her new market rose up, metaphorically and literatally, as towers of glass and steel. So big did this market become that pretty soon a population of men and women, of the size of a small city, would descend upon the market place in the morning and then leave in the evening, every day. Not content to rest on her laurels, she agreed to turn the northern part of the Isle of Dogs in East London, a place called Canary Wharf, into a private enterprise zone, to be developed into a second financial market place. Canary Wharf was removed from the hands of local authority control and handed over to private interests. Glass and steel edifices were constructed, some of the biggest known to man.
So London’s continuing development and redevelopment as the place to sell and trade your goods has long attracted those with desire for material accumulation and status. That is, I want to say, that we need to massage the chin and muse on how the desire for material accumulation and status has driven the formation, development and make-up of London. Old Father Thames, a nexus through which goods can be transported, traded and accessed, has long been a beacon to the avaricious. The fantasy of London as a mess of trade, bartering and opportunity have attracted many an envious eye and one or two fingers eager to break into the deep filled thick crust pie that is London. The fabled sense of opportunity offered by London is best captured in the 14th Century myth of Dick Whittington, who arrived in London with nothing and went on to make his fortune and become Mayor of London. More recently, we recount the story of celebrated businessman Sir Alan Sugar, whose life began in the humble surroundings of a Hackney Council Estate, but who has now amassed a substantial personal wealth, and has his own TV show called The Apprentice. In this programme aspiring Dick Whittingtons and Alan Sugars compete in the hope of unlocking the key to the riches of London. London then is a city celebrated for making men rich. The towering immensity of London’s financial sector, the largesse of its villas and mansions and the grandiosity of its town houses are celebrated as hard evidence of the material achievement of the city’s denizens.
Wealth can be accumulated in different ways. Entrepreneurialism has been foregrounded as the key dynamic underpinning much of the success of London’s more wealthy citizens. Entrepreneurialism, a matter of applying one’s skills, creativity and work to create a successful product, implies the accretion of material gain can be achieved within a framework of civility and social order.
Punk and ‘fucking the system’
However London has, at least since the 1970s been very much taken with the punk ethos of fucking the system, fucking the rules and getting what you want out of the thing anyway. Punk is all about a a wafer thin superego, the superego being that part of the person’s mind, which criticises its own impulses, and tries to constrain them, in a manner which ensures a degree of social harmony. OK, stive for recognition, strive for material gain, pick a mate, and exclude the rest, but don’t be nasty about it, and act if possible, as if it’s not happening. Londoners have a higher proportion of gossamer superegos than any other city in the world, being helpless to stop the id, that drive for dominance, recognistion a sexual partner or partners. However this is not enough to create an urban punk movement. The DIY and punk ethos in London is prominent in London for several reasons. One of them relates to the number of people around, the concentration of people, which provives the critical mass and audiences which punks need to fuel the meeds of their id. Tracy Emin didn’t set up her first shop in a village in the Cotswolds, she set it up in Hoxton Square. You couldn’t and wouldn’t have the madcap street celebrations of Algerians on Blackstock Road every time Algeria won an important match in the World Cup or African Nations, if it wasn’t for the closely packed Algerian café bars, which provide the critical mass for a street celebration. The punk movement is strong in London because punk requires the skills, know how and talent of people around, and the fact that they arguably not only inspire each other to reach for the stars, they actually have the ability to make it happen. I mean the BMX flash scene couldn’t happen without engineers who knew how to mount two BMX ramps inside an hour, and flash dance scenes couldn’t happen without a choreographer and people with the ability to dance. Sometimes it is not just about having the skills to pull it off but also about having a vision, having a kind of audacity, a determination to make something happen, to see opportunities in places where there was no opportunity. Street art is a good example of this, with Banksy either making grizzly parts of East London a canvas for his work, or otherwise integrating parts of London into his work, so it becomes his work. Simon McAndrew, who in 2008, used a good understanding of laws around squatting, and a desire to see empty spaces in London used for public benefit, to lead a small army of innovators and artists, to squat a six-storey Georgian Mansion in Mayfair, enabling one of the most fascinating exhibitions of art ever seen in twenty-first century London. And finally invariably these punks have money, time and resources; a commonly underlooked facet of punk, which those who celebrate it find it hard to deal with. The punk ethos is not about making something out of nothing. It is about making something greater from the something you already have. The BMXers in Hoxton couldn’t put together a ramp and put on a BMX show without transport, tools and bikes. Artists can’t saturate Shoreditch in art, without having paints, computer aided design software and in some cases, jacks on wheels, which elevate street artists to heights of twenty feet so they can complete their pieces.
Beginning of the ‘punk’ movement
Anyway, arguably, since the dawn of time London has attracted people with compromised superegos, which has fed the punk culture, meant that London to some extent, has always been a punk city full of people who have done things their way, who have started out as not being accepted by whichever establishment they secretly desired to be a member of, and thought fuck it, I’m going to give it a go anyway. As far as contemporary understanding of punk goes, it is a a concept given birth to in the twentieth century, born, arguably of the austerity of 1970s Britain, which drove people to despair, a desperation which Britain responded to with extreme creativity and aggression. Key proponents of the punk era in the 1970s were the Sex Pistols, whose DIY, anti-pop, anti-establishment and anti-fan approach, driven through with an unerring psychopathic self-belief, won the hearts of millions, and proved an inspiration to a generation. They were accompanied by the Clash, the Damned and aided by American contemporaries, The Ramones.
Twenty-first century punk?
But what of the twenty-first century? In 2007 I waslked into the Abercrombie & Fitch store on Savile Row, London, which offered me a disconcerting experience, a psychological death. The store is located in a Georgian mansion on a street corner in Mayfair, a stone’s throw from the Royal Academy of Arts and across the road from the famous tailors of Savile Row. The mansion has no signage or shop front, so the two young men stationed outside, employed to open the front doors for customers, look, on first sight, as if they were doing security for a private party. Dressed in blue hooded tops and jeans, the two men gaze into each other’s eyes and chat. As you approach the entrance, although you may not realise it, you make a pact with the Devil, deigning to play a game you are destined to loose. The men open the doors but make no eye contact with you, looking through or above you as you pass between them. A sense of insignificance takes root as you cross the threshold. Inside the double doors, at the back of a large cloakroom, a fresh-faced young man, possibly in his teens, is looking awkward and abashed in equal measures. He is dressed in a jacket, unzipped and bares a ripped stomach and sculpted pecs. Affronted by this pornography you recoil but not wanting to appear affected you steady yourself and observe the man inserting himself amongst several girlfriends, all of whom pose for a photo taken by a female employee with a polaroid camera. Aware that you have neither the genes nor the gym membership to attain such a figure, nor the quality of meat hanging from your frame to be invited into such a gathering, you begin to feel you are not welcomed. Nevertheless, a competing need not to be defeated and a perverse sense of adventure propels you onwards. Into the shop proper and your eyes experience a blackout; no natural light is let in, the windows are boarded up. Clothes shop is conflated with nightclub. Your ears are gratuitously assaulted by pounding dance music. Low-level lighting illuminates the clothes, focusing your attention. Queues for the changing rooms snake across the floor. It can take up to forty-five minutes to try your garment on. On the first floor, which overlooks the ground floor, two employees are stood against a balcony, engaged in faux dancing, smiling and having fun. One of them, as instructed, flashes you a smile. The staff are so beautiful, that if you too are stood by the balcony when receiving such a smile, you might well fall off it. Beautiful people attract beautiful people, angel faced customers step slowly in this low light environment, peering softly and searchingly into their own reflection provided by large mirrors positioned around the shop. Idling your way around the shop, you cannot help but stop to contemplate the beauty of each shop assistant you pass, only to find he or she looks up at you with a warm smile, which causes you to scurry away like a dormouse. You notice how the models sidle up to one another, share a few words, smile sweetly and part with elegant touches; you imagine they are confirming attendance at some Kensington town house party planned for the evening. You think of the few friends you have, of the decidedly dogged looks of those in your social circle, and recall that whilst there are a few hours in which everything could change, you have, up to now, been invited to a grand total of no parties for the evening. Suffering, you try to protect yourself by denigrating physical appearance as a superficial phenomenon, but the sickening laughter, which hangs in the air of Abercrombie & Fitch, like a mist, reminds you of your Faustian pact. For the rest of your visit you will be wrestling with the Devil.
Abercrombie & Fithc is pure punk, like all punks they have the thinnest of superegos. They do not give a flying one. They are not interested in playing by the rules. They want to make money at any cost. They are the school bully. Mike Jefferies, chief executive of A&F was quoted by Fashion United (26th February, 2007) as saying, “We get asked by big malls to turn our music down the whole time. We do and then we turn it back up an hour later.” Similarly A&F use sex, beauty and youth in a rather unabashed way. Apparently when Abercrombie & Fitch started building work on their Savile Row building, they erected a barricade on which was posted, ‘a two-story parade of buff young men, chests bare and jeans riding low on their hips’ (Hazlett, 2006). A&F then are the George W Bush of the clothing industry, what The Daily Mail calls ‘vulgar commercialisation’. In 2009, a disabled woman sued Abercrombie & Fitch for discrimination, claiming it made her work in a stockroom because her prosthetic arm didn’t fit its public image. The girl described being left feeling ‘utterly worthless’ The tribunal ruled that Dean was “unlawfully harrassed for a reason that related to her disability”. Tom Michelson, who worked in the store for a while, noted that a less attractive group of staff, known as the “impact team” often worked behind the scenes. He added ‘The unattractive, the overweight and the disabled just don’t seem to make it on to the shop floor.’ It’s the aggression or honesty of A&F, the way it refuses to be constrained by regulation and social conditioning, the way it lets its id burst through its terribly weak superego, that causes some to draw comparisons between A&F’s approach and the zeal of Hitler Youth and the German nationalist socialist regime of 1940s.
The London Riots as a grassroots punk movement?
Mind, the untrammelled id will eventually lead to burnout and ruin; to exclusion, expulsion and destruction. We saw that with the Nazis, and with the London riots, three to four days of pure burning hell, a pure punk movement, The London Riots of 2011, which started off quite spontaneously on Tottenham High Road were pure punk, a spontaneous call to arms against the police, more punk and more Sex Pistols than the Sex Pistols. The riots made a huge bonfire of London, a symbol of hatred of the police, nihilistic reverie and a burning resentment and envy of those who have better access to the world of resources circulating around London, but it quickly burned out, ending with retribution and imprisonment.
I know many people will find it difficult to hear it said that the Nazis were the ultimate punk movement, and I don’t mean to suggest that all punks or all punk is Nazi, far from it, but you only need to look at the countless associations between punk icons The Sex Pistols and Nazi iconography to see that there is more to punk than one wants to have meet the eye. Punk is about doing what you want, making yourself feel good, over and above everything and everyone else. Its presentation as a caring or socialist movement is delusional bullshit.
London Street art and the punk delusion
You can see this delusional bullshit in London’s street art movement, one of London’s biggest current punk movements. The point is, is that street artists are in the main psychopaths, charmers in the mould of Tony Blair, who believe they are doing the right thing and want you to believe they are doing the right thing. Many street artists, will have you believe the beauty of street art lies in ‘free expression’. To understand free expression we need first to get our heads round the fact that humans often need to suppress feelings, emotions and truths; for to reveal them would be dangerous; could challenge social elites; social arrangements; like a young girl, sexually abused by her father, who knows that revelation could break the family unit. This suppression of truth, feeling and experience, creates a tension, which street art, like literature and music, allows people to release, momentarily, in controlled conditions. Street art then, as a form of free expression, as yang paints the ineffable, it announces terrible fears, murderous anger and deep shame. It does this unfettered, free from retribution or consequence. It is a chance to ignore, momentarily, the demands, expectations and requirements of society. Street art, then, is a sigh of relief, a scream. The artist, on behalf of society takes a breather, checks its pulse, listens for its beating heart, and speaks truth to feeling. Beglgian street artist Roa argues, “Graffiti is one of the most free art expressions of the world; you don’t do it for money nor for an institution, it’s free expression and it liberates yourself creatively from a lot of restrictions”. Street art, trustfully, intimately, kindly and softly, invites us to sit down and feel our own emotions and soul. In this way it is contrasted with commercial advertising, which seeks to undermine our self-esteem, chip away at our taken for granted sense of being accepted, bullies, charms, pulls the wool over our eyes, mis-sells, predisposes and biases. For some, street art is part of an idealistic utopian philosophy that art should be for the people, free and accessible. It represents a democratisation of the consumption of art; enabling a direct relationship between the artist and the public, unrestrained by the interest of gallery owners or the social mores of the time.
So it goes, the street artist as yang, as ‘a fragment of society’ is not trying to make us do or be something, but inviting us to take time out to feel something real within. Street art is thus indulgence, meditation and yoga. Indeed, it is interesting to note that one of the first examples of street art, the paintings of the victims of the American nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the streets of Paris by Polish Jew Gerard Zlotykamien kept a suppressed feeling alive, kept the wound open to the air, so it might heal. We find the need to share supressed feeling inspiring other street artists. French artist C215 stencils the faces of real homeless people and street children into the walls of London; listlessness, apathy and sad they are. He says, “I have just been representing the people that really belong to the streets, and kids who have no chance in life. I am an orphan myself and I am quite obsessed by splitting of personality and sensation of emptiness: I am supposed to have a borderline personality, and cutting stencil then painting is like a personal therapy about my own fears, my own ghosts.”. Mike Marcus, London artist, likewise, talking to Sense Lost says “I have a rich internal world. I spend much of my time upset or angry about what humanity achieves verses what it is capable of. I think a lot about my role as a fragment of society and think that others should similarly acknowledge that they have the power to make a better world if they just started caring. Much of my work talks about this in some way.”
Street artists who have a mission to share feelings, may work anonymously to foreground the feeling they want to share. London artist Adam Neate who painted for the love of painting explained to Aesthetic Magazine that one day, finding his home full of his own work, he decided to give some of it to a charity shop. Passing the charity shop later, he realised the shop had discarded the work for rubbish collection, so he decided to take the art back and leave it “hanging on nails, or leaning against lampposts in the streets”. Neate explained to The Independent that the point was to put the art out there “for people to enjoy”. Said Neate, “I didn’t get any feedback for years as I never saw where the paintings ended up”.
The ideal of anonymity in street art is revered because it supports the ideal of free expression. On revelling in and resonating with the shared feeling, the onlooker is left with a frisson of wonder, an appreciation for altruism, “Who did this, where did they come from and where did they go?” Creating art to share means the artist has to be in some part an altruist; maybe a true amateur, impoverished because he or she cannot do anything other than give, a part-timer or an aristocrat. The irony of anonymity is that no artist can ever be known for his anonymous works; it is an accolade he or she must take with to his or her grave if she is ever to own it.
Furthermore it might be argued that for street art to really be free expression to be something shared with the onlooker, it needs to relate uniquely to the environment and/or to the people who live in the environment. That is to say, street art can be thought of as street art or street art. Street art arguably should interact with the street or people in some way. It can incorporate a piece of the street or environment into the art. Or it can be an attempt to speak to the people in the street, something particular to who they are and their lives. Banksy is arguably the best example of a street artist in this sense, his work consistently makes use of and incorporates the environment.
But just as life is yang so it is yin, just as it is introspection and calm, so it is desire and competition. Street art, like life, is shaped by both these forces, and here we explore the yin of street art. The fact is that the denizens of London are, invariably, à la Dick Whittington, drawn to the Big Smoke by ambition, desire and avarice. The city is like a magnet, pulling all the energy of the ambitious towards its center, rendering it a black hole. The insatiable desire for attention, status and wealth means that Londoners struggle to maintain a dignified social spirit in their business and dealings. This is well illustrated by the politics and practice of street art, which over the last fifteen years, has added to London’s credence as an artistic and creative capital, and made some artists rich and famous, and which constitutes, for the most part, vandalism of private and public property.
We find then, street art a tool for getting on in the world. One of the principal motivations driving a good number of street artists is self-promotion. Street art is regularly monickered. It is offered freely, but often as samplers, advertisements of what people could buy, and investments in one’s street credibility. Here street art is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. It is illegal advertising, fly-postering. Cartrain, a street artist from Walthamstow, started off peppering his local neighborhood with work, but moved on to Shoreditch and Brick Lane, claiming that no-one was taking any notice of his work in Walthamstow. Its perhaps not that people in Walthamstow were not noticing – I expect they were, it’s that Walthamstow doesn’t have a community of artists and bloggers who were going to create a white heat around Cartain’s work – in which Cartrain could bask. Cartrain moved from yin to yang.
Street artists, far from providing an alternative to consumerist messages, illegally extend the commercial colonization of public space from the billboard and the phone booth to the pavement and wall. Some artists put their work on the street as part of a commercial strategy to make a name, to create a brand and a demand for that brand, which they then service through internet based merchandising operations, and through galleries once their name is made. T-Magic, Shepherd Fairey and Banksy whether by design or in effect have all done this, i.e. used London as an advertising hoarding. According to Charlie Gower, ‘In effect the street work is there to act as advertising for their main work, for sale in galleries. These guys, the likes of Fairey, Banksy and Invader are very much brands now, by their own creation’. In many ways then, this street art scene is marketing on the blind side. Many artists don’t attempt to make their work relate to the environment or to the people who walk around. Instead, street art is simply appended to the street, so using the street as an open air art gallery.
A really good example of marketing on the blind side is The Obey Giant poster campaign, planned by Shepherd Fairey, and conspicuous in London between 2007 and 2009. The work comprised a series of posters bringing together political protest icons superimposed on psychedelic backgrounds. The work was posted way above eye level, giving a sense you were being gazed upon by a manifestation of political power or the representation of ideology. Interestingly the images did not point to any particular type of ideology, just ‘ideology’. One of the first posters I noticed, off Old Street, had the face of a beautiful looking Middle-Eastern looking women wrapped in a headscarf, with two guns, with flowers coming out of them. When I saw this poster, I wondered whether it was about women’s oppression, Islamic revolution, a fashion house, or was it one of those sophisticated advertising campaigns which sell you an icon, bringing the brand in later. Turns out it was the latter. According to Obey Giant the aim of their ‘campaign’ was to ‘stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the campaign and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with Obey propaganda provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail’. This phenomenological project would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that Shepherd Fairey backed the campaign up with an internet based merchandising operation; which rendered the campaign an incredibly successful attempt to commodify, market and sell ‘counterculture cool’. Once the consumer has fallen in love with what seems ‘counterculture’, has invested time in cracking the secret, the next step is naturally to want to buy into this new exclusive intellectual movement, and get a t-shirt. I nearly did, but a sense of buying into nothing produced a sickening effect inside of me, that stopped me. Obey Giant seems to engage with an agenda of social justice, of helping the suppressed in some way, but when you look deeper into it, all you can find is offers t-shirts, posters and stickers. As Mark Vallen has observed, “Perhaps the most important falsehood concerning Fairey’s [Fairey is the founding father of Obey Giant] behavior is that it is motivated by some grand theory of aesthetics or weighty political philosophy – but I’m afraid the only scheme at work is the one intended to make Fairey wealthy and famous …it’s also not impossible to view Fairey’s work as right-wing in essence, since it largely ransacks leftist history and imagery while the artist laughs all the way to the bank.”
In certain cases whilst a street artist may set out to paint for painting’s sake, they later cash in on their anonymity and the mystery underlying their initially anonymous work. Ben ‘Eine’ Flynn painted the letters A-Z, in a rather attractive font, on steel shutters of shop fronts around East London between 2007 and 2009. Although it appears that the project had not started out with commercial intent, later on photographs of the letters were used to produce posters for the pop band ‘Alphabeat’ in 2008 (although I am unclear to be honest as to whether Ben Flynn was paid for the use of these photographs in this way). Even our selfless hero Adam Neate, was with time identified and then invited to do a gallery show, in effect cashing in on his altruism and anonymity.
Two years later, in 2010, a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between street art and advertising occurred in Shoreditch, London, with a series of street art pieces, which coincided with a large advertising campaign, launched by clothing brand Converse. The campaign started in a fairly orthodox albeit exhaustive manner. Converse paid for every bit of advertising space they could get their hands on in Shoreditch dressing several famous people from the world of rock, pop and television; and linking them together as if they were all cut out of paper; New Order’s Bernard Sumner, being the jewel in the crown (See this video as an example). But then around about the same time, street artists started to create a series of derivatives, some clearly using the campaign’s initial imagery, others providing abstract reminders. The purpose behind the use of ever vaguer representations, this evolution from advertising into abstract street art, was seemingly an attempt to encourage the onlooker to make a link between Converse and the deep psychic sense of cool that one associates with free expressionist values of street art. It is a disturbing cloud.
The point is, and it took a long time to get here, the tension between the desire to be yang and the natural tendency to be yin causes the street artist to become deluded. They start espousing the socialist punk bullshit. Artists confuse using the streets to expand coverage of their art with democracy! French artist, Invader who mounts tiny tiled mosaics of space invaders in London asserts, ‘Nothing is too much for the street. Because if you make a piece like this and you sell it to a collector, maybe his friends, his family and a few people are going to see it. I mean maybe ten, twenty, lets say fifty people. But if you put that in the street, in a good street, its fifty people every five minutes who are going to see your work, and that’s much more interesting, much more exciting.’ At first this sounds like Invader is eulogising the ability of street art as a form of free expression, of connecting to the public, but it could also be barely containable glee at realising the income to be derived from gaining a name and interest amongst the thousands of people who take a curiosity in the work, as they walk past it in the street. The street artist will use all kind of rationales about the greater good of street art to hide his hugely problematic egoistic tendencies. The street artist claims to operate according to the mantra of the treasured late John Peel, to give to people not what they want, but that which they didn’t realise they wanted. He will argue that the buildings he pasted his work over are in need of brightening up. He will argue, like it has been argued about T.Magic, that his attempts at using the pavement to illegally advertise his business is about fighting for the rights of a ‘forgotten community’ ‘to be heard in a world of limited space’. More often than not he will claim to be fighting consumerism. Cartrain for example says, ‘Graffiti doesn’t tell people to buy crap they don’t want, unlike advertising. I consider my work artistic and creative, not mindless rubbish designed to annoy people.’ (Trendall, 2007). In an interview with Charles Darwent, Sweet Toof explained, “It’s about reclaiming space. We have to put up with advertising, that can take up the whole side of a building. We have no say in that.” But in actual fact, whilst claiming to be fighting consumerism, the street artist or graffiti artist is often only adding another consumerist message, albeit in a more sophisticated and indirect way. Many street artists are delivered hot from the fresh warm lips of Margaret Thatcher, whilst trying to give the impression that they are in some sense the next Che Guevara. They are like those annoying socialist workers who bang on about corporations, whilst at the same time smoking Marlborough Lites and drinking Carling. The street artist, then, despite his iconoclastic and challenging art, is not trying to piss you, the general public, off. Instead he intends to seduce you with the beauty, audacity and complexity of his ‘gift’. He wants to take your breath away such that you feel blessed, and forget he has trespassed, vandalised and imposed his will on you. He wants you to forget he is using your walls and your property as a canvas, so you don’t get angry that he has decided, unilaterally, psychopathically, that his need for his art on your wall, is greater than your right to enjoy your wall, as it is, without interference.
London embraces the punk mentality
But if being a punk means breaking the rules to get what you need, doing it your way, we see that London embraces that mentality, and that in actual fact in that sense, London, is quite a cynical place, quietly embracing rioting and looting. Look for example at the name given to one of London’s foremost trading magazines Loot!. There is nothing about the magazine that advocates criminal activity, but the name suggests that within its pages there are items for sale at prices so cheap, that buying them will feel as good as having stolen them. There is also an implication, neither promulgated nor necessarily intended by the magazine’s owners, that one might find stolen goods at knockdown prices for sale, the exclamation mark adds celebratory tones. Certainly the magazine would be a good place for thieves and robbers to sell their ill-gotten gains at knockdown prices to cash buyers. The same name, Loot was used by the owners of a clothing shop in Wood Green High Road. The shop’s name seemed to glorify the act of theft, implying that buying clothes from the shop would make the purchaser feel as good as having stolen them. Perhaps the name was also a nod toward the modus operandi and preferred lifestyle choice of a certain sub-section of the population of Wood Green, a modus operandi and preferred lifestyle choice of which a fine exhibition was provided in August 2011. Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of the August 2011 riots was the fact that whilst the clothes shop Loot found itself at the epicentre of the first night of looting, and whilst all the shops around were wrecked and looted, Loot survived intact.
Elsewhere, Sir Alan Sugar, de facto ambassador for London’s business community, in 2011, the year of the riots, celebrated the aggression of one of his contestants, in his TV game show The Apprentice, describing with admiration, how she would walk over anyone to get what she wanted, the defining feature of a riotous mob. Meanwhile an Easy Jet airplane departing Gatwick Airport the same year, advertised to every Londoner on board, from the back of every seat, an offer, which it promoted as ‘a steal!’ At the same time Adidas ran a London advertisement campaign, depicting and therefore glorifying groups or gangs of young men hanging out on the street with nothing to do, and were reported to have plans for launching an advertising campaign featuring gang member and convicted criminal Snoop Dogg. Three years previous vendors at a Sunday clothes market, a stones throw from Wembley Stadium, sold coats with sinister balaclava hoods, which had small circular tinted windows for the eyes to look out of, which one would only wear if they wanted their identify to remain concealed. Several August 2011 rioters and looters were seen wearing such items during their nocturnal foraging. In April 2013 visitors to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, were entreated to celebrate the ‘golden age of piracy’. In practice we find that London’s dedication to the punk movement means that entrepreneurialism and looting are not so much arch enemies but bed fellows, strategies to be deployed depending on the circumstances, and where one is openly celebrated, the other is respected quietly in private settings, Freudian slips in sales pitches and knowing glances.
Elsewhere, Banksy might also be thought of a great example of a twenty-first century punk, someone who didn’t feel he would be accepted in the world of art, and thought fuck it, I’ve got a talent, and I’m going to go out there and show people what I’ve got, by painting on public property, whether they like it or not. Besides Banksy, you’ve also got people like Simon McAndrew, who, in 2008, managed to bring together a group of innovators, logisticians and artists, to create an artists squat in a six storey Georgian mansion in Mayfair, and create the art exhibition of the decade. This all started one chilly night in 2008, just fifty yards from the heavily guarded American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, directly opposite the Michelin starred Corrigan’s, a young man climbed a ladder leant against the wall of a six-storey Georgian mansion. Clambering on to the balcony he was pretty sure this property was empty. His associates, stood below had, for the last six months, been putting tape over the keyhole of the front door and peeking through the letterbox to make sure. A push on the window frame gave way to a freedom of movement, which caused joy in the congregation of hearts below. This was not a robbery, but the first step in the realization of a collective dream, the establishment of an art squat, which would come to be known as MADA!, the MA standing for Mayfair and DA! standing for the name of the collective.
Besides art London is also the place for flash squads, groups of people, trained in one performance art or another, who co-ordinate with each other to turn up to a particular space at a particular point in time, to put on an performance, sometimes announced within certain circles, sometimes not. In 2010, a group of BMX fans, for example, mounted two BMX ramps under the Bow String bridge which conveys the traffic of Kingsland Road over Regents Canal, one Friday night at eleven o’clock in the evening, and put on a phenomenal show of BMXing. The police turned up, at first two officers, and then a big van, illogical it seemed given the van then reversed back into obscurity, as if the whole thing was some ill thought out bit of action in a badly programmed computer game. As the night drew on the numbers engaged on the ramps and the intensity of action grew. A sense of wonder began to fizzle inside of me each time an attempt to defy gravity was pulled off; each time two spots of rubber were imprinted on the vertical browning brickwork; each time the back of a hoodie came within centimeters of caressing the underside of the bridge. I felt invigorated; the mugginess in my mind displaced by the sensation of goose pimples, prompted by the cold and the excitement. This show was like street art, something, somewhere and some time all unexpected. Two young children from the flats across the canal, still up at half past eleven, were let into their front garden to watch. Overcome with emotion; they jumped up and down and screamed with excitement. I felt the same way. Furthermore, in the twenty-first century London has frequently been subject to flash dancing, where people, dressed ordinarily and mingling with the public, are, by the first beat of a previously concealed ghettoblaster, sparked into action, into a co-ordinated performance of dance, which takes place in and around unsuspecting members of the public.
The quirkiness, creativity and hipsterishness of Shoreditch and its surrounds is London’s biggest punk centre. There’s a whole host of offbeat nights out, distractions, alternative forms of entertainment and dress, which heavily influence British culture and fashion. One night I saw a bunch of guys and gals having a game of cricket on a street besides Spitalfields Market. They were having a right laugh.
There is something about the crowds in London too, how people swarm together and take over the streets for a while. Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass are two good examples, the latter, a few years back, deciding to occupy the crossroads between Shoreditch High Street and Commercial Road one Friday evening, leaving the motorists in a purple funk. A form of punkiness, which took place on Tottenham High Road, less nihilistic than the riots, occurred one year prioto the riots with Ghanaians and Jamaicans spontaneously spilling out on to the streets, to celebrate Ghanas progression into the last eight of the World Cup. Red, yellow and green flags out on the street, as if it was an impromptu carnival, men and women out, bass thumping from cars stationary, packed full of revelers, double decker, buses crawling along at a snail’s pace, trying to push ther way through the congestion, a happy porridge. Drums, whistles and rattles, in front of the Turksih restaurants and cafes. “Me born in Jamaica but me African, African descent, Ghana me say, Ghana me say!” celebrated one Jamaican man. On Blackstock Road, whenever Algeria win in a major international football tournament, the coffee bars are emptied within minutes, and there are usually fifty to sixty Algerian men, climbing lamp posts, beating drums, clashing chests, jumping up and down in unison singing 1-2-3 Viva Algerie. Its a soul refereshing, exhilarating, sense of unadulterated love and passion, and celebration of self, so far from home, in this dirty, miserable part of London.
Another example of the punk ethos is the things that people do for other Londoners in the virtual world. For example, one guy, an IT developer, during the Olympic Games, created an Application for Londoners, and anyone who wanted a ticket for the games in the UK, to receive regular text updates when tickets became available, for free, something which the organisers of the London Olympic Games had not been able to develop or devise, whether free or otherwise. In Audust 2008 London commuters started making themselves Oyster card wristwatches, which Tube bosses vowed they would not tolerate.
The purpose of all these moments of punk, is, it would seem, to create a sense of awe in the public, to give them something special, to communicate with them, to carress them, to bring them into one’s mind, to keep them company, to show that you care. Or that’s what they think they’re doing, but really they’re just doing what they f****** well want.