During the month of September 2020, a special event took place in London. Murals were popping up every day all around the city, like magic. Even though it takes a little witchcraft to create something like this, there were actual humans behind it.
More than 200 artists from around the world flew to London to take part in the first ever London Mural Festival (LMF). The profound roster of muralists included Camille Walala (@camillewalala), Dale Grimshaw (@dale_grimshaw), Marija Tiurina (@marijatiurina), Gary Stranger (@gary_stranger), Zabou (@zabouartist), and Sr. X (@art_srX).
Laura Citron, the CEO of London & Partners, the international trade, investment, and promotion agency for London, said: “Culture and the arts are synonymous with London. It’s the number one reason that visitors come here. The London Mural Festival is a fantastic, innovative addition to our cultural landscape. It really puts London in the spotlight as a dynamic and creative city.”
Londoners have had a hard time in 2020 with COVID-19 affecting the lives of millions. Additionally, Brexit has broken the hearts of immigrants in this beautiful country and foreseen an end to the European Union as we know it. Having the London Mural Festival on the agenda was some of the only good news we received last year. Everybody was excited for this event to happen.
“To many more colorful public art in our city! More than ever, we need joyful art around.”
One of the artists that impacted me the most was Camille Walala. She is well known in the local street art landscape for large-scale, colorful interventions in public spaces. This time, she outdid herself by creating an installation that transformed Adam’s Plaza Bridge in Canary Wharf, southeast of the Thames. The vibrant colors and geometric shapes invite us to feel some cheer. I couldn’t agree more with her message, “To many more colorful public art in our city! More than ever, we need joyful art around.”
As a Londoner by choice, as opposed to born and bred, I have to admit that one of the things I appreciate most about the city is the constant contrast one is exposed to, just walking through the streets. Venturing down little alleys always surprise you when you least expect them, and you breath diversity through street art. What the London Mural Festival offered us was the opportunity to go out of our homes safely after our long lockdown and delight ourselves with a renewed city and a ludic adventurous spirit.
My favorite feature was a map designed by the organizers, provided on their website with an easy download option that located every new mural in town. It felt like searching for treasures, far more gratifying than Pokémon. I cruised around many designated painting areas then had a brief chat with Lee, co-founder of London’s Global Street Art Agency, and one of the organizing partners of the London Mural Festival’s very first edition.
What the London Mural Festival offered us was the opportunity to go out of our homes safely after our long lockdown and delight ourselves with a renewed city and a ludic adventurous spirit.
We all know that the United Kingdom is a place well known for breeding street art stars such as Banksy, Dale Grimshaw, Jim Vision or Sink. Given the country’s disposition to express its collective subconscious on walls, I was curious if this festival idea had been germinating for much time before it became a reality. Lee confessed it was a long journey to get to what we enjoyed these past months. “We’ve organised several local festivals before and we always wanted to go bigger and better,” he said. “We were talking about LMF a year before we started planning it, and planning itself took around a year too.”
Even under regular conditions, this would have been a hard event to pull off. You need a large number of walls available to paint and a government permit for each one of them. Lee commented on this matter: “London is a difficult city to paint big walls because of our architecture, and there are a lot of billboards all over the city. Getting permission for walls is not easy. If there’s one thing that does make it a good city for murals, it’s the artists we have here and the artists who visit!”
With upscale events like these, however, there are always complications that cannot be predicted. COVID-19 impacted the festival in a structural way since traveling had become more difficult and most of the invited artists were not based in England. Nonetheless, we were lucky enough to welcome them. Lee said: “Because LMF has been a positive story, I think people have focused on it more than they otherwise would have because it has been a little bit of a relief.”
“London is a difficult city to paint big walls because of our architecture, and there are a lot of billboards all over the city. Getting permission for walls is not easy. If there’s one thing that does make it a good city for murals, it’s the artists we have here and the artists who visit!”
Apart from the logistical struggles, the organizers were faced with even greater challenges given the national and international context. While the world was going through a pandemic, radical political changes, such as the United States elections and Brexit, became a reality. The urgency of climate change and the Black Lives Matter movements across the world showed evidence of a system that has failed most of us. In this instance, many artists came together to bring joy and color to the city while still retaining street art’s core of expressing demands for change, exposing social inequalities, and channeling messages of hope throughout.
One of the artists I found more compelling was Sr. X. He painted a large-scale mural of a woman looking holy, crying and hugging a Pokémon. The aesthetics of the graffiti transported you to the nostalgia of comics. I asked the artist if the relation between the elements had anything to do with the interaction that religion and pop culture experiences and what was the inspiration for such a piece. “I love classic art,” he explained, “so I wanted to do an interpretation of a Madonna inspired by the old classics. You are right, that interrelation is present in the piece, but I try not to explain too much the meaning of my paintings and let the people find their own narrative about it.”
If you’ve been to London, you’ll realize that it’s not like any other city. Every neighborhood is its own little world with defined architectural styles, different recycling systems, and a local library in each one of them, flavoured by waves of immigrants from around the world.
On top of that, the conditions of this year have completely changed the way we interact. The French, London-based artist Zabou has translated the feeling of isolation in her mural I Miss You in her own neighbourhood of Tottenham. She described her experience participating in the Festival as a “great experience. The team of the LMF did their best to organize this mural and I had the chance to paint it in my local area, Tottenham. I’m glad the festival took place and brought some new and local artists together to brighten up the city a little more. We need art, especially in these grey and stressful times.”
Zabou’s sweeping mural reflected a girl with a facemask and bright eyes, looking at a loved one with the most sweet hopeful gaze. I loved the details of the facial expressions she captured in both portraits, with the crinkles around the corner of the girl’s eyes and the slight curve of her loved one’s cheek emanating the warmth between them. I asked Zabou if there was a specific message she wanted to communicate and what her inspiration was.
“It’s a reflection of our times: it is about love and missing each other during the pandemic. Most of us had to be isolated for a time, separated from loved ones, and human interaction has never felt so strange and at the same time much needed. I wanted to communicate emotions more than a message: love, absence, and hope.”
“The inspiration for this mural was what we all have been through in 2020. It’s a reflection of our times: it is about love and missing each other during the pandemic. Most of us had to be isolated for a time, separated from loved ones, and human interaction has never felt so strange and at the same time much needed. I wanted to communicate emotions more than a message: love, absence, and hope. Each of us will interpret its meaning in a different way. The models for this mural, a real-life couple Camille and Aurélien, had such a beautiful expression and a deep connection. You see it all in her eyes. Plus, when I took photos of them, Camille was eight months pregnant!”
I was curious to know if this festival had enabled the interaction between the differentiated areas that make up London or encouraged people to travel from and experience more of what the city has to offer. Lee noted: “There are new conversations and meetings that have happened because the murals have been painted. We’ve seen bike tours, running tours, and families with kids going around the city.”
It created a moment to stop and think about what was going on around them and how their communities were doing through enthusiastic artists crafting poignant messages for all to see.
The pandemic prevented the festival from hosting a big scale event or a musical performance, but it gave viewers the chance to hop on their bikes and interact with the streets in a new way. It created a moment to stop and think about what was going on around them and how their communities were doing through enthusiastic artists crafting poignant messages for all to see.
The world is an unpredictable place now more than ever, but I was interested to know if Lee and their partners had another event planned for the future, perhaps even another rendition of the London Mural Festival. “Nothing planned right now,” Lee explained. “We’re just taking a breather. LMF won’t happen again next year because it wouldn’t be special if we did it every year. Also, it takes so much effort to make it happen I’m not sure we could do this every year even if we wanted to!”
It looks like we will have to wait some more to enjoy a second edition of the London Mural Festival, but do not worry. There are more than 75 large-scale murals ready to be seen all across the painted city.
Candelaria Barandiarán was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her passion for learning different cultures has led her to live in Hawaii, California, France and now the UK, where she resides in London. Candelaria has written articles and short stories for several publications such as Tundra, Argentina Cultural Exchange, WorldPackers, Chicas in New York, and currently writes a column for The Londoner blog “People Who Do Things”. When she is not traveling or meeting new people, you can find her in a vintage bookshop.