In the UK, social protests have taken many forms, including street art. In the past 20 years, a daring political artist has emerged on the streets of Britain. What began with graffiti, moved to stencils and installations, and over the years has culminated into creative urban exhibitions. Most of his work criticizes capitalism, war, and politics. He signs his work Banksy, but his real identity remains a mystery.
His work first appeared in Bristol around 1990, but there is not much information about his earlier days. Since moving to London around 2000, his signature stencils have risen to iconic status. With many of his pieces still intact, Banksy’s art has transformed the London landscape.
Yet, despite his fame, he remains an enigma. There are no verified photos of him. In the rare interviews he’s given to the press, Banksy has said even his family thinks he is just a painter. Due in part to his anonymity, Banksy has risen to mythic status in street art culture, with his legacy felt across the globe, but nowhere more strongly than here in London.
The Banksy Tunnel (as it is now often called) is the only spot in London where graffiti artists are tolerated to paint without a permit.
In 2008, Banksy hosted a secret event, “Cans Festival,” as a way to celebrate the graffiti community. He invited artists from around the world to present their work, amongst them: Vexta, C215, Ben Eine, and Blek Le Rat, (a French street artist rumored to be Banksy’s biggest inspiration.) The location wasn’t revealed until the start of the event – a tunnel, under Waterloo station, one of the most trafficked in the city.
The tunnel had been used as a garage for a bus company that provided services around Europe, before the artists transformed it into a graffiti mecca. It is wonderful to the point of fantasy, to think that while people were going about their daily 9-to-5 routine, something was about to be born underground.
This tunnel was remade into an art gallery for graffiti artists from all over the world, with an open invitation to leave their mark. The Banksy Tunnel (as it is now often called) is the only spot in London where graffiti artists are tolerated to paint without a permit.
It was a clever move to bring what many considered vandalism to the public — in effect giving the art form a whole new meaning. Banksy was quoted by the Telegraph regarding the matter; “Graffiti doesn’t always spoil buildings, in fact, it’s the only way to improve a lot of them. In the space of a few hours, with a couple of hundred cans of paint, I’m hoping we can transform a dark forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art.”
“I like the street culture that this place represents.”
Graffiti is by nature ephemeral, vanishing from the walls, either buffed or covered by other graffiti artists. The tunnel builds on this by allowing anyone to paint. No permanence, constant change, an infinite and dynamic canvas ready to be used as a platform to communicate a message, a state of mind, a feeling. At least, for a short period of time… and then the cycle begins again. The voice goes to someone else, and every voice has a chance.
What I love about street art, is the interaction it brings between people and the city. It gives neighbourhoods an identity, it becomes part of the landscape. Graffiti and street art allow the appreciation of art in an informal way. And street art doesn’t discriminate. The democratic nature of the medium means a homeless person and a CEO can both see and appreciate it.
I am one of the uniformed characters in a 9-to-5 office who works above this unruled, open place. Working so close to the tunnel, one day I decided to visit. Walking on high heels, my formal clothes indicating my place in the pecking order, a member of London’s status quo. After leaving the office, before entering the tunnel, I changed my heels for sneakers. With this shift, I started to feel more relaxed, more comfortable in my own skin. Although I was shorter than 10 minutes before, I was big on spirit.
He described painting in the tunnel as “a great fusion of energy with other artists, even if they’re not on the wall at the same time as you. Energy travels with people, and your energy is in everything you create. I like to absorb from other artists, a piece of soul from their work, and leave a piece of mine for the next creator.”
The tunnel was full of people; families painting with their kids, what appeared to be professional artists, some amateurs, art enthusiasts, and photographers. I spoke with one graffiti artist named Miguel. He came all the way from Motañitas, a surf paradise in Ecuador, just to get a glimpse of London’s artistic vibe. He described painting in the tunnel as “a great fusion of energy with other artists, even if they’re not on the wall at the same time as you. Energy travels with people, and your energy is in everything you create. I like to absorb from other artists, a piece of soul from their work, and leave a piece of mine for the next creator.”
As I kept on walking, I caught sight of a dancer, moving to a hip-hop beat, while a cameraman captured her every move. When I talked with them, I found out they were shooting a music video. Both Londoners, Isaac, the filmmaker, was raised in the neighbourhood and chose this location for the video because “graffiti presents a good visual for the video. Plus, I like the energy and the urban style here.”
Dxchess, the video’s star, told me she’s been dancing since she was 6 years old, and that she loves to dance in the Banksy Tunnel in particular. She explained, “I like the street culture that this place represents. I think it’s linked with what I want to transmit in my different representations of art. I have met graffiti writers who helped me make a logo, or a visual piece that I needed.”
…Graffiti culture helped this place be reborn. Thanks to Banksy’s initiative, this tunnel has become a regular spot for artists from around the world to come and paint, to dance, to be creative in all its forms.
By the time I got to the other end of the tunnel, my mind was racing. All the information I learned had shown me how graffiti culture helped this place be reborn. Thanks to Banksy’s initiative, this tunnel has become a regular spot for artists from around the world to come and paint, to dance, to be creative in all its forms. The tunnel links artists from different disciplines together, forming a community. As the tunnel shows, sometimes graffiti the only way to make a building beautiful again.
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.