It’s a freezing Monday morning in London and commuters hurry past, heading to the warmth of the Bethnal Green tube station, as Karim Samuels introduces the history of graffiti and the artistic legacy of East London by pointing out stickers covered in tags. It’s the beginning of a thorough three-hour tour with the London-based graffiti writer and expert, who is one of SideStory’s insiders. Samuels, who trained as an architect and came to London from his home country of Zimbabwe, leads his group through an alleyway to see nearby work by Donk, Zabou and Sway. His knowledge of London’s graffiti and street art scene is evident: Samuels knows its ins and outs, the writers’ backgrounds, when the pieces were created, and its rules. “You never spray private houses or cars, hospitals, religious places,” he says.
Looking at public art is a fascinating way to discover an area, and—even for someone who really knows the neighborhood—a way to always be surprised. Samuels shows us a piece by Italian street artist ALO and then moves on to a low wall that’s been decorated by Portugal’s Vhils. Rather than painting the wall, Vhils has created a sorted of reverse relief by cutting out sections of paint to create a floral pattern. Samuels explains that many European graffiti and street artists come to London to make their mark—it’s a city that’s already spawned artists like Banksy and Eine. The ever-changing spirit of this kind of art and of leaving one’s mark is evident during the tour—several pieces have been tagged or partially covered with a new piece. But a lot remain unsullied for a surprising amount of time, like the angel that evokes religious iconography and is completely untouched.
Samuels has been doing the tours with SideStory for about a year and says the people who come to walk them vary. “It’s everyone from teenagers to octogenarians, and from all over the world,” he says, as we walk past an iconic Banksy piece that has been almost completely written over, despite the council putting up plastic to protect it. “He’s probably the only street artist whose work they try to protect rather than remove,” Samuels tells us.
The street art tour is one of many that London-based experience company SideStory offers—from espresso and brew bar tour ‘Daily Grind’ to ‘Interior Motives,’ a look at how British designers have changed London’s communal environments. And all tours are led by SideStory’s team of insiders aka art critics, artists and photographers, food and drink editors, creative directors and more. “We have found our insiders though our networks at Wallpaper* and Virgin, but after launching we also have people coming to us to see if they can become insiders. We look for people who are warm, approachable and of course very experienced in their chosen field,” co-founder Giovanni Donaldson tells CH. “It is important that our Insiders have been recognized by their peers in some way.”
SideStory launched in July but is already looking to expand, so expect to see the concept go global in the future beginning with more capital cities in Europe. In the meantime, London locals and visitors can gain insight into a city or a topic that they’re passionate about from a local expert. You can book a SideStory tour online; prices start at £60.
Images by Cajsa Carlson