There´s nothing like a good ole map-less search for illegal art through the streets of a foreign city to get you off the tourist track.
Call it my guide to ¨spending less and seeing more¨: extend your flight connection from an hour and a half to 48, crash with a family friend in Brixton, and set out on a scavenger´s hunt through one of world´s most expensive cities for illusive works of a notorious street artist. Arm yourself with nothing more than a transit day pass (5.6 pounds), a scribbled scrap of notes from a Banksy locations website, no guidebook or map, and a long-time London resident down for the quest. You´ll trapse through the heart of the city, through 2 ethnic neighborhoods, 2 gentrified hipster havens and an unabashed tourist trap; take 4 tube rides, 3 buses and walk an estimated 5 miles; pop into 2 galleries and 1 museum; sip cappuccinos on a roof-top cafe (2 pounds), munch on Jamaican patties at an Afro-Carribean market (2.5 pounds), and down some killer dal at a Pakinstani restaurant (17 pounds, with hella leftovers). You´ll venture down abandoned tunnels and crumbling back alleys as you tour the city´s sweet, tender underbelly, swollen with bright colors and pealing wheatpaste. And all for less than the Lonely Planet shoestringer budget.
Bristol-native Banksy has become synonymous with street art, his satyrical, subversive large-scale stencils offering poignant and humorous statements on politics, culture, capitalism. While his pieces have popped up in cities around the world (an apparent traveler himself), London is one of the hotbeds. The ephemeral nature of street art makes finding his work a kind of wild goose chase.
New Zealand native, world-travler and 30-year London resident Dave served as my gracious host and personal guide extraordinaire. We began at the Waterloo tunnel, once a Eurostar passageway, once abandoned, now a designated graffiti area. None of Banksy´s work remains, but lots of other bright colors and politized stencils fill the surprisingly clean, un-urine-smelling underground area. We rambled along the brown, gurgling Thames to the Tate Modern, sister museum to the Tate Britain, one of the museums hit in Banksy´s guerilla art hanging. We checked out the excellent Futurism exhibit (which warrants its own post), making use of Dave´s free +1 entry.
Our search took us through two once-funky, now-trendy gentrified neighborhoods, the Angel and Old Street areas. We passed a crosslegged girl working on a legit piece on the exterior of a hip nightclub, a one-time poppin gay bar that was ¨the perfect mix of seedy and interesting,¨ Dave sighed in bittersweet nostalgia. Amid the antique stores and vintage shops of Angel, we at last found a Banksy. Preserved under plate glass like the Mona Lisa, I posed next to the children pledging a Tesco shopping bag (of course, I forgot my camera cord at home, so you´ll have to wait for the proof).
We found another Banksy on a quiet sidestreet off of unabashed tourist trap/hipster hangout Brick Lane. The first half of the blocks we walked were wall-to-wall Indian restaurants, with pushy male touts outside jostling for patronage; I think they´d find more success if they employed the Latin American method and used smokin hot girls in skimpy clothing. The street morphed into uber-cool bar and pub land, and that´s where we found the most street art of our mission. My favorite was a collage of corporate logos composing the now-commodified famous image of Che. The Banksy we found was several blocks from the hubbub, a painter sitting next to a large yellow flower. The words ¨vandals found vandalising this vandalism will be prosecuted¨ appeared right beside the large spray of paint covering the stencil´s face.
One of my visit´s sub-missions was to find one of those Cockney ATMs; while that searched proved unfruitful, it did bring us to bomb-ass Tayab, a Pakistani restaurant doing a cafeteria-style smorgasborg for Ramadan. I wisely stocked up on minced meat pastries for my next day´s flight, as well as enough leftovers for a spicy breakfast.
Another culinary and culture highlight was our next morning´s stroll through the Brixton Market, the pulsing heart of the Afro-Carribean Brixton neighborhood. African flags and fabrics, produce-selling mom and pops, Bob Marley tapestries, Obama t-shirts, Rasta onesies and pot-leaf-adorned everythings filled with multi-block indoor/outdoor bazaar of bad-assedness. There wasn´t a single corporate logo in sight, and as I sipped on a Buffalo-milk cappuccino and watched passerbys, I couldn´t help but feel my 48-hour powertour had provided me with a pretty good glimpse of the London in which locals live, graffiti-adorned, cumin-scented and throbbing with life.