It seems that a political activist can never escape political causes.
I was in London, England, Halloween week — my first visit after nearly nine years. I had no set schedule but planned to visit places I’d been to as well as explore new locales.
I wanted to photograph London’s famous street art and I’d booked a hotel in Whitechapel — a neighborhood known for a wide variety of urban and street art.
I walked "The City” from the financial district to neighborhoods such as Spitalfields, Camden Town, and Southwark. One favorite street artist is Roa, a Belgian artist famous for his black and white paintings of animals. The areas I was roaming (no pun intended) were rich with Roa’s works as well as art by other world-famous street artists.
Roa had painted a 12-foot rabbit on the side of The Premises recording studio/cafe last year. I’d read earlier that the Hackney Council (similar to our City Council) had deemed it “a blight on the local environment.”
According to the Hackney Citizen, the council declared, “The graffiti … is clearly visible from the road and, whilst it is not the council’s position to make a judgment call on whether graffiti is art or not, our task is to keep Hackney’s streets clean." Last year, Hackney Council caused widespread outrage by painting over a large Banksy artwork in Dalston. Banksy is another world-famous street artist.
Although the studio’s owners had given permission for Roa to paint the piece, they had been served with a removal notice by the Hackney Council, warning that unless they “remove or obliterate the graffiti” within 14 days, the council would hire a contractor to paint over the wall and charge the studio for the costs.
As I was photographing the rabbit, I was asked to sign an online petition to save it. The Premises owners were told if they could come up with 700 signatures, the council would review the order to obliterate Roa’s rabbit.
Travel a third of the way around the world and after just three days in London I’m asked to help save a piece of world-famous street art. “Where do I sign,” I asked. “ Julia Craik managing director of The Premises took me upstairs to her computer where I typed a comment and signed my name — joining some 1,700 others who’d already signed.
I told her that this reminded me of Santa Monica where our City Hall makes arbitrary decisions about hedge heights, mobile food trucks and signs. “I could just see our City Council declare something like this a non-permitted use and threaten to level serious fines if it weren’t removed,” I told her.
Craik said she’d replied to Hackney Council in writing after receiving their notice, but was yet to hear back regarding the fate of the rabbit. “It could happen at any moment,” she said. “We’re constantly thinking ‘are we going to come in tomorrow to no rabbit and a massive bill.’”
Tour guide Mark Rigney told London’s Guardian newspaper, “This art movement is a huge tourist attraction and people are crossing London and the globe to see the art upon the streets of Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets — areas which are often referred to as the epicenter for London street art.”
He’s right. It’s thrilling to round a corner and see a 15-foot rat peering out of a painted hole in a brick wall or a 30-foot tall stork striding across an apartment house facade. Even discovering smaller works can be breathtaking.
I left the studio and continued on my quest to find more art to photograph before it is destroyed, vandalized or painted over by clueless politicians who have no idea what’s really in their midst.
Update: Julia Craik e-mailed Nov. 10: “Hackney Council have officially withdrawn their threat to remove the painting of a giant rabbit on the side of The Premises Studios. More than 2,000 people signed a petition in one week objecting to the Council’s enforcement order."
Visut www.flickr.com/photos/claudelondon to see more London street art.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com