Can street art act as alternative historical markers to re-imagine the past (and future) of our cities’ spaces, buildings and inhabitants?
Anyone who has walked through the streets of London will have spotted at least one of the hundreds of neat blue plaques marking the history of the city’s buildings and its more celebrated inhabitants. From the former homes of Karl Marx, Sylvia Pankhurst and Charles Dickens to the site of the first public television broadcast in 1936, these plaques serve as permanent reminders of the city’s ‘text-book’ past.
The government until last year funded the main scheme, which has been running in London since the nineteenth century. Similar commemorative plaque schemes exist in cities around the world, such as Paris, Moscow and Rome. Yet while these plaques are themselves part of the history of our cities and tell an important story, their reach and impact is limited. Not only do they often overlook the seemingly more mundane buildings and lesser-known figures who have lived behind their walls, they do little to stimulate engagement with the past.
Street art is challenging this official history, offering an alternative, more dynamic version of the tired blue plaques. Across London, artists are re-imagining the history (and future) of our public spaces, buildings and inhabitants. Whether it’s re-creating a lost local landmark, bringing back a figure from the past or using ordinary buildings as canvases to interpret and reflect the history of communities, these artworks can speak louder than any written equivalents.
Tucked down a quiet street of grey terraced houses in north London and overlooking an allotment is the Palace Gates Project, a street-art recreation of the former, otherwise forgotten, train station of the same name that once stood near the site. The brainchild of Turnpike Art Group (TAG), the project is described as a ‘platform to the past’. And that is exactly what it is. Schemes like this are vital for preserving the history of lesser-known areas. As TAG notes on its website, one of the group’s key interests is ‘the heritage which forms the foundations for our cities, and its citizens’. Local councils and communities are picking up on this idea and working with groups like TAG to create alternative historical markers, contributing to the collective memory of these urban spaces.
TAG-affiliated street artist STEWY is the man behind another of London’s alternative blue plaques. Standing proud against a side wall of New Unity Church in Stoke Newington, north London, is a Banksy-esque portrait of the eighteenth-century radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who used to live and work in the area. While Wollstonecraft is today celebrated as a great historical figure, and has her very own blue (and brown) plaques to prove it, the 2013 portrait does much more to spark interest and discussion. In an interview with local paper the Hackney Post STEWY referred to the artwork’s potential to ‘make a younger generation aware of the past and important female icons’.
This focus on the younger generation is vital. These are the people who will decide the future of our streets and buildings in years to come. By engaging them with the past through schemes like the Palace Gates Project, we are helping to preserve our heritage and showing that even local train stations and social housing blocks have as many, if not more, stories to tell as the former houses of ‘the great and the good’. Street art has been telling and preserving these stories for decades, turning drab tower blocks into vibrant social and political tapestries. These are the ordinary buildings that would never otherwise be deemed worthy of a blue plaque.
Street art is also being used to challenge, and hopefully change, the future of our cities’ buildings. Last year the UK’s tallest street artwork appeared on the side of a condemned tower block in Acton, west London. The mural, entitled ‘Big Mother’, stands 38.2 metres tall and is the work of London-based artist Stik. It depicts a child clinging to its mother, both staring forlornly from their soon-to-be demolished council block at the fancy, new apartment buildings springing up around them. Painted in Stik’s characteristic stick figure style against a yellow background, the mural is a symbol of solidarity for those fighting against the destruction of the building and affordable housing in general.
The Acton tower block is due for demolition in 2016. If the plans go ahead, the mural will come tumbling down with it. Yet far from rendering it irrelevant, the temporal nature of ‘Big Mother’ as a piece of street art further serves to reflect the uncertain future of the building and its residents. The temporality associated with street art also captures the essence of the city as a whole. In a space where everything is in a state of flux, it seems more fitting to remember those who passed through its buildings using the medium of street art than more permanent, restrictive markers such as blue plaques. Finally, the subversive nature of these alternative markers embodies the stories and lives of the people and buildings otherwise overlooked by the city’s official history. As Martin Irvine notes, ‘a well-placed street piece will reveal the meaning of its material context, making the invisible visible again, a city re-imaged and re-imagined’.