The Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway used to run from Newington to Brunstane to the east of Edinburgh. Opened in 1831, the line was built to bring coal in to the city. It started to carry passengers as well, and became very popular. It was known as the Innocent Railway because the trains were pulled by horses. It was quickly overtaken by steam-powered railways though, and closed to passengers in 1847. It stopped carrying goods in 1968, and reopened as a foot and cycle path in the 1980s. The Innocent Railway Tunnel runs for 517m under Holyrood Park and is popular with grafitti and street artists. The entire length of the tunnel is covered with tags, murals, and slogans, and some of it is political.
Tag: Street Art
‘False Idols’ on Leith Walk, Edinburgh
Towards the Leith end of Leith Walk is a long red sandstone building. 106-154 Leith Walk is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between developers who want to demolish the building to build student housing and the grassroots campaign group Save Leith Walk. In January 2019 planning permission for the new development was denied, a significant victory for the community group. New plans have been submitted that propose to keep the building intact and reopen it as commercial spaces, but in the meantime the shop fronts remain boarded up. The dark gray wooden boards have come to serve a purpose of their own however, as a sort of community pin board. Slogans, street art, and other miscellanea appears, disappears, and reappears often. One of the most recent installations is called False Idols, by Creative Electric.
The death of actor Sean Connery on the 31st October 2020 sparked a predictable outpouring of grief and admiration, particularly in his home city of Edinburgh. Not everyone mourned his loss, however. It was well known that Connery physically abused women. On several occasions he explained how he felt entitled to hit women who ‘deserved’ it, and his first wife Diane Cliento accused him of sustained physical and mental abuse during their marriage. Many people, myself included, didn’t know about this until after Connery’s death, and False Idols questions how such a man could be celebrated as a national hero.
False Idols is described as a community art project, and in some ways it is the literal embodiment of this term. It is made up of comments posted on the I Love Leith Facebook group in the wake of Connery’s death. It must have been installed quickly, because it was destroyed on the 4th of November, just four days after Connery died. It was replaced on the 13th of November, and I took these photos two weeks later, on the 22nd. It was still largely intact when I passed by again on the 29th. You can never be sure how long street art is going to last, and the more controversial something is, the more likely it is to upset someone enough that they will try to obscure or destroy it. This is part of what makes political street art so special; it gives people an opportunity to express their opinion in public space, a privilege normally reserved for those who are rich or famous enough to attract media coverage or buy advertising.
It is generally accepted that people say things on social media that they wouldn’t be willing to say in ‘real life’. So it is interesting to see the language of social media transposed onto the public space of Leith Walk. The comments have been anonymised, but I wonder how the commenters would react if they suddenly saw their own words as they walked past. Would they regret their choice of words, or their tone? Or would they stand by them? Would they be upset, angry, or proud that their opinions have been plastered onto the physical fabric of Leith? Would they even recognise their own words in this strange context?
Both political street art and social media provide ‘ordinary’ people with a platform to express their opinions. False Idols brings these two platforms together, with thought-provoking results.
The BLM Mural Trail in Edinburgh
On the first day that I arrived in Edinburgh in August I went for a walk up the Royal Mile. As I walked towards the castle, my eye was caught by a set of pictures and yellow ribbons attached to the railings of the Tolbooth Kirk. On further investigation, it turned out to be an installation of photos called ‘I can’t breathe’ by British born Nigerian photographer Jamal Yussuff-Adelakun. The ribbons are expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Scotland.
The installation at Tolbooth Kirk is just one part of the Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, a series of artworks in towns and cities across Scotland led by creative producer Wezi Mhura. Scottish Black and Asian artists have created new artworks in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The formats range from stereotypical street art murals, to less conventional photography and digital artworks. The project is “a call out to the people of Scotland to challenge racism wherever you see it – in the streets, in institutions, at work and at school.” As I have continued to explore Edinburgh over the last few months, I have come across more examples from the mural trail (of course I could just look them up on the map, but I think it’s more fun to stumble across them!)
Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013, but the movement has experienced a resurgence since the death of George Floyd in May 2020. I am interested in the ways that protest movements make their mark on public spaces, and I have recently written about the traces that BLM protests left on the streets of Brighton, my home city. The BLM mural trail is more formal than the traces I found in Brighton, but it has a similar effect; it brings the debate into public space, and reaches out to those who might not otherwise have become involved in the conversation.
There seems to be a perception amongst many Scots that racism isn’t really a problem here. Interventions such as the mural trail help to undermine this narrative, and draw attention to the very real examples of racism in Scotland, as well as how broader systematic discrimination affects ethnic minorities here. The first step to achieving change is to start a conversation, and the BLM Mural Trail is an innovative and effective way to do this.
Lennon Wall for Hong Kong: Solidarity in Melbourne
At the time of writing this blog post in early September 2019, there appears to be no end in sight to the protests which started in Hong Kong in June. The spark which lit the tinder was a proposed extradition bill which would make it easier to transport people from Hong Kong to mainland China for questioning and trial. People in Hong Kong do not trust China’s justice system to be fair and impartial. Under pressure from protests whose intensity seemed to take everyone by surprise, the Hong Kong government shelved the extradition bill. This did not end the protests however, as the bill had tapped into a deeply held fear among the people of Hong Kong. Since being returned to China by Britain in 1997, residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed a lot more freedom than citizens of mainland China do, and they protect this freedom fiercely. For the protesters, the extradition bill was just one part of a much broader attempt to strip Hong Kong of its cherished freedom, and they are not willing to give their special status up without a fight. Over the last few months, protesters have clashed with police around the city.
At the start of August 2019, I visited Melbourne in Australia, and I was quite surprised to find a wall full of messages expressing solidarity with, and seeking support for, the protesters in Hong Kong. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been: Australia has strong connections with China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and in 2017 there were 500,000 Chinese-born migrants living in Australia. Melbourne is known for its cosmopolitanism, and the city’s Laneways (alleys) are famous for edgy street art, shops, bars, and restaurants. The most famous for street art is Hosier Lane; it has become a popular tourist attraction. The solidarity wall is at the bottom of Hosier Lane, near the junction with Flinders Street.
The wall is made up of posters calling for support and explaining what is happening in Hong Kong, and post-it notes with messages of solidarity. It feels spontaneous, but it is actually the result of a piece by Chinese artist Badiucao. He created a piece of street art featuring Chinese leader Xi Xingping and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, then invited people to add their own messages of solidarity. A box of post-it notes and marker pens has been left so that visitors can add their own messages. This practice has become known as ‘Lennon Walls,’ which have appeared all over Hong Kong during the protests. They are now springing up elsewhere, including Toronto and Tokyo. The original artwork of Lennon Wall for Hong Kong can just about still be seen in the above image: it is the black text on the white background peeking out above the post-it notes.
I spent a little while watching other visitors interact with the wall. Many had little interest, others seemed to be interested in finding out what all the fuss was about, and some, particularly those who appeared to be of Asian origin, seemed quite moved by the outpouring of solidarity. I would be curious to know if this message of solidarity reaches protesters in Hong Kong however: do they know how much support they have in Melbourne?
It is very important to the protesters in Hong Kong that people around the world know about their struggles and understand them, which is one of the reasons they have targeted Hong Kong International Airport over the summer; a controversial tactic which risks alienating travelers instead of convincing them that the cause is just. The Lennon Wall suggests that the message is getting through, however. It gives a strong sense of solidarity and obviously means a lot to people from Hong Kong. It also highlights the obvious overlaps between street art and resistance; a subversive medium to begin with, street art is an obvious companion to protest.
Sources and Further Reading
BBC News. “Hong Kong Anti-Government Protests.” Last modified 3rd September 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c95yz8vxvy8t/hong-kong-anti-government-protests
Clark, Helen. “Should Australia Fear an Influx of Chinese?” This Week in Asia. Last modified 30th July 2017, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2100798/should-australia-fear-influx-chinese
Dalziel, Alexander. “Post-it Protest in Support of Hong Kong Backlash over Extradition Plan.” The Age. Last modified 20th August 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/post-it-protest-in-support-of-hong-kong-backlash-over-extradition-plan-20190720-p5293c.html
Sydney Morning Herald. “Chinese Political Artist Badiucao supports Hong Kong Protesters with Hosier Lane ‘Lennon Wall.'” Last modified 20th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-political-artist-badiucao-supports-hong-kong-protesters-with-hosier-lane-lennon-wall-20190720-h1ge99.html
Politics and Street Art: Brexit in Brick Lane
If you’ve spent any time in the UK over the last few years, then you won’t have been able to escape Brexit. Britain’s exit from the European Union may well be the most significant thing that’s happened in this country in decades, and it hasn’t even actually happened yet. Brexit has seeped into every aspect of life. Brick Lane in Shoreditch is one of the best places in London to see street art (and to get bagels!). The street and surrounding area has a fascinating social and cultural history, and in the last twenty years or so has become one of the most painfully cool parts of London. It is a hub of independent shops and cafes, art galleries, and gentrification. Brick Lane itself is an informal open air art gallery, covered in street art that is painted or covered over regularly. Street art is a format that often engages with politics, and the artists who produce it are not afraid of expressing subversive or critical views in their work. On a recent visit to Brick Lane in December 2018, I noticed a distinct anti-Brexit theme to much of the street art I found.
Vienna’s Street Art
This summer, I spent a few days in Vienna on a family holiday. Although beautiful, I found the city, particularly the city centre, had an add, formal feel that didn’t sit very well with me. It didn’t feel lived in, more like a model city than an actual place. There were some parts of the city I did connect with however, like the Prater funfair, the city’s lively protest sticker culture, and the street art. I quickly discovered however, that the advice the guide books give you about finding street art is not necessarily the best.
Dotted around the Museum Quarter of the city there are a series of Micromuseums, small passageways that focus on different art genres, including literature, typography, and sound art. They are the brainchild of Q21, which provides creative work and exhibition spaces in the Museum Quarter. One of these Micromuseums is called Street Art Passage Vienna, and its where a lot of guide books direct you if you want to see street art in the city. Whilst I like the idea of turning “simple means of entrance and exit to innovative art spaces,” I found the reality a bit disappointing. The space is almost 10 years old, and it feels a little neglected.
The main feature of the passage is a tiled bridge by French artist Invader (2008). His distinctive Space Invader mosaics are a recognisable feature of many cities. There is also a permanent typographic piece by Lois Weinberger (2013), which is visible in the above picture on the wall behind the Invader bridge. There are also temporary exhibitions by a wide range of artists (you can see a full list here). There are two vending machines, which are supposed to contain mini catalogues and sets of stickers that you can buy for 2 Euros, but the machines were empty when I went there. In addition, each temporary artists produces a limited number of affordable screen prints, designed to encourage young art collectors.
When there is crossover between the informal, ephemeral tradition of street art and more formalised traditions of artistic display like art galleries and museums, there can be tensions. Whilst street art is often associated with a certain urban ‘scruffiness,’ in the case of the Street Art Passage Vienna it just felt neglected. For me, street art is exciting and vibrant, it makes a city feel more alive. The Street Art Passage felt…stagnant.
If you want to see dynamic and vivid street art in Vienna, and lots of it, then I would recommend going to the Danube Canal, which splits of from the Danube proper north of the city centre, then loops round to the west of the river before rejoining the Danube further south. The canal is below street level, with a tow path on either side and concrete walls rising to the main roads that run either side. The walls on both sides of the canal are covered in street art, and there are also some sculptures along the tow paths. In the hour or so I was walking along the canal, I saw several artists working on pieces on the walls.
Most guide books and websites will send you to the Street Art Passage Vienna if you’re looking for street art in the city. But I wouldn’t recommend it. The litter, dust bins, and empty vending machines felt a little sad. The street art at the Danube Canal, however, is energetic and vibrant, and helped me to connect to a city that had I had struggled to relate to previously.
London’s Protest Stickers: Anarchism
Along with anti-fascists, anarchists are some of the most prolific stickerers I’ve come across in London. The Anarchist Federation (AFed) are particularly keen on stickers as a method of protest. At its simplest, anarchism is the belief in a society based on voluntary, cooperative institutions. Force, compulsion and government are not required. Anarchists believe that this is the only way to achieve a fair and just society. The Anarchist Federation is a working class organisation that works towards achieving that.
As anarchist communists we fight for a world without leaders, where power is shared equally amongst communities, and people are free to reach their full potential. We do this by supporting working class resistance to exploitation and oppression, organise alongside our neighbours and workmates, host informative events, and produce publications that help make sense of the world around us.
(Anarchist Federation, no date.)
You can see where I found these stickers on the Turbulent London map.
Protest Stickers: New York City 2, Part 2
Street art is everywhere in New York City, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. For those of you that are new to Turbulent London, I am especially interested in stickers, particularly those with political subject matter. So on a recent trip to New York City, I took my camera and my habit of photographing random bits of street furniture to see what protest stickers I could find on the streets of the city that never sleeps. This is the second time I have visited NYC since I started photographing protest stickers, and the first time I struggled to find many. This time however, I found so many stickers that I have decided to do two blog posts, hence the slightly awkward title (the first post, published last week, is here). In the last post, I looked at the different kinds of issues which protest stickers address, the different types of stickers you can find, and some of the most common themes in the stickers I found. This post is far less organised I’m afraid, its just everything else that I wanted to include!
Protest Stickers: New York City 2, Part 1
New York City has a thriving street art culture. Almost every neighbourhood has walls covered in art, both official and unofficial. There are also a lot of stickers, of all kinds- I spotted one sticker advertising a new novel, which is something I haven’t come across in London before. Lots of stickers generally means lots of protest stickers, and during the week that I was there in early March I found loads. I wouldn’t like to say whether the amount of protest stickers is increasing, or I have just got better at spotting them since I visited last time, but it certainly felt like there were a lot. I found so many in fact, that I have decided to split this post into 2 parts, with Part 2 being published this time next week.
Protest stickers are a great way of seeing what kinds of issues are important to the people of a city. Some themes crop up again and again, whilst other topics just appear to be a particular bug bear of one zealous stickerer (I am still looking for a less clumsy way of referring to people who put up stickers!) Stickers are just one of the ways in which protest imprints itself onto the physical fabric of a city, but they can also be one of the most long-lasting, although their transience is one of their defining characteristics.
Don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2 of Protest Stickers: New York City 2!