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“Street artists aren’t interested in conventional aesthetics”

In conversation with our street art Insider
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SideStory is about opening your eyes to a different side to London, and seeing the capital through the eyes of a street artist is nothing short of illuminating. How often have we all walked past murals and graffiti as we hurry on our way to more traditional cultural offerings without realising the creative energy quite literally at our feet? Street artists like our very own Insider, Karim Samuels, see in disused buildings, bare walls and mundane street lamps, blank canvases for artistic expression.

We were delighted to catch up with him for a chat about how street art is inextricably linked to the fabric of the city.

And if you’re interested in finding out more, Karim is our SideStory Insider for the Go East, Writing on the Wall and Looking to the Future experiences. It’s not often you get to walk through a living art gallery in the company of one of the exhibiting artists.

You studied architecture before becoming a street artist – is there a connection between the two?

The city itself is constantly changing: it’s not a static object. Buildings get torn down, new ones get put up – and street art is no different: it’s in a constant state of flux, albeit at a much faster rate. A Winston Churchill quote comes to mind here: ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’ You can look at street art/graffiti as a human reaction to the spaces of urbanity. 

So the form’s non-permanence is part of the attraction?

It’s a very transient art form. It’s partly to do with the legality issue, but it’s also very territorial. At its very core I see it as that fact that everybody that’s alive wants to leave some kind of mark, either in society or on society. People want to be remembered. Whether that’s through a big landmark, a building, or a painting on that building – ultimately it’s to do with territory.

There’s often a very insular code that graffiti artists use to communicate with each other, partly because it’s not allowed. People who don’t understand it just paint it out and it’s often seen as a blight on the urban landscape. Quite a lot of the time, people who graffiti are not interested in conventional ideas of aesthetics, they’re just interested in communicating with each other.

As to the transient aspect of it, well, it’s something that fits very well with the time that we live in now; which is a lot to do with the internet. You scroll through Instagram and there are thousands of photos of street art from all over the world, so it survives in photographs that people have taken long after it has been painted over.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 15.03.05I’ve heard you describe yourself as someone who works in urban intervention. What does that mean?The way I see it, it’s a way of connecting art with place – you hear a lot about it in architecture. Personally, it’s a way not to limit myself to just being a graffiti writer or a street artist. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but one of the things that keeps me really interested in either scene is all the different ways of working, different materials, use of the virtual, digital technologies. There’s so much potential to be explored.

I see the world as a stage, and by embracing all these different approaches you can translate your work into different fields/ times/ contexts/ dimensions, and not be limited to one medium.

Can you give me an example of how you might use other media?

Well, take Banksy’s Dismaland, for example. There, he wasn’t really working as an artist, more as a curator, or even a spatial designer. Even though he did have a couple of art projects in there, it was more moving towards expression through performance art, for example. The way I see it, a lot of artistic disciplines are starting to converge – they’re starting to melt together and I think that the performative aspect in particular is a big part of street art.

Graffiti and street art are possibly the last forms of unmediated commentary and expression that people have today. Generally, people can say what they really feel without fear of reprehension.

Karim Samuels Shoreditch street art tour

You mention Banksy. Does street art differ when the artist is anonymous?

Well, for someone like Banksy it’s central to the whole persona of the artist. The idea that it has been done illegally and therefore that he has to remain anonymous is ultimately what keeps people interested. This goes back again to the performative aspect of it and this gives the viewer a lot of space to make up their minds about what actually happened and how he actually achieved it.

Of course you get ‘lone wolf’ type characters that will go out by themselves and paint alone, but collaboration is extremely common. A lot of people in the scene paint as a hobby: it’s fun. People won’t say it, but if you’re painting with somebody else, you know there’s a slight kind of competition. You want to have the best thing on the wall! So painting with other people is good. You learn from other people but you also try to push yourself so that you do better.

So there’s quite a community of street artists, then?

Yes, there is. But it’s quite fractured as well. There are cliques and there’s generally a scene, but it’s not as united as it might sound.

Karim Samuels SideStory street art walking tour

What’s new at the moment? Are there any particular areas of London to watch to see what’s happening on the walls of buildings?

Well, we’re just coming out of winter and it’s quite cold, so there are a few things going up but not that much. I think in the summer it’s going to really start to blossom. There’s always loads of stuff around Shoreditch, and Hackney Wick has become quite an interesting scene as well. There are some quite interesting things going on around Brixton, Tottenham – in the Wood Green/ Turnpike Lane area, and then Camden as well, interestingly.

Why’s that interesting?

Just because I think a lot of the recent scene in Camden didn’t really develop organically. There’s a lot of commissioned walls that have been going up and I think it’s due to the high amount of tourism through the area. I think they’re trying to resuscitate… well not really resuscitate, but trying to emphasize the cool, anti-establishment aspect of Camden Town. I think it’s brilliant. If you can walk down the street and see something like an amazing painting that someone’s spent a good few hours on… I love that.

To find out more about Karim and how you can continue this conversation, click: London street art Experience