Graffiti – is it art or vandalism?

Street art has arguably made a free and accessible gallery out of grubby old East London walls, enabling each and every one of us to appreciate the labours of gifted urban artists whose main mission in life is not only to imbue even the grittiest, most dilapidated and gloriously grungy edifices in our immediate vicinity with some lively colour, but to impart them with a certain real significance as well.

But is this really art for the masses (or merely mart for the asses)?


Art for the masses?

Well, where else does art interface so directly with our everyday lives, making us think, smile, or contemplate in sheer wonderment, while we have to do nothing more deviant than trudge along our routine daily paths in order to view it?

But are these outdoor illustrators expressing noble sentiments on our behalf, or are they needlessly defacing public space….

Expressing Noble Sentiments?

It depends on your perception, but who can reasonably object if that which has been created is far less ugly than what it’s covering up?

(As in: If I look better with skilfully applied make-up, why not take the time to put it on?)


Looking better with some make-up on?

As I make my regular treks along East London’s Hackney Road (usually without the oh-so necessary make-up!), I, along with everyone else, cannot possibly fail to observe how  those hoardings concealing the scrublands on that corner, where this east-west arterial thoroughfare intersects with Cremer Street, unite to form a mini-L-shaped open-air gallery which exhibits an ever-changing street art panorama.

You can’t possibly miss it.

In recent years we’ve had sunsets, tigers, pigs, crocodiles, exotic human faces, all manner of abstract murals, and the odd pertinent slogan to get our minds ticking over…

An ever-changing display

These days it’s the late Amy Winehouse who’s gracing that corner of Cremer Street. Amy’s holding a chubby infant in her arms. People ask who that baby is.  As he’s dark like her, my hunch is that it’s simply the baby Amy never had.

After all, doesn’t art present us with an alternative reality?


Amy’s Baby

But two or three paint-layers below Amy and her dark-haired cherub, there’s a picture that has stayed with me, even though it’s long since been obscured.

One Thursday evening in 2013 I was passing this graffiti hotspot corner while a lady artist was still working on the very image that would etch itself so indelibly on my retinas.

The wonderful woman was busy painting the very much alive-and-kicking Russell Brand. I side-stepped off Hackney Road and into Cremer Street to admire this street-painter’s depiction, to inform her I was going to see her subject perform at the Hammersmith Apollo the very next day (because she really needed to know that), but mainly to encourage her to keep up the good work for me.

“Messiah Complex…” she mused, reaching for a purple pot of paint to work on a subtle bit of shading around said subject’s face.

The lady was so engrossed in her creation that she didn’t for one moment take her eyes off it. She obviously wasn’t going to wax lyrical (no, not even for me) while she was so completely absorbed in giving that old wooden fencing the kind of repeat face-lift that would, in my opinion, serve to make it far easier on the eye than it had ever been.

I told her I was looking forward to seeing the finished portrait (almost as much as I was looking forward to seeing the man himself the next day), and graciously left her to get on with the job.

Besides which, I didn’t need to hang around a ‘mere’ painting for too long. After all, I would see Russell in the flesh tomorrow.

But from my vantage point up there in the back rows of the Hammersmith Apollo’s Upper Circle, surrounded by another three-and-a-half thousand folks, real Russell Brand is, as it turns out, a bit of a speck in the distance.

His Friday night ‘Messiah Complex’ stand-up show opens (and closes) to the rousing refrains of Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’:

“Reach out and touch me……”

As this resonant reprise reverberates around the Apollo, I am struck by what a great chorus-line it is to theme-tune a comedy show that tightly revolves around a ‘cultural icon’ Leitmotif.

Who would turn down the chance to touch an actual icon?


But if the sentiment expressed in that vibrant verse is meant to be a viable one for the here and now,  then it’s far easier said (or sung) than done.

Even the front rows can’t take Russell up on his kind and lyrical offer, (not least because he’s disappeared off the stage after the final curtain without doing a meet-and-greet.)

I’ll just have to park that whole idea of ‘reaching out’ for the time being.

Never mind, even if he was well out of reach at the Hammersmith Apollo, at least I could check whether his street-hoarding-counterpart was duly completed and vigilantly holding the fort just off Hackney Road on my way back from work a few days later.

And, lo and behold, there it was – a ‘Brand’ new monument to a heartfelt notion of spiritual revolution. That admirably focused lady had duly done her stuff.

So, having paid swift but sincere homage, in passing, to the finished picture, I am now at the far east end of Hackney Road and almost at home, when, in the rapidly fading daylight, I see one of those ubiquitous ‘Russell-Brand-Types’ – that you quite often see around here – coming towards me. How ironic…

…and yet no big surprise. There are loads of them in this neck of the woods – generically slim blokes in skinny jeans, longish hair straying out from beneath a beanie, shabby-chic jacket, beard, and, if you’re really lucky, maybe even a West Ham scarf thrown in. The one approaching has all of those.

I speedily survey him in order to assess all those non-Russell-Brand traits that this specific ‘Mr Skinny Legs’ will now – inevitably – reveal. Then I will quickly dismiss the very foolish idea that this one is real Russell – because it never is. They’re always either not tall enough, too stick-thin, have too straight a nose, eyes that are too close together, or eye-brows nowhere near thick enough (the list goes on). I can always reliably just dismiss these (poor) guys with a quick inward ‘Note to Self’:

‘Don’t be silly. That’s not him.’

But there’s something slightly different about this RB-prototype now coming closer to me step-by-step. Despite the informal attire, he somehow has a ‘supremely pampered’, rather than that ‘casually-neglected-jeans’ type look about him. In fact, this particular specimen looks like he might well spend a lot of his time perched languidly among vast and fluffy clouds of oestrogen having his each and every need pandered to by a flock of female fusspots. (As in: ‘On Fusspot Farm, there’ll be no harm, there’s oestrogen everywhere’)

Maybe it’s just the fading daylight playing tricks, and giving him that glowingly ‘cossetted’ aura, but there’s nothing about this ‘Russell-Brand-Type’ that actually isn’t Russell Brand. It’s all a bit too perfect.

So much so, that I can’t quite get my head around it. But I need to see a bit of real confirmation before I tear up yet another small mental ‘Note to Self’.

And there it is, the proof I need – this ‘Russell-Brand-Type’ has got Jemima Khan in tow, plus one very clean big white dog.

Only then does the penny drop, courtesy of Jemima – and her canine Brian.

Jemima Khan – actual gentry in what was, back then, still the considerably less ‘gentrified’ (I hesitate to use the word ‘rougher’) end of Hackney Road.

Who would ‘Adam and Eve’ it?

As we draw level on this north-side pavement, I don’t want to invade this man’s privacy. But neither am I going to just let him pass.

Not with that ‘Depeche Mode’ chorus still echoing in mind….

“Reach out and touch me….”

So in the split second that we pass each other I reach out and briefly lay my hand on his upper arm.

“Awright Russ” I say

“Awright darlin’” replies this ultimate ‘Russell-Brand-Type’, casting a sideways glance at me.

“Your Own Personal Jesus…”

The tune plays in my head as we continue on in opposite directions – me eastward and him heading West.

I wonder if he’ll pass the corner of this road where it intersects with Cremer Street and see the now-finished street-portrait of himself.

The Twittersphere soon confirmed he had indeed.  Describing the work of art as both “grotesque and flattering”, Russell was quick to point out that the first thing Jemima Khan’s dog did in deference to that mural was to cock his leg up against this most lovely and inviting bit of boarding….and dutifully baptise it.

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Now  you see him – now you don’t

The ‘WE NEED A SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION’ portrait is now long since covered up. In the absence of a paid curator, the nature of street art is, after all, but transient.

Thus Russell was painted over a few times before his old mate Amy eventually showed up.

I hope Amy stays around a while, to continue letting us see her baby.

Meanwhile, I’ve had my ‘domine quo vadis’ moment on Hackney Road, and, of course, I’ll never forget that night the artwork on Cremer Street corner truly came to life….