When the community play development work first began on the Bede Estate it was clear that the estates officer was keen to have some graffiti work done by young people with the rest of the neighbourhood joining in. PATH had already got close contacts with the well respected street artist Stik.
When the go ahead was given for this work to happen, all of us were a little surprised at the complete lack of opposition to the project.
Stik has a slightly unusual in his approach to his work. While his pieces are well respected and very well loved by those who choose them as their personal land markers, he also is keen to use his work to promote a better understanding between landlords, councils, police, young people and graffiti artists. He also has a way of being with people that builds friendship and mutual respect. He has studied Playwork and is a thoughtful gentle and considerate presence with children and young people. Like his stick people, he has a simple wise way with the world.
Stik was happy to come and work on this estate. He suggested that, rather than working on the hoardings,which are temporary, the young people would gain a greater sense of their own investment in their neighbourhood if they were to paint the shutters on the parade of shops.
East End Homes, the Registered Social landlord, had renovated two of the shops for community use. PATH looked likely to move into this parade as well, relocating their offices to be closer to a community. It was with the two EEh shutters that the project began.
The first morning was a little bit full on. Historically the young people on this estate have been viewed with mistrust bordering on dislike by the RSL. All their lives they have been told what they cannot do in the spaces they live on. I have heard many complaints about their troublesome behaviours turning the next minute to see from the office window, one of the ‘ringleaders’ helping an older woman carry her shopping. My experience of the children and young people had been a very pleasant one. Indeed the ‘full on-ness’ of the first day was not hostile rather excitable. Some of the adults were not happy with the eyesore that were being created, however as the work developed through the first day and the community watched heir young people and children working together, in their usual quick witted kindly way, they began to warm to the project. The fumes were a problem but we made every effort to keep the number of cans at a time to a minimum.
After the two shutters had been painted we were surprised to find that both Ritas the hair dressers and the Crusty loaf bakery were enthusiastic about having their shutters painted as well. The staff of the bakery even joined in the painting, though mostly they stood and watched and laughed at the kids work and antics.’we like the kids round here. We have never really had trouble with them. They are just like we were at their age.’
At last, with a little bit of cajoling we got permission to paint Cost Cutters three shutters as well. That meant that the whole parade would be decorated by stick figures clothed and accessorised by the children and young people.
It was interesting to see the number of times a Nike Swoosh or similar branding was added to the figures. Stik was quite clear that unless Nike was funding the artists their branding should not appear.
There were a couple of attempts to add swastikers as well. At the times when these were added, work was stopped until the image was removed. There were a couple of issues at work here one was the shock value of the symbol and the false association of pride in the community, the other was a lack of understanding at the depth of the significance of the symbol. It had transgressive rather than genocidal connotations.
The flag of St George was skipped into the designs in many subtle ways, and was equally subtly edited out. (It is curious that on this estate at the end of the road the tower of St Georges Church in Limehouse, the flag of St George flys from the flag pole, carrying a different set of signifiers.) This became a piece of game play between artist and young people.
This work was taking place the week before St Georges day, Easter and a little before the Royal Wedding. Having explored the irritation values of the national flag and rascist iconography, one young person said he wanted to make one of the figures Jesus, because ‘there’s nothing done for the White man round here no more. ‘ A brief theological debate established the facts that Jesus was not White, he was a Jew and that Islam reveres him as one of their prophets. The issue was not pursued again.
As the week moved on we found more and more friend s and allies .The parade began to look great, the behaviour from every one involved became calmer. The health worries connected to the spray fumes was managed better, where folks had to be exposed to the smell for any length of time, they were given face masks.
The press came to photograph the work and street art photographers and a documentary film crew spentntime with the artist and the young people as well.. The atmosphere was relaxed and in the end Stik was happy to say that he didn’t need any more help to manage the situation. The ambassadorial role was no longer necessary to ensure his comfortable place within this tight, protective community.
So on Good Friday, He painted the last panel alone with the children and young people to help him complete his works. The neighbours right next to the parade of shops are in the habit of sitting out in their front yards in the evening sun. They watched with mixed reactions. The initial hostility calmed down as they realised that we were working with the children and young people.
One of the close neighbours had been fairly upset and hostile at the start of the project. Stik and I made a point of talking to her, that was easy and lovely. She had a great new pup and we found it perfectly lovely to talk with her as we played with the dog. We became friendly with her. She was clear that she did not like the piece. However a couple of weeks later she called me over. ‘ I still don’t Ike it’ she said, ‘ But half the people round here do like it, and we all have to live with each others likes and dislikes.’
Bravo.That, I thought, was exactly the point.
Thanks to Stik and to East End Homes for the inspiration and hard work involved in this piece of building.