Photos of a London You Rarely See
We spoke to one member of artist collective the Lurkers about their new book, made up of photos they've taken while graffitiing the walls of a gentrifying city.
London is an awful, beautiful behemoth. We've been pulverized to a fine pulp with stories of its irrevocable gentrification and homogenization. "It's not what it used to be," we say, willfully ignoring our own participation in the loss of its charm. The city is rapidly exfoliating its grubby walls and cobbled streets and replacing them with bright, eternal glass and metal.
Through it all, a collective of artists called the Lurkers have been capturing the city's changes on a 35mm camera. One of the members, Fred Lurke, tells me they pride themselves on their "shared passion for society's underwhelming and under-appreciated locations," and over time have relentlessly hit up London's most hidden and secluded areas with graffiti, inadvertently recording the capital's aesthetic shift. They've compiled it all into a new book, Lurking in London.
"The book is something we've been working on for years, mindlessly documenting the rapidly changing face of London. We looked at all we've amassed and realized a lot of the buildings and high streets we'd photographed no longer looked like how they did even a few years ago."
Before I even limber up to ask why the world needs yet another graffiti book, Lurke interjects: "This book isn't a graffiti book. Graffiti makes up one part of it, but there are always other elements—an interesting building, a model, or a piece of clothing. Our aim is to give new life to the stranger places in London."
Looking at the photos, they certainly do show a less sanitized version of the city. Rooftops, abandoned buildings, and the underground are mixed in with shop fronts, estates, and suburbia. All of it seems to have a filter of familiar grime laid across it; it's a London that I can relate to far more than the one being sold in property brochures.
What's their favorite place featured in the book? "We have a special affinity to a series of rooftops in the Euston area as they provide a nice perch above the city," says Lurke. "I can't say any more cause it will make it harder for us."
Fair enough. Police have been taking ever stronger measures against graffiti in the capital, and maximum custodial sentences for "defacing private property" can now reach up to ten years. So you'd expect the odd brush with the law while putting together a project like this.
"Our first ever expedition ended in a rooftop chase with a helicopter," says Lurke. "A lot of what we do sits in a gray area of legality; we are mostly frequenting or painting in places people either don't care about or never see. Strictly speaking, it's illegal, but Ocean's 11 it is not."
So why now? What do the Lurkers hope to add to the conversation by releasing the book at this time? "Gentrification is accelerating at an alarming rate—they now call South Tottenham 'Soto', for fuck's sake," says Lurke. "We're showcasing a lot of buildings that no longer function in their primary purpose, so it's a testament to a bygone era. If nothing more, it will at least serve as a reminder to inhabitants of yesteryear of what London once looked like."
It's easy to look back at a past version of London with rose-tinted glasses. Gentrification has certainly had a negative effect, but it's also made some places look a lot nicer, if more dull. I remember the city being an exciting place to hang around when I was younger, but I also remember that I wouldn't want to walk anywhere alone after 11 PM most nights. Does the London of old really deserve such nostalgia?
"It's very easy to look at old pictures and associate positive memories with them," says Lurke. "People find it much harder to apply positives to their current situations. It's sad London is changing, but we have massive faith in this city and its ability to do good, fight gentrification, and regain its edge. I feel like our book is a part of that fight."
It's safe to say that graffiti culture is now more popular than ever. There's a cornucopia of Instagram accounts, Facebook groups, and websites dedicated to showcasing street art from not just the capital but around the world, as well as the fact artists like Banksy, Ben Eine, and Space Invader are now seen as cultural icons. The question is where the Lurkers can fit into that crowded market.
"Through the internet and social media, culture has become disposable; you don't have to leave your house to experience anything. We contribute to that—most of our content is online—hence why we did a fucking book," says Lurke. "It's physical; you can feel it."
London certainly generates plenty of passion in people, and that is definitely something you could say about the Lurkers and their approach to what they do. When I ask finally what Lurke wants to achieve with this book, his answer is simple: "Hopefully we will have done London some justice."
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Check out The Lukers's Instagram.