Brick Lane has long been a must-see tourist site in London’s east end, harbouring boutiques, restaurants and the city’s thriving street art scene.
But as the Brexit deadline looms, new murals and paste-ups appear on its walls daily — and it’s incubating discussion about the U.K.’s escalating political climate.
Other artists and passersby leave comments on the pieces to share their perspectives, or tear them off in defiance.
The public interacts with the art by “augmenting and changing it,” said Dave Stuart, founder of Shoreditch Street Art Tours, who has been leading groups through the area for the past 15 years.
When it came to Brexit, he said, “the handbrake came off and [artists] did loads of political street art.”
Stuart says he hasn’t seen any pro-Brexit work along Brick Lane, though there are some pro-Brexit responses to the anti-Brexit pieces.
A lot of the anti-Brexit street art only started appearing in March 2019, when the initial date to leave the EU was approaching, he said.
The U.K. has gone through three prime ministers in three years and the turmoil of uncertainty over a no-deal Brexit has caused economic, trade and immigration repercussions. The current deadline to reach a separation agreement with the EU is set for Oct. 31.
Given London’s largely “remain” voting population, Stuart said it made sense that most artists working in Brick Lane are anti-Brexit.
“Maybe [street artists] didn’t engage in it sufficiently because Brexit didn’t seem to be probable to them,” he said, adding that a lot of the Brexit-related art “came down the mine after the event, when it was too late.”
Most of the street art depicts pro-Brexit British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in comic roles, such as a clown.
“It was soul-destroying when that happened,” street artist Uberfubs said of the 2016 Brexit vote. “I was in an incredibly low place for weeks and months after. It was a total shock.”
Uberfubs, who declined to provide her real name because some of her work is on private property without permission, is Irish, but she also holds Canadian nationality through her father.
“I’d grown up believing that London was cosmopolitan, it was multiracial and full of immigrants,” she said. “I had to question what my immigration status was.”
Though being a street artist is something Uberfubs does on the side, she spends hours lino-printing skulls on tissue, foil and plastic, embellishing them by hand to add texture. The words “Scrap Brexit” are printed on some of her recent paste-ups.
Uberfubs started to put up her art in 2017, because she felt “frustrated” about the results of the referendum.
“Doing street art was a chance to get my voice not heard but seen,” she said.
She also regularly protests outside the U.K. Parliament in the evenings.
For Subdude, another artist who wanted to stay anonymous for the same reason as Uberfubs, street art is an expression of protest which helps him deal with the anger of Brexit and other aspects of global politics.
He does meme-style paste-ups of political leaders like Boris Johnson and pairs them with puns, like “Bojo the bozo.”
During a stroll through Brick Lane, the self-taught artist pointed out some of his old pieces that had been defaced and scratched off. But he wasn’t bothered by it.
“It’s a sign that the art works and the art has provoked something,” he said. “To me, it’s getting a reaction — and a lot of the time, the reaction is bad or destructive.”
“It’s hard to avoid the subject, especially as artists. Every piece of art is viewed with a Brexit lens at the minute and that’s really sad,” said Jason Gale, of Quite British Accent, who does penny art with his wife, Sharon.
After the referendum, they started leaving pennies on the streets for people to find. Some of the pennies had phrases painted on them: “Quiet But Angry,” “Quite Bloody Angry” and “Quash Boris’s Ass” — all a play on the duo’s acronym, QBA.
The couple said they painted on out-of-use British pennies because they hold a sense of democracy, history, value and change — all of which can be viewed politically.
The Gales ships their art around Europe and the world; with a no-deal Brexit on the horizon, they fear shipping taxes will impact their business.
Both come from artistic backgrounds but they only started working together after their youngest child started secondary school eight years ago.
“Our kids are now old enough to vote, and they’re really angry,” said Jason.