Under Waterloo station’s crowded platform and rumbling tracks is a street artist’s playground. A five-minute walk from the main station exit is Leake Street (just off York Street), which will bring you to an authorised graffiti area known as the hidden Waterloo Station street art tunnel.
It’s a hidden art space stumbled upon by locals and spread through word of mouth. It’s a permanent fixture hidden from view and casually bypassed by those eagerly seeking the beauty of the Southbank and the London Eye. It’s a space where the creatives come to express themselves with relative freedom.
I’ve been fascinated by this place for years, constantly taking friends down there during their visits to London. Without the art, it would be just another dark, dingy and dirty walkway but instead, it’s filled with colour, political expression, humour and unique design. It also makes you release that graffiti isn’t always bad.
History of the Waterloo Station Street Art Tunnel
The area was first used by Banksy back in 2008 for an art display with the aim to “transform a dark forgotten filth pit” into “an oasis of beautiful art”.
He kept the location a secret until the unveiling and since then it’s been a canvas for anyone with a paint can to come and dominate a space. Sadly, it no longer lives up to its name of “The Banksy Tunnel” now that his work has been completely covered over.
On my most recent visit to the tunnel, when showing a friend around the city, I was lucky enough to see three street artists in action.
I also had an opportunity to chat with one of the artists, Solo, who has been involved in the UK graffiti scene since the late eighties. He paints nearly every day and travels all over the world to do so.
London Tunnel Street Art Style
I asked Solo how he defines his style and what it takes for someone to stand out. Each time I’ve been to the tunnel it is completely different and only a small handful of the same images remain intact: “My style is freestyle graf which means I do not draw what I paint but just show up to the wall so I have no idea how it will turn out. I like to mark out letterforms and destroy them in the painting. Some you win, some you don’t.”
Was he doing this as a hobby? My assumption was wrong and I was really surprised to learn that this is actually a full-time job. My only prior thoughts of graffiti are from memories of my brother getting in trouble by my parents for attempting it (to be fair he had the skill) and constantly seeing non-artistic ‘gang’ slogans. Hardly positive.
London Street Art for a Good Cause
Solo initially got into graffiti through Hip Hop culture and loved writing on anything and everything, but over time has used his art for positive causes. His most recent project has been The Brixton Windmill Restoration mural on Lyham road in conjunction with Positive Arts, an organisation that works with communities in urban areas.
Not only that, but he also had the opportunity to paint the Albert Street School in Johannesburg for refugee children and the Ansty Building working with inner-city children in Johannesburg. And nothing makes me happier than hearing about positive community projects and charitable endeavours.
Graffiti for social good gets my vote.
I was told a piece of work may only last a few days in the dark depths of the Waterloo tunnel before it’s potentially covered over. But I got a glimpse into the feeling an artist gets when they finish their work and can put a proud stamp on it.
Maybe I can step it up a level and get featured in the edgy east enclave of Shoreditch – which is home to the biggest collection of street art in London including more of Banksy’s recent works.
The street art in London generally is constantly changing, getting bigger, more expressive and finding new spaces to fill. A good overview of the murals can be found in this picture essay of Shoreditch street art and for those wanting minute detail on artists and hidden corners, check out the recommended Shoreditch Street Art Tours.
Just as the art in the Waterloo tunnel is always evolving, these spaces create a location that is more than a one-time visit.
You can check out Solo’s work and more details on his community work in Johannesburg on his blog. His space in Brixton is also awaiting the eager art appreciating eye.
In the meantime, get yourself down to the Waterloo tunnel – you never know what you might find.