The Cans Festival (Mark 1)

In late May this year, artists from a range of different countries (Australia, the US, Holland, France, Portugal and more) were flown to London to take part in creating the Cans Festival, a massive exhibition of stencil art.

The location was a disused tunnel in Leake Street, near Waterloo Station. This tunnel had had its fair share of graffiti applied to it in the past, but the Cans Festival turned it into a unprecedented display of street art.

The location was kept secret while the artists went to work over a period of several days, but once it became known where the Festival was to take place, hundreds of people queued for up to three hours at a time to see the artworks. The tunnel was filled with people, some adding their own stencils or tags to the walls, other photographing what they saw. For a sense of the massive public enthusiasm for the event, do a search on Flickr for ‘Cans Festival’ or watch any of the many videos made at the Festival:

When I visited London in July, things had quietened down at the site. There were still people visiting (around 20 people when I was there), but it was possible to take photographs without other people in the shot, and to stand back and look at the sheer scale of the place and the display (the tunnel is a couple of hundred metres long, and its curved walls around 10 metres high).

The ‘official’ artworks – by artists such as Vexta, Tom Civil and DLux (all from Australia), Vhils (Portugal), C215, Blek Le Rat and Jef Aerosol (France), Lex-Sten (Italy), Kaagman (Holland), Logan Hicks and Faile (the US), Pure Evil, Eine and Banksy (the UK) – were now surrounded by unofficial additions. Sometimes people had stencilled an image, sometimes they had tagged over other people’s work. The tunnel was crammed with images: railings and posts had been sprayed, as had the ground: someone had sprayed a stencil version of a scalectrix racing track, complete with cars, through the tunnel.

Some of the images were simply amazing. I’ve written already about the works by Logan Hicks (see the entry ‘In anticipation…’). Other memorable ones included this work by Vhils, a young Portuguese artist:

For a sense of its scale, try to imagine that I (who stand 1.78m tall) would reach eye level on these faces. And there were dozens of these amazing images: a fantastic work by Eine, a huge and delicate paste-up by Faile, several of C215’s faces, some glittering figures by Pure Evil.

And of course several works by Banksy, an artist derided by some but considered by many to be single=handedly responsible for popularising street art around the world. The tunnel had previously contained some old works by Banksy: in this photograph you can see a faded ‘snorting copper’ kneeling at ground level and surrounded by more recent additions for the Festival:

Of the several Banksys in the Festival, my favourite was a massive image of a hoodie-wearing, knife-holding, bleeding boy. The scale of this work is huge, and yet it is extremely detailed, showing Banksy’s skill as an artist (often forgotten in the brou-ha-ha that always follows his various stunts).

In the neatest of copperplate script to the left of this boy’s sneaker, it reads, ‘I am starving’. Many dismiss Banksy’s penchant for a catchphrase as glib, but I found that this work had a certain resonance, in a city where the homeless and hungry are present on many street corners. Too hard to do justice to Banksy’s work in this post: watch this space for further discussion of his work.

To see all these works in one place – and in the street, not in a gallery – I walked up and down, photographing, photographing, unable to stop smiling. My daughter, who is 6, said: ‘mama, I’ve never seen so much graffiti in one place’, and it was very true.

But I don’t want to overlook the unofficial additions to the Festival, made by the hundreds of people who came and stencilled or tagged their own words and images at the site. Here’s one, out of thousands:

I love this. I like to imagine that the artist perhaps didn’t have any stencils with them when visiting and simply borrowed a spraycan from someone, in order to spray around their hand.

And who, you may ask, made all of this possible? Banksy. Not just through his popularising of street art, but far more directly in that he paid the airfares of the visiting artists and covered the costs of the event, which many estimate to be a cool half a million pounds.

Perhaps reading about the Cans Festival might make you want to go and see it for yourself? Well, yes, you should go and see it, but in fact all of the works I’m writing about no longer exist. That’s right: last weekend a whole new crew of artists were brought in and the tunnel has been entirely repainted. Take a look at the official website here for details of the artists involved. Cans Festival Mark 2 !

How long will the work be there? I don’t know, but I really hope it will still be there when I visit London again in October. But if it’s not – well, contrary to those who seek to preserve street artworks by putting plexiglass over them (as has been done with Banksys in London and in Melbourne), ephemerality is part of the nature of street art.

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