East London — that is to say, east London, and not East London — offers the tillerman an extraordinary visual experience. From his mooring in Limehouse Basin, where, if you squint and hold your breath, you can still imagine Dickens passing by at dusk, on his way to The Grapes just round the corner from this terminus of the Regent’s Canal.
The Grapes appears, hardly altered, in Our Mutual Friend. It was, Dickens wrote, “… a tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver, who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.”
Surrounded by a series of new apartment blocks, like clippers heading into a strong north-easterly, the Basin is home to a handful of lucky souls rich enough to afford the steep mooring fees — the highest in England. For the casual visitor, there’s a 24-hour limit which we extended by another twelve hours after a chat with an obliging harbour master.
And then we were off again up the Lee Navigation which passes through the Olympic Park and a series of desolate industrial estates and along the western flank of several large reservoirs, the source of much of London’s freshwater, and home to tens of thousands of gulls.
But what intrigued this particular tillerman as much as the sights of the east — the huge building projects sprouting cranes by the dozen, the linear suburb of residential narrowboats tethered to the banks of the waterway for mile after mile after mile (the cheapest way to live in London these days), the cormorants, the swans and the odd mix of joggers on the towpath and canoeists in the water — was the graffiti.
Well, you know already that good graffiti sends goosebumps up my spine. There’s something about its iconoclasm, its fuck-you attitude, its streetsmarts, that intrigues and excites me. And when it’s done with flair and dash, well, you can imagine the effect.
Here is a sampling of some of the more colourful graffiti of east London. Some of this appears on the buildings and walls along the Lee Navigation, and some on the margins of the Regents Canal.
Here are some (more or less) representational images, rendered in many cases with skill and humour.
Plus more of the same:
Then there are the more or less abstract graffiti:
Then the more traditional ones, both flamboyant and severe:
And, finally, a message in a bottle: