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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of Leake Street Arches in London

What is Leake Street Arches?

Leake Street Arches is a public art gallery running through a tunnel beneath Waterloo Station that features graffiti decoration initially created by British street artist Banksy in 2008.

Leake Street Arches

Leake Street Arches History

Rumbling with the thunder of Waterloo trains, the walls of the Leake Street Arches are unmissable amidst the dingy labyrinth of tunnels beneath London. Elaborate artworks, evolving like something alive, line each side of the lane. The range bewilders: enormous murals; tiny portraits of immaculate detail; personalised tags, or scrawled marker pen messages from passersby. In the early hours, the street is filled with the overspills of nearby bars.

The dawn chorus of London’s birds cuts through the revelry, and the soft light seeping in through the tunnel's north mouth occasionally marks the party’s end. The tunnel has held its reputation for fun since the 1920s; but debauchery peaked in those early days. For years, the lane was lined with liquor sellers, hawking fine whiskeys and cheap rums, gallons of wine and dubious bottles of moonshine. It became a go-to space for connoisseurs, keen drinkers, and crowds interested in watching the revellers go by.

The visual character of the tunnel reflects a more recent transformation. In 2008, British street artist Banksy organised the ‘Cans Festival’, a three-day exhibition beneath the station’s dark stone arches. Before Banksy’s arrival the grimy corners of the lane had sunken into obscurity. In the lead up to the event, the street artist said: ‘Graffiti doesn’t always spoil buildings, in fact it’s the only way to improve a lot of them.

In the space of a few hours with a couple of hundred cans of paint I’m hoping we can transform a dark forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art’. Work took off and diversified one weekend in May 2008, when he invited stencil artists from all over the UK to add their best work to the walls of the Leake Street Arches.

Leake Street Graffiti

A dark and brooding tunnel, formerly gilded mainly by nervous, scuttering shadows, became a hub of British subculture creativity in only three days. The artists introduced an injured buddha, a power-washed cave painting, and Pope Benedict XVI dressed in Marilyn Monroe's famous white dress. They sprayed grayscale social commentary and technicoloured surrealism, introducing an amazing array of styles whilst somehow managing to stay within the basic confines of the stencil art medium.

Since the festival, the walls have featured countless works of art, ranging from incisive political satire to portraits of cats sailing through space. In an inversion of the stereotypical misconceptions about street art as a genre, the introduction of graffiti to the tunnel has made it an infinitely more desirable area.

Banksy’s works, which routinely sell for millions at auction, have had a similar effect across the city. The artist, who remains anonymous, quells popular aspersions about graffiti, accusations that it amounts to little more than vandalism. Public galleries like the Leake Street Arches offer artists affordable and inclusive opportunities to showcase their work, and to draw inspiration from their peers.

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