One of the first wave of Shoreditch residents to spread their wings towards Broadway Market, curator, author and collector, Olly Walker opens his California meets Bauhaus front door, to a hallway of stripped-back polished cement, and a tonne of light. There’s casual mega-art all over the walls, resting against built-in bookcases. Wearing Birkenstocks around the house, on these beautifully heated floors, he’s been shaping East London since 1984, working on shows which celebrate everyone from Alexander McQueen to Ben Murphy and Wildcat Will.
He flashes back to his first days in East London, working for a design company on Old Nichol Street: “No one I knew drank around here - we’d go the Old Blue Last, or Bricklayers occasionally, but I’d get in at Liverpool Street station and didn’t want to look around…or stay!” Olly Walker had left Halifax in Yorkshire, working as an apprentice on a lathe in a factory: “It wasn’t working out…” He looks wistfully around his studio of Macs and minimalism. “By the 90s we had a studio on Hoxton Square, then Clerkenwell, and then Scrutton Street, which we started getting involved with street art stuff. We were upstairs with the tech to design with, Ben Eine was downstairs on the screenprint, and we were opposite Sleaze Nation, and the people that had the balls to be there.”
This is the Shoreditch where vice and poverty allowed creatives to live cheaply. Living in warehouses and old factories was a wacky premise only for the brave. The kind of people who painted walls illegally.
“We’d have FAILE, Bäst, Aiko, all coming in from America. Paul Insect, a whole bunch of people who were in the early scene of P.O.W. and Lazarides. I was doing books for JR and Vhils, their shows with Lazarides, so I got to meet the most amazing people. Their work ethic was incredible, and got me to be more involved in the art, and design, because it showed up the brands I was working with for their short termism, so I put more effort into the artists. After doing all the books, Laurence King gave me a break, being a designer on Guerrilla Art, then being the author on Stencil Art, Stencil Republic and It’s a Stick Up - and these books were bought to the attention of Saatchi, at which point they invited me to have a go as a curator, on the back of working on some of the shows with the Shoreditch artists - and that was always a great canvas. Now the walls have changed - and the originals stopped working in Shoreditch a long time ago, but Shoreditch gave me access to talent, and before Instagram, when paste-up and stencils were the way to get your name up quickly repeatedly and easily, doing 30 paste-ups on a good night. I would walk to work and see Shepard Fairey or FAILE was in, and nine times out of ten it was getting printed downstairs, so that carried on. There were quite a few shows in Shoreditch - independents - I did a pop-up on Kingsland Road in 2016, and I was working in Berlin, and curating shows there with Urban Nation, and being involved with them from an early point, and advising.”
Pouring a herbal tea, in the upstairs living space with exposed timber ceilings - which hark back to the old style of warehouses, before many reduced in size, Walker is not negative about change:
“Shoreditch used to be a big creative opportunity - music, writing, whatever - there’s a premium for offices now , and those industries can’t afford it - so the new talent are in apps and social media and advertising, which is creative, but not the creativity Shoreditch was renowned for…I’ve never been bitter and twisted about it - people moan on some forums that street art has become a career choice now - if you give them a wall they’ll paint a mural - so the art is more sophisticated…”
I look around his walls, the changing face of street art - the canvases, the complexity of the medium.
His final points are poignant:
“Attitudes and techniques have changed, not having to do it in the dark illegally - it’s almost become performance art when Futura’s going to do a wall in New York - and people crowd to see the performance of it. And some people don’t like that… without the threat of prison, and homeland securities, and making sure you’re not subverting people with your messaging - some people feel we’re losing the anti-government thing that grafitti was about…
Of course you lose some things through change, and other things get lost - like how we put it on the streets, the technology of spray paints that last longer - or the huge scale of the JR pieces - but you just have to go along Brick Lane to see the endless source of material Trump has given us in comedy, arts, writing, so that’s driven a lot of people out there - there’s anti-Instagram stuff…because Instagram changed the whole world of this, opening street art up, but killed aspects of message giving, and is far more mural-based now - the bigger the better - and in ten minutes it’s gone global - it’s a huge community - and spreading your name became easier, so I think we lost paste-up and stencil art to that - and the acceptability - you can do it on a wall now over 5 days, it’s an evolution- armies of fans searching out new stuff, like a quest. There’s a huge tourist industry from hotels and street art tours, which I don’t particularly like, but Shoreditch now has more hotels than warehouses, which is ironic that there are no walls left because the hotels want something santitised in their reception but wouldn’t take the real stuff. But mural is community-based, it does positive work within communities - that’s well-known, and well written about. I did a project in Lithuania with young offenders over 2 years culminating in a 7 day show, with kids that have been marginalised, like an old borstal system - it was enlightening, and the work I do in local schools around here, teaching kids to become young vandals,“ he jokes, “They love it as an art form and they always take it one step further than you’d think of.”