The white vans of Whitechapel
The white vans of Whitechapel have become the premium vehicle for street art here in the neighbourhood recently, in a similar way as the subway carriages became the focus for graffiti in New York in the nineteen eighties. Whenever I walk back after hours to Spitalfields from the Genesis Cinema through Whitechapel Market, I see all the vans lined up along the curb beside the closed-up stalls. There are always several dozen parked on Whitechapel High St and in the surrounding streets, belonging to the stallholders who use them as stockrooms on wheels. They can collect new stock in the van and then by parking at the curbside next to the stall, it is very efficient to unload onto the stall what can be sold each day. Naturally, this creates tremendous competition for the ideal parking spots and only by parking overnight can the stallholders be sure of their spaces. For such limited usage, new vans are not required, just something with enough life in it to make occasional trips round the neighbourhood – indeed there are a couple with deflated tires, indicating that they go nowhere. So the ultimate result of these particular circumstances at the market is a line of crummy old vans stretching the length of Whitechapel Market.
But some bright spark has the seen the unlikely creative potential in this low-cost storage requirement that became a parking problem. And the sad empty market has been enlivened by a changing gallery of paintings upon what are now “white vans” in name only – and by day the drama of the market itself has acquired a colourful new backdrop.
There is more going on with these idiosyncratically intense pictures than I understand, or can decipher, but their energetic, grotesque and humorous imagery, and the recurring imperative message to “GET UP!”, fascinate me. Sometimes, each side of a van has been painted by a different artist resulting in striking contrasted perspectives from different angles. Out of nowhere, these vividly painted vans have introduced an unexpected whiff of the circus and the fairground to the everyday market, which is the richer for it. While I understand some owners may feel their white vans are being ruined – equally I cannot resist celebrating these paintings as manifestations of the irrepressible imaginative spirit that ceaselessly seeks opportunities for expression, humanizing a mundane environment and delighting the eye with such playful work.