An Afternoon with Roa, Street Artist
With the change in the weather, the street artists are stirring for the first time this year. Yesterday I got a message to say that Roa – the Belgian street artist responsible for the squirrel in Redchurch St and the crane on Brick Lane – was painting a wall at back of the Foundry in Old St, so I grabbed my camera and raced over to discover an empty car park with a lone security guard sitting in a car. I expected him to ask me to leave, but when I enquired about Roa, he told me with some excitement that the celebrated artist was expected at any moment.
In fact, Roa had started painting the day before, evidenced by a pile of finely drawn creatures, a rat, a fox, a weasel and a heron, adorning the raw end of a building where an adjoining structure had been removed. Just as I was admiring this, a skinny pink-faced young man in a woollen hat came round the corner carrying the front end of a steel ladder, with a portly builder in a blue football shirt following up the rear. They put the ladder down in front of the wall and shook hands, then the builder left.
The lanky young man stepped forward to greet me, all smiles and offering a paint splattered hand – and I was immediately struck by an intensity in his pale blue eyes as vivid as any of the scrawny febrile creatures which have become his trademark. Yet in spite of being full of life, there was a gentleness about him too, and although I was immediately concerned that he needed to start painting, he was happy to stand and chat whilst puffing amiably upon a rolled-up cigarette. Then, “Alright, action!” he exclaimed, as he turned on his heel, climbed the ladder and began sketching out the hind quarters of an animal about twenty feet up on the wall.
As he worked, Roa maintained a pattern of drawing, moving the ladder along and stepping back to see the bigger picture. Yet he had no sketch, the composition was in his mind’s eye and the nature of the picture was conceived to reflect the qualities of this particular wall, which had a ridge halfway up where he was drawing a second pile of creatures – arranging the shapes upon the surface just as the cave artists placed their drawings to fit the contours of the rock face.
Contemplating the animals, all with their eyes shut, I wondered if they were dead or sleeping, a crucial distinction in the meaning of the picture. “Many times my paintings have been the last thing that happens to a building before it is destroyed,” said Roa,“ that has happened so many times. In some of those places you feel like life stopped at a certain moment.” I asked him whether his animals were sleeping or dead, “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug, before casting a thoughtful eye over his work, “I like to think they are sleeping.”
We were shivering in the East wind that blows along Old St, so I went to fetch hot drinks and slices of apple pie, and upon my return I was amazed to see a party of a hundred students with cameras emerging from the car park, all beaming contentedly. “They were on a graffiti tour,” explained Roa with modest affability when I handed him his double espresso, “so I invited them in to take a look.”
As the afternoon wore on, Roa reached even higher up the wall, sketching the outline of a heron above the squirrel with the end of a roller on a long telescopic pole, stretching out with it and twirling it down to dip it into the paintpot before swinging it back up again to slap it onto the wall far above his head, all with the satisfying comedic grace of a young Buster Keaton. Roa’s process is to outline his figures with black and then fill them in with solid white before adding the shading and hatching, using a spray can, that brings dynamic life to his animals. These finished works possess such finesse it is as if the designs simply sit upon the surface of the wall, entirely belieing the effort to mediate the irregular surface beneath.
A grasp of the dramatic potential his works is one of the qualities that makes Roa such a superlative street artist. Naturally, there is a tension in the existence of these wild creatures in the cityscape, a tension amplified by their monstrous scale, but, beyond this, Roa knows how to place them. You walk up Hanbury St and the three storey heron appears around the corner. You walk down Redchurch St and the ten foot squirrel leaps out from Club Row. Here in Old St, the effect is more subtle since the painting is in a car park, but the tip of it is visible from the street which will draw people in to confront the whole thing. Most excitingly, commuters sitting on the top of the bus will have a jolt this morning to see this huge pile of sleeping animals, manifesting the somnolent state they might wish to return to, in preference to work, if they had the choice.
For the last five years, Roa has been painting his animals on walls all over the world in response to a chain of invitations. He has only spent a few months in his home town of Ghent in the last year, and now has come to regard wherever he is engaged in the familiar act of painting as his home. Roa makes a living but not a fortune, doing the projects he likes rather than those that pay. Mostly, he gets no monetary reward for his work at all and commonly, as at Old St, pays for the paint out of his own pocket too.
“Even when the conditions are difficult, I really enjoy this,” Roa admitted to me, his eyes gleaming with delight, as we stood alone in the empty car park in the dusk, clutching hot drinks to keep warm. And after all this investment of care and energy, he is happy to walk away and leave his inspirational work out in the street, subject to the random nature of fate. “That’s what I like about painting outside,” Roa explained to me, dismissing his own generosity of spirit, “It’s not something harassing you every day at home.” In a few days, Roa will be gone again like a migratory bird – leaving us the benefits of his life-affirming talent.
(Thanks to the public petition – linked to by this site – Hackney Council have withdrawn their threat to erase Roa’s rabbit in the Hackney Rd and it is now preserved in perpetuity.)
Roa begins his second day’s work on the Old St mural by sketching the hind quarters of a squirrel.
Roa draws the squirrel’s ears.
Roa draws the squirrel’s tail.
Roa draws the outline of the heron.
Roa paints the body of the heron.
Roa paints the squirrel’s tail.
Roa works into the night on his squirrel.
Read my other stories about Roa
You can visit Roa’s gallery installation at Black Rat Projects, Arch 461, Rivington St, Shoreditch, EC2 until March 4th