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Last Days of the White Vans of Whitechapel

July 4, 2011
by the gentle author

For a couple of years now, I have enjoyed photographing the colourfully-painted “white vans” of Whitechapel – those shabby old jalopies that the market traders use as overnight storage, which you see parked in all the back streets. But, just recently, I realised that the imposition of the Low Emission Zone in Central London in six months time will see the end of all these vehicles, causing the gallery of paintings to vanish along with them.

Even as I have photographed them, I have observed an evolution in the designs and so, as we approach the final flowering of the white vans of Whitechapel, I thought I would play the art historian and attempt to trace the development of these paintings through the early to this late period, just as if they were Renaissance murals in Tuscan churches.

Keith, who proudly parks his painted van in Sclater St Market where he stalls out each Sunday, explained to me how it all began back in 2005 when, like many other traders, he found that his beloved old truck was attracting taggers and this in turn was drawing the attentions of the police who began to stop him regularly. Keith’s brother Des runs a junk shop in Bacon St – a popular location for street artists – and there Keith learnt of the powerful culture of respect that exist between the painters. “They’re a tight crew,” he informed me, “If someone sprays over another’s painting, it’s war!” And so Keith devised a cunning plan to invite one artist to paint his entire van, which thereby became sacrosanct to the taggers, and then, instead of attention from the police, he found that wherever he went people wanted to photograph his van out of admiration.

The notion quickly spread, because others traders had the same problem, and today there are dozens of these painted vans which bring the romance of the circus and the fairground to the markets of the East End – and are especially concentrated around Whitechapel Market. This unlikely alliance between the traders and the street artists has led to an unprecedented flourishing of popular public art in which the market traders, acting simply out of the wish to keep their vans neat have become unwitting art patrons - I call them, “the accidental Medicis of Whitechapel.”

Once this phenomenon took flight and the artists saw each other’s work upon the vans, then an immediate development took place in which basic tags were replaced by more elaborate and complex versions of the artists’ monikers filling the vans – possible now, since once they were invited there was not longer any need to be covert. As time has gone by, these evolved tags have been supplemented and then replaced by images, until now artists are composing each side of the van as if it were a canvas and their tag is only present in a corner as discreet signature upon the artwork.  These ambitious compositions – some of which are photographed here – that have begun to appear in the last year, comprise the mature and, possibly the final period of the white vans of Whitechapel.

When I spoke to Keith, he was eager to show me the new painting by street artist Eska upon his van, which is of the evolved mode, filled an entire side of the vehicle. Over this period, since it all began, Keith had his van repainted by several artists and has delighted in becoming something of a connoisseur, developing a discriminating sensibility of his own with regard to the painting of vans and always insisting now upon seeing examples of artists’ work before he will let them loose on his vehicle.

“It makes me feel calm,” he said, stroking his chin and tilting his head, to contemplate the newly painted green abstract with satisfaction, before adding in disdain,“What’s on the other side is too busy, all squirls and clowns – it’s like something out of the hippy sixties.” In fact, Keith had parked his van against the wall to conceal the aesthetic offence of the reverse of his van, which is due for repainting imminently. “But what are you going to do next year?” I ventured, “When all these vans have to go…” And Keith replied without taking his fond gaze from the new painting. “I’m hoping to take the box off this van,” he said, “and put it on a new one.”

There may, even yet, be a future for the white vans of Whitechapel.

Keith’s van with the new painting by Eska

Keith of Sclater St Market

Crow by Belgian street artist Roa on the door of Keith’s brother Des’ junk shop in Bacon St

Portrait of Keith © copyright Jeremy Freedman

You may also like to read

The Three Keiths of Sclater St Market

Des & Lorraine’s Collection

The Vermin of Spitalfields

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina permalink
    July 4, 2011

    What a wonderful record!

  2. July 4, 2011

    I’ve been curious about the story behind the fabulous market vans graffiti. I’m so pleased you have documented them, thank you.

  3. July 4, 2011

    the vans are an improvement on their original hospital white form, but they all full of graffiti artwork – there is room for improvement! in this set, the one with the triangular people stands out as unique (and perhaps the underpants painting…)

  4. jeannette permalink
    July 4, 2011

    the evanescence (sp?) of this, contrasted with what never goes away, like the old and new stuff the mud larks recover from old man river, floors me.

    i hope you get pictures of all of them.

    here’s a book about the 70s subway cars of NY, where the evanescence and the life-threatening danger of the moving canvas/penetrating the car park with your spray cans, was so incredibly valorous and gay, like a bullfight.
    http://www.amazon.com/Graffiti-Kings-York-Transit-1970s/dp/0810975262/ref=pd_sim_b_3

  5. July 5, 2011

    on second looks, i missed mentioning the malarky – that one is definitely tops for me!

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