The Sacred Crane, The Flayed Pig & The Mighty Hedgehog
Hanbury St, May 2010.
Hanbury St, May 2012.
I shall never forget how my heart leapt with delight when I saw Roa, the Belgian street artist, painting his forty-foot crane in Hanbury St two years ago. Originally intended as a heron, Roa changed his design while it was still a work-in-progress after Bengali people asked if it was a crane, a bird that is sacred to them and to many other cultures around the world. Since then, Roa’s crane has presided benignly over Brick Lane, becoming a landmark, an embodiment of the soul of the place and an object of pilgrimage, as thousands have come to photograph it.
Yet my moment of delight was countered this week by a moment of dismay to see a man installing a huge banner of ugly corporate-style design announcing “Banglatown, Brick Lane, Curry Capital 2012,” obliterating the heron save for the tip of its beak and its tail. The banner is spectacularly pointless, since once you can see it you are already in the midst of the curry restaurants, and it reflects shamefully upon the currymongers that they should demonstrate such hubris as to sacrifice the celebrated work of an internationally famous artist in this way.
As he always does, Roa was conscientious in seeking the consent of the owner of the building before he undertook his painting, which has proved itself to be an exemplary piece of street art by enlivening its immediate environment and bringing poetry to this neglected corner of Spitalfields. By contrast, those who installed the obnoxious banner did not obtain approval from the owner of the building. But – worse than this – in their haste, they put it up without waiting until planning permission had been given or any public consultation undertaken, showing no respect for due process or the wishes of the inhabitants of Spitalfields who are paying for the offending banner through their council tax.
Meanwhile, an online petition to remove the banner and uncover the crane has reached over a thousand signatures in just two days, as some measure of the widespread affection in which this painting is held. And, given that the planning decision on this banner is not due until after May 29th, there are likely to be more than a few objections before then. With painful irony, a covering letter attached to the planning application for the miserable banner proposes that it will “encourage footfall” and informs us that it was “designed by the council’s in-house team with a knowledge and understanding of the local community.” It took two thousand signatures on a petition to persuade Hackney Council to grant a reprieve for Roa’s Rabbit in the Hackney Rd and I suspect we shall see a similar scenario played out in Spitalfields over coming weeks.
This spring, Roa returned to undertake two new paintings in the neighbourhood, a flayed pig on Buxton St and a mighty hedgehog on Chance St. The hedgehog takes the place of the squirrel one hundred yards away in Club Row, the first of his finely-drawn creatures Roa painted in the East End in the autumn of 2009. Such is the popularity of this work that locals now refer to photographers as “squirrel snappers” And, even though the squirrel has been damaged by a series of tags painted across it, the new hedgehog more than makes up for this loss in terms of scale and presence. At the end of Chance St where it meets the Bethnal Green Rd, the hedgehog waits eternally poised to cross the road.
The genius of Roa’s work is to evoke creatures possessing such febrile life that they confront us with our relationship to the natural world, which we can easily forget in the city. His huge animals become the familiar spirits of the places they inhabit and we love them for the ambivalent natures, simultaneously appealing and threatening, yet always drawing our respect.
The flayed pig on Buxton St.
The mighty hedgehog on Chance St.
A little dog crosses the road to see the hedgehog.
Two thousand people signed the petition to prevent Hackney Council painting over Roa’s rabbit in the Hackney Rd in 2010.
Roa’s squirrel on Club Row in autumn 2009, sadly covered by tags today.
You can sign the petition to remove the banner covering Roa’s crane here.
The planning application for the banner is on the Tower Hamlets Council website here.
You can register formal objections to the planning application for the banner by leaving your comments here.
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