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More White Vans of Whitechapel

May 31, 2010
by the gentle author

Ever since I wrote about the white vans of Whitechapel last year, I have been keeping an expectant eye on the market because you never know when the next masterpiece will appear. The market traders use these shabby vans as overnight storage and they do not travel far beyond Whitechapel. In fact, many sit upon deflated tyres and have not moved an inch since I wrote my first appraisal of this unlikely gallery of paintings six months ago.

With the keen eye of a collector, I am now photographing these colourful works whenever I discover new ones, to create an archive for your pleasure – and today I am publishing the fruits of my recent fieldwork.

Night and day, you see the parade of vans parked along the curb in the Whitechapel Rd, next to the pitches of the respective traders. By day, the images upon the vans are only visible to drivers and those on the Royal London Hospital side of the street, because the stalls obscure them from visitors to the market. But by night, the extraordinary gallery of ramshackle painted vans lined up becomes apparent to everyone. If you did not know, you might think that the travelling circus had come to town. You might expect them to burst open, and see cartoon characters, clowns and stilt walkers erupt upon Whitechapel.

A chance conversation yesterday with a fruit and vegetable seller revealed the origin of this flourishing phenomenon. Proud of his own livery, with two fine owls emblazoned upon his rear shutter, he me told the story. Many of the traders were frustrated by the proliferation of tags sprayed upon their vans but, when an artist asked for permission to paint upon a van, with visionary foresight, the trader in question consented – as long as the artist covered the entire van. He recognised the code of respect between street artists and taggers, so that once his vans was painted with an elaborate design, the taggers would not deface it. And for the most part, this etiquette has been upheld, encouraging more traders to offer their vans as canvasses to street artists.

Already, a proliferation of the painted vans has taken place – with several in Bethnal Green Market, and two sad vans in Sclater St Market, that were going nowhere, have been given the treatment too. The notion has spread beyond box vans now, with the first painted mini van spotted in Bethnal Green recently, and there is a lovely painted trailer in Whitechapel Market that is a tour de force.

There is a sensuous glory in colour that all these paintings share, along with an exuberant carnival energy that is especially winning when manifest in exultations to “Get Up!” and “Get Busy!” The significance of the imagery is an intriguing mystery to me – a curious amalgam of owls, clothes pegs and characters sprung from manga cartoons – but the boggling eyes and sparkling teeth rendered in such dramatic colour contrasts ensure these vans have a vibrant presence in the cityscape. And on the odd occasion when I have come upon them unexpectedly, parked in a dull side street, they have always caused my heart to leap in delight.

No longer in conflict, the traders, taggers and street artists have become artistic collaborators, through an imaginative solution that satisfies all and the result is a flowering of street art that brings wit, drama and romance to a scruffy old market. All presided over by the traders themselves, who have become unintentional patrons of art, the accidental Medicis of Whitechapel Market.

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