I was commissioned to paint this bar (Casa Blue) which is situated on the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End.
Now many people say that London is the hippest city in the world. And if London is indeed the most hippest city in the world, then the most hippest area in the most hippest city in the world are the areas of Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Brick Lane which is where this street corner is. But it wasn’t always like that.
It was about twenty years ago I first visited this area on a Saturday night, and I can assure you that there was practically nothing there. Almost no bars open, no shops open, nobody about, just the Comedy Cafe in Rivington Street which sat alone in the gloom, all very eerie. So the serious business of fun we see today is all very recent.
I don’t know why the gods of cool blessed this particular part of London, I expect there are a number of reasons and a fair smattering of just chaotic cockney luck. There are, however, a few things that may have been significant. In the 1990s it became a very a popular area with artists who have since become legends. Artists such as Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin who still has a house in this part of London. They were attracted by the large cheap studio spaces for rent which were once light engineering factories. And as any social scientist will tell you, once creatives start frequenting an area it’s not long before fashion follows.
A big influence too was the opening of the ‘White Cube Gallery’ in Hoxton Square in 2000 which suddenly put this rather shabby part of the capital on the map to those from the West End. In fact, it can be said that Hoxton Square was the embryonic location of the ‘new look’ East End and its tentacles of trendiness have spread far and wide to this corner of Brick Lane and beyond. Put simply, in the 1960s it was Soho and Carnaby Street, and today, it’s this knot of scruffy streets and bars.
As in all happening areas, it possesses a certain energetic business, a feeling that someone famous has just passed or is just about to pass. You can sample drinks you have never drank before, buy clothes you have never worn before, you get to feel just a little bit special and yes, a mite smug too. ‘Aren’t I great’.
Despite high rises springing up all over the place, much of the ochre brick architecture is the same as it was in the 1800s when Jack the Ripper was roaming these streets. I can’t think how it managed to survive this long. They somehow dodged the Luftwaffe and the post war planners too. It was probably not worth knocking down at the time. Thankfully, they did survive and these small shop fronts lend themselves to entrepreneurial bars, shops and businesses which all adds to the appeal.
If you enjoy placing characters in your work as I do and you want to get it right, you can’t just paint anyone for this area. Those that hang out here have a certain self-conscious coolness and way of dressing which is quite unique. I was drawing them for ages in doorways and on the top of bins trying to pin it down.
There is a hugely expensive and colossal effort in looking cheap and not giving a toss, if you get my meaning. Not just anyone will do, they even behave differently, nervously relaxed while drinking long necked Buds, glancing up and down the street and playing on the phone simultaneously. I did my best to get it all in.
I expect one day somewhere else will be the trendiest place in London though I feel it will be a long time yet.