The destination for history

Graffiti of the East End


One night in 2013, graffiti appeared on a shop doorway in the East End of London. Not just any old, random doorway though. A public perception of what Jack the Ripper looked like appeared on the front of 29 Hanbury Street.

The address was made famous when Annie Chapman’s body was found in the backyard just before 6 a.m. 8 September 1888. Annie was undoubtedly one of Jack the Ripper’s victims and the location of this horrific event must have been known to the artist. I privately admired the anonymous kid that put it there; I felt he showed nerve, recklessness, humour and a real grasp of local history. All traits needed in one of the most ruthless cities in the world.

In 1888, chalk graffiti appeared on a doorway in Gaulston Street, East London. It was discovered on the night of the 30 September 1888. This was the night of the ’double event’, when Jack the Ripper was thought to have committed two murders. Indeed a piece of the shawl worn by Catherine Eddowes, the second victim that night, was found on a stairway just below the chalk writing. The actual words could be construed as anti-Semitic in an area with a high Jewish population, and soon the streets would be alive with people, the vast majority of them already highly agitated by the ongoing murders. The words were considered too inflammatory to remain in place. They were recorded for posterity, and then swiftly removed by order of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren. There wasn’t even time for the police photographer to arrive on the scene and take a shot of what was possibly a clue in the Mitre Square murder and could be compared with handwriting thought to have been that of the murderer. Of course it was possibly just the handiwork of a local delinquent who couldn’t spell. Either way this is proof that topical graffiti has the potential to be extremely toxic.

This was not the first time buildings in East London had been defaced in such a way, and it would not be the last. Walls around here have been adorned with unlicensed advertising since before anyone cared to start noticing. Not just chalk writing with double negatives, but huge billboards advertising the upcoming events in music halls, local news and notices, naval listings and of course the work of the local children and delinquents.

The walls of East London today are testimony to the fact that although everything changes, everything remains the same. 

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, East London, especially Hackney and Shoreditch were the playground of the infamous street artists Banksy, Robbo and their equally skilful friends. The area was still undeveloped and the blanket use of CCTV cameras had not quite stretched to the derelict, run-down streets of Hackney. They only had to avoid the drug dealers and the drive-by shootings and they could please themselves which walls were ripe for adornment. But as is the way with such things, most, although not all, of their work has long gone as I write this in 2015. Although it must be stressed that the tradition of using the walls as canvas is still going strong. Brick Lane and the surrounding streets are in a constant state of ever-changing art, and the standard is extremely high, perhaps due to the number of art students in the area, although they are surely not responsible for every spray can that goes into action under cover of darkness. The locals are still indulging in the age old past time. It’s arguable that marking walls helps them feel at home, whether born and bred in the East End or just a temporary resident, it somehow makes it their territory, whilst coincidently ensuring the East End retains its uniqueness, its walls of interest.

Although the East End is steeped in history, new chapters to the story are constantly being written.

By Ian Parson on behalf of the Whitechapel Society


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books