Street art, by its very nature is ephemeral. That's part of its appeal. Some streets can look very different with each visit, as one mural is replaced by another, and then another.
Occasionally, pieces hang around longer than normal and become a seemingly fixed part of the streetscape. We remember them. We smile at them like old friends. We navigate by them.
And then they're gone, and a small part of London's cultural and visual history is no more. There should be a museum of this stuff, if only there was anything left to exhibit. Instead, here are seven examples from a decade or more ago that we still remember fondly. What would you add to the list?
Banksy was synonymous with street art in the noughties (and, to some extent, still is). Most of his larger works have now disappeared or been defaced to the point of ruin. One of our favourites was the stony-faced maid who appeared to lift up part of the wall to hide her sweepings (see photo above).
The iconic image decorated a wall in Chalk Farm for several years. It was briefly defaced in 2008 (on the same night as the Camden Market fire), before being restored, only to give way to a community mural around the turn of the decade (which has itself now been obliterated).
A second version of the maid briefly appeared on the wall of Hoxton's White Cube, but was quickly whitewashed.
Stik's Acton giants
Not many works of art peer down from above the tree line, but such was the scale of this mural that it could be seen from all over the neighbourhood. "Big Mother" was a 13-storey image created in Acton by ubiquitous artist Stik. It was surely one of the country's largest works of art.
Sadly, Charles Hocking House was torn down a few years ago, along with its landmark mural. As Stik told us at the time, "'Big Mother' represents vulnerable families and the need for public housing. The destruction of the public housing block it was painted on only adds to its meaning."
Around 2010, Belgian street artist Roa covered east London in critters. They were everywhere. The flea of Great Eastern Street, the hare of Hackney Road, the pig of Bacon Street, and many, many more. We even made a map of the mural menagerie.
Sadly, the lion's share have now vanished. You can still find the occasional Roa works here and there, including a few later murals in south London, and a wonderful mustelid and bird in Walthamstow. But these are endangered species compared to the brickwork bestiary of yore.
Sclater Street connects Brick Lane to Boxpark. It was once an epicentre of street art, until modern developments largely broke up the run of half-abandoned buildings. One of the most impressive — and Instagrammed — pieces to decorate this stretch was this mural of Usain Bolt created in the Olympic year of 2012. The artist behind this masterpiece is Jimmy C, most famous for his Bankside portrait of Shakespeare. Sadly, the work only lasted a year before Bolt bolted. The site has now been redeveloped into flats.
Oscar the Grouch
It wasn't the best handled bit of street art, nor impressive in dimension, but Oscar the Grouch was a much-loved bit of New York right here in London. The mankiest Muppet oversaw a real set of bins (or trash cans, to keep the theme) close to where Old Street bifurcates into Great Eastern Street. Our photo's from 2006, and you can just about see him in the earliest Street View image from 2008, blissfully lurking behind a street urinal. Oscar had been trashed by 2009. His co-star the Cookie Monster also had a shutter space nearby on Braithwaite Street, until painted over in 2020.
Remember these fellows? If you sat on the top deck of a bus between about 2006 and 2011, then you can't have missed them. For years, half of east London's bus shelters were topped with the colourful tubers, impregnated with cocktail sticks. If you search the interwebs, you'll find various names associated with the creative prank, but we'd rather think about it all as an unsolved enigma. The colourful spuds petered out as we entered the 2010s, but recent sightings suggest they may be sprouting once again.
Give Peas A Chance
From spuds to peas. This one's more graffiti than street art, but the famous M25 slogan deserves an honourable mention because of its phenomenal back story. The writing was originally a tag for graffiti writer PEAS. It was then adapted to say "Give PEAS a chance", in which punning form it undoubtedly became the most-viewed piece of graffiti in London's history (given that it was seen by every driver and passenger between junctions 16 and 17 clockwise on the motorway for over a decade). Sadly, the words were besmirched by another tagger in 2018. But then the bridge (itself quite historic) became a canvas for some NHS love during the pandemic.
For more classic graffiti slogans, see our previous article.