SPRAYPAINT POETRY: Spoken Word & Graffiti in the Tunnels Beneath Waterloo Station
Beneath London’s Waterloo Station is a spot known as the Leake Street Tunnel—a subterranean expanse where graffiti and street art is legal. The Leake Street Tunnel is physically reminiscent of New York’s Freedom Tunnel, but without an active train line running through it and a much higher level of accessibility. I was in London for not even a week, and wanted to make the best of every free night, so I had hit up editor-in-chief of the exquisite Prowl Magazine, Lisa Luxx, to find out if anything was going on. Lisa replied saying she was going to a “thing called Spraypaint poetry. Street poetry and graffiti vibes.” The event was located in the Leake Street Tunnel.
I had never met Lisa in person before—Ki Smith of Apostrophe patched us into an email thread two years ago when Lisa was putting together Prowl’s Pilot Issue. Prowl was the first to put my words in print, publishing my profile on RATKING. We’ve supported each other’s ventures ever since, so I was excited to finally meet someone with whom I had only virtually corresponded.
When Thursday night came around, I rented a Santander bicycle—which are exactly the same as the New York City’s Citi Bikes I so deeply scorn—to find the Leake Street Tunnel. It took me a little while to find my way into, since the tunnel had no posted address, and at that point I didn’t know it ran beneath Waterloo Station.
When I first entered the tattoo’d underbelly, I was struck by the sight of graf artists going about their thing at 8pm with total nonchalance. And then two Metropolitan Police officers, twirling batons in absence of their guns, strode through the tunnel hardly giving the artists a glance, though one pointed to a piece on the wall as if to say, ‘Oh that’s a new one, it’s quite nice.’ There were six artists laboring over intricate pieces, and instead of dropping their cans and scurrying forth, they kept going about their business as the police went about theirs. It was most certainly not the art under pressure I’ve become accustomed to in the States. My American mind was blown, so I asked one of the painters what the deal was. He was kind enough to take me on a tour of the tunnels, pointing out significant UK artists and even a couple American tags I recognized, like “SOZE.” He told me there are two other spots in London where street art is legal. Earlier that day I noted how London seemed to be remarkably absent of tags, and now I understood why.
After talking with the graf kids for a little while, I located Lisa gathered with about thirty other individuals at the very end of the tunnel, where the pavement continued under daylight for about forty feet before ending in a gate astride the active Waterloo Station tracks. SPRAYPAINT POETRY, a first-time endeavor by organizers Jason Pilley and Iris Colomb, profoundly combined the visual with the auditory.
I arrived just as one of the night’s featured acts, Peter DeGraft-Johnson, was performing three numbers—two from memory and one read from paper. There was no real stage and no beat. Just Peter standing on the slightly elevated concrete foundation of one of the tunnel’s supports, keeping it rhythmic with his politically charged rhymes, delivered with a preacher’s conviction and subtle eloquence of a master wordsmith. With twenty-two more to wax poetic that night, Jason Pilley kept the performances going in quick succession. Four hours of straight bars, broken only once by an intermission and once at 10pm—when it grew dark–to move inside the fully lit tunnel.
In addition to Peter, and the twenty-two other poets, I became particularly immersed in the sardonic wit of Scottish poet Paul McMenemy, whose satirical condemnation of his own country was highly entertaining. ” Another standout was Spike Zephanaiah Stephenson (portrayed below), who literally did not stop sketching throughout the entirety of SPRAYPAINT POETRY. When he was called up, he kept on sketching though his performance, notably including a bar about his sentiment that every minute spent not creating is a wasted minute of life. Finally, it was an honor to witness Lisa Luxx’s poetic sermons. Delving deep into the spiritual, Lisa’s poetry runs parallel to the premise of Prowl Magazine, which is dedicated to “Celebrating the art of being human; expressive, mind-independent and badly behaved.
The word I would use to describe my state during that time is “enraptured.” Other than a few musical numbers on the electric tenor banjo by Caroline Teague, strapped with an amp on her waist, the vibes and energy were completely human generated. Something all-too-rare in our hyper-connected, digital existence. For years I’ve frequented Brooklyn’s underground hip hop scene, but even the most live of parties in the dingiest of basements require a lot to happen. Technology for the microphones and speakers, and venue (regardless of its legality) to host the event in.
This is all on reflection though, what consumed me most at the time—what I couldn’t get over in my mind—was that a similar public gathering wouldn’t be possible back in New York City. Albeit in the cut, the Leake Street Tunnel functions as pedestrian thoroughfare, so it was truly public because passersby could engage in the performances. It was those that were walking on a date, possibly becoming late for their reservations at fashionable restaurants in stopping to watch, that lent SPRAYPAINT POETRY an air of spontaneity.
This all would be so suspect in the New York Police Department’s eye. An officer would stroll up and ask if there was a permit for such a gathering, inevitably busting it up. But clearly I was the only one with such paranoid thoughts—beers were being openly drank and spliffs smoked. In London, there is a much less visible police presence, the inverse being that the entire city is coated in CCTVs. Here, in the Leake Street Tunnel, however, there were none of those cameras, and those first Metropolitan officers were the only ones I saw.
As I rode my stupid Santander bike back to where I was staying, I was texting about the experience with CL editor Ivie Ani. She asked if the event was “hip hop,” to which I replied, “Yeah, we would perceive it to be hip hop, but they call it beat poetry.” I don’t mean to take away from the poets’ night and apply connotations of American culture, but I couldn’t help but make the link between the spoken word of SPRAYPAINT POETRY and the early days of hip hop. Hip hop is about the amplification of one’s voice, literally and figuratively. The only instrument a rapper needs is their voice. It’s far easier for a rap show to be put on and for a rapper to throw a concert and bring other rappers on stage to perform with ease because there isn’t much that the genre/culture requires other than the presence of the artist, as opposed to, say, a rock show, where instruments and equipment must be set up for each band. Essentially, a rap show is just about passing the mic.
And SPRAYPAINT POETRY was raw like those early rap shows must have been. It wasn’t about any spectacle, just the artist stripped down to naked vulnerability, putting their very humanity on display. Some prophetic spitters talked their shit that night, the Tunnel naturally amplifying each voice as the Tube above rumbled intermittently. This ambiance, combined with the brilliant colors of street art and novelty of such a location, is what made SPRAYPAINT POETRY such a profound and enrapturing experience. New York City’s “cultural ambassador” was named to be Taylor Swift, and it’s begun to feel like the City’s culture has become just as prim and sterile. To bring the concept of SPRAYPAINT POETRY stateside would be like a gust of fresh air, offering temporary relief from how stifling it can be in our smog-choked city. Ki and Sei Smith have the right idea with their Apostrophe Subway Shows, but there needs to be more of the subversive here. Otherwise we might as well pack it in and move to the suburbs.