A beginner’s guide to Croydon’s street art

By - Thursday 15th December, 2016

A newcomer to the street art of Croydon gets up-to-speed with the help of Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison

Image by RISEgallery, used with permission.

Recently hailed as ‘the new capital of street art’ by the Evening Standard, it seems that word of the flourishing arts scene that Croydon locals are so familiar with is spreading.

My current knowledge of street art (worryingly) comes largely from my Telegraph-reading mother (the life and works of Mr Banksy) and so as a new arrival to the borough, I felt that now was the time to learn more about the art form that made the transition from the streets to Middle England.

And who better to teach me about Croydon’s street art than the man responsible for creating the borough’s arts quarter? In 2014 Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison opened RISEgallery, which fast became the epicentre around which the local art scene continues to revolve. And as part of his mission to promote art and culture in the neighbourhood, last month Kevin and his partner launched an ‘art club’ in partnership with Inspired Homes, to teach local residents more about the artwork in their buildings as well as in their local surrounds.

Croydon was once believed to be culturally dead and buried

Whilst ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusion’ (mantras of RISE) have become buzz words at art events in recent years (championed by the Affordable Art Fair and after-hours gallery openings) it is rare to see these values come so clearly from the top. Kevin’s easy-going manner and ability to laugh at elements of the art world whilst maintaining an honest and authentic interest in the subject made for some truly refreshing conversations with us self-confessed novices.

Kevin started the art club’s first meeting with an introduction on how the Croydon street art scene came about. Opening a gallery showcasing contemporary art from the likes of Damien Hirst in a town considered culturally ‘dead and buried’ by many (in the aftermath of the 2011 riots) would have been achievement enough for most. But Kevin had bigger plans.

Photo author’s own.

He wanted the gallery to become a catalyst for change, to help revive and restore Croydon so it could become one of London’s most exciting boroughs. By creating an arts quarter he hoped to transform the area around East Croydon’s town centre (which had taken a particularly devastating economic hit after the closure of the Nestlé building removed many jobs and their associated spend from the local economy in 2012) by using a series of murals painted on shop shutters, walls and hoardings which were no longer in use.

Permission didn’t come easy but with determination, grit and some solid case studies from around the world showing how such projects had succeeded in other cities, he (just about!) got the council, landlords and tenants on board.

The arts quarter (essentially three streets: St George’s Walk, Park Street and Katharine Street) officially opened on the day that Femme Fierce came to paint up Croydon. This was a (brush)stroke (sorry!) of genius on Kevin’s part with over 1,500 people showing up on a single day. However, life on the street can be tough. A few days later, ‘taggers’, those traditionally associated with graffiti, painted over the new works, affronted by others working on ‘their patch’. Turf war had begun.

Photo by Wes Baker, used with permission.

Whilst the battle for territory on stage and screen is typically ‘resolved’ with violence, it does not often involve an art dealer with an economics degree. Perhaps it should, because Kevin managed to settle things pretty amicably. Behind his mask and hoodie, he negotiated a ‘legal wall’ with the taggers, giving them free reign to paint providing they left the official mural spaces alone.

Today the arts quarter continues to offer spaces to artists through open submission. Changing every three months or so to keep the area vibrant, the arts quarter has hosted works by artists such as Ben Eine, Rich Simmons and Miles Khan.

By this point in the evening, art club attendees were well watered (well-wined might be a more accurate description) and ready to bring their inner art critics to the fore as we toured the Green Dragon House residents’ lounge to learn about the art on display. Curated by RISEgallery, with many pieces available to buy, it’s an eclectic mix with a focus on promoting local artists.

We started with Rich Simmons’ ‘Reflections’ which greets you as you first enter the lounge. No stranger to controversy (Rich exploded onto the British art scene with a street art piece celebrating the Royal Wedding of Kate and William entitled ‘Future ….King’) this pop art style piece shows a girl crying at the situation reflected in her sunglasses (Batman and Superman kissing). Part of a wider ‘Kryptonite’ series, Kevin explained how it’s a great example of modern art becoming street art (since the success of the design led to Rich painting it as a larger mural in the arts quarter in 2015).

Our reaction to an actual Warhol might have been unduly subdued

We then moved on to the work of Snik, a boyfriend/girlfriend art duo which works with stencils to create highly realistic figures against darker backdrops. Mounted beside the cinema screen in the lounge is a fitting tribute to two of the UK’s iconic actors: to the left, a portrait of John Hurt and to the right, Ian McKellen. Art club attendees were shocked to realise these were stencils not photos and impressed to see what could be created on a simple cardboard box!

After looking at the jeanius (apologies again) work of Ian Berry (who creates art using denim) we finished with the pièce de résistance: an original Andy Warhol that Kevin had brought in to show us. Despite an initially subdued reaction to the infamous Campbell’s Soup first edition (which art clubbers agreed was probably due to over exposure of the image) when Kevin talked through the trials and tribulations of getting hold of original works and showed us the certificate of authenticity, we all left the evening suitably impressed and excited to learn more about the art world at next month’s meeting.

For further details on RISEgallery, click here. For more information about Inspired Homes and the next art club, click here. 

Maddy Duxbury

Maddy Duxbury

Having moved to London at 19, Maddy has lived both north and south of the river (with a 6 month stay in Spain and a year working in Argentina providing some well needed vitamin D). When not working in PR and comms, she can be found staring longingly at travel guides in bookshops or eating & drinking her way through London's latest haunts before trying to reduce the collateral damage in a lido.

More Posts