London Nights: Museum of London

As an insomniac you make a decision, either you embrace the night or resent it, and I have embraced it. I appreciate everything from London’s night skyline, to nights out in different areas of the city, catching rare quiet moments where you are the only person on an ordinarily busy street, spotting a bold urban fox running across the road, and the general sense of calm after 11pm… so a photography exhibition dedicated to ‘London Nights’ easily caught my attention. In a wonderfully contrary way I visited this exhibition at an early morning private view, and had the pleasure of starting my day by viewing these 200 images captured by over 60 photographers. The exhibition is displayed in the museums’ basement gallery, and is dimly lit with grey walls and dark floors, adding to the nocturnal atmosphere. One of the things that struck me most was a feeling of familiarity, and appreciating how little the city has changed over the last century, as so many of the buildings and streets were immediately recognisable and only the fashion or adverts captured within each image gave away the decade they were taken. This was most evident in George Davidson Reid’s 1920’s photographs of Trafalgar Square, images of Liverpool Street station during the Blitz, Bob Collins’ 1960’s shots of Piccadilly Circus, numerous iconic images of St Pauls Cathedral from almost every decade, and contemporary photos of a night out in East London and West London displayed side by side. Broadly split into three categories; ‘London Illuminated’ which focusses on the capital’s landmarks from both familiar and unusual vantage points, ‘Dark Matters’ which explores the more sinister side of the city and how darkness can evoke fear, threat or isolation, and ‘Switch On Switch Off’ which observes Londoners who inhabit the city rather than the city itself. On until mid November the show is certainly worth a visit – incorporating architecture and portraiture, moments of resilience and shared acts of exhilaration, as well as exploring social issues and current threats to London’s night venues.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat: Barbican

Barbican’s current ‘Boom for Real’ exhibition showcasing the prodigious works of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has generated such a buzz that in order to see it, advanced timed booking is now essential. Upon ordering your ticket you are emailed a booking confirmation accompanied by a list of ‘rules’ including “no bags (including handbags)”, “no photography”, “no food or drink”… lets add “no fun” to the list and try and discourage as many potential visitors as possible! The queue for the cloakroom is epic – as unfortunately everyone needs a bag – and you are then informed which route you must take through the exhibition, starting upstairs. At this point my enthusiasm was waning, but the charisma of self-taught Basquiat quickly won me over. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with his witty New-York graffiti under the pseudonym ‘SAMO©’ and breakthrough exhibition in 1981, where he was singled out by nearly every art critic despite being an unknown artist in a group show. Throughout the late ‘70’s he and other graffiti artists were commissioned to create a series of murals and began selling postcards of their work for $1 outside the Museum of Modern Art. Basquiat even found the courage to sell one to his idol Andy Warhol in a SoHo restaurant which marked the beginning of an artistic collaboration and true friendship, as Warhol returned to painting by hand and Basquiat started to use silkscreen techniques which Warhol was famous for (many of which are on display). Downstairs Basquiat’s larger-scale and more renowned works, as well as lesser known pieces including brown paper envelopes to Lichtenstein and Pollack amongst others offering amusingly reductive summaries of their style of work! The exhibition highlights Basquiat’s knowledge across music; from hip-hop to classical, jazz and blues, western art, reading and historical referencing, as well as political comment on black history and civil rights. Much as a truly enjoyed the exhibition, I left wondering if its formality, works unnaturally displayed behind perspex, ropes and alarms would have jarred with Basquiat himself who seemed to fight against the traditional art world, however given his untimely death at just 27, we will sadly never know.

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Tattoo London: The Museum of London

The popularity of tattoos has visibly grown in the last decade, seen on the skin of Londoners, television programmes dedicated to inking or “fixing” regrettable past decisions, and its recognition as a worthy art form. ‘Tattoo London’ takes up a small but well curated space in the basement of The Museum of London and offers a concise overview of the history of tattoos in the capital, before focussing on the work of four eminent contemporary artists. The exhibition is photography led but complemented by vitrines displaying tattoo machines, inks, artist influences and designs, as well as a large plasma screen showing a short film entitled ‘A Day in the life of Four Tattoo Studios’ and a tattoo chair visitors can sit in and listen to extracts from interviews with the featured artists. Prior to the exhibition I knew little about the history of tattoos in London and was interested to learn that the first professional tattoo artist, Sutherland MacDonald, began work out of hours from his supervisory job at the Turkish Baths on Jermyn Street in 1889 for the fashionable and wealthy. Between the 1930’s and 1950’s George Burchett who stylised himself as ‘The King of Tattooists’ set up studios in Waterloo, and in addition to his high-class customers also inked servicemen and women with his most common designs comprising regimental badges, large scale Japanese works, and portraits of film icons. Following World War II a stigma around tattoos emerged and artists fought against this, but found they were primarily catering to London’s subcultures (punks, rockers, Teddy Boys, skinheads, and the gay community). The opposite wall of the exhibition concentrates on Lal Hardy, Alex Binnie, Mo Coppoletta and Claudia De Sabe – none of whom were born in London but from 1970’s onwards have set up studios and brought their global influences to the city creating impressive designs on the canvas of human bodies.

Tattoo london
Entrance to exhibition
Lal Hardy
Lal Hardy tattoo designs
tattoostudio
Photograph of a tattoo studio in London
tattooparaphernalia
Display cabinet showcasing tattoo paraphernalia

For more information visit their website