by Robert Montero
Located off York Road, Leake Street wasn’t always like this. Set underneath the Waterloo Station complex, it used to serve vehicles looking for a shortcut when the Eurostar was based in Waterloo. Then in the 1960s, it was a hub for wine merchants to sell their wares. In some ways, not much has changed. Where there were once wine merchants there are now bars and clubs selling drinks to people too cool for daylight. And though the vehicles are gone, the tunnel is still a convenient and quick way for pedestrians to get from York Road to Lower Marsh.
But these days the Leake Street tunnel is better known simply as the Graffiti Tunnel. Across the walls and ceiling, graffiti has become the tunnel’s paint. Not a single patch is left blank, and there’s always a graffiti artist at work, adding (which paradoxically also means subtracting) to the plethora of colour.
It started in 2008, when, as part of the Cans Festival, Banksy decided to transform it from “a dark forgotten filth pit” into “an oasis of beautiful art”. Since then, Banksy’s work has been painted over countless times, but the spirit of the original project remains alive and well. A dingy Central London tunnel has been transformed into a chamber of expression and experimentation. Moreover, the constant presence of graffiti artists means that the tunnel is in a continuous state of evolution. Whenever you visit, there will always be something new to see.
Since Network Rail took over from Eurostar as owners of the tunnel, vehicular access has been cut off, so the tunnel now functions purely for the benefit of pedestrians. With no cars to worry about, the tunnel is more than just a walkway, it’s a gallery. So, take as long as you want exploring the montage of subjects and styles. And remember that the Graffiti Tunnel is not an historical monument, but a living experiment, so if you see something you like, be sure to take a picture!