Learnings from an East London-night walk

When venturing into new-to-me-places for ethnographic research, I do like to either chat up-taxi drivers or random people in the streets in order to get to know their framing and perspective on their place. This helps me with settling-in and also with what you could call ‘cultural calibration’.

This time round, I took a spontaneous night walk in East London, just after prepping the following day’s research activities. While street-strolling, I chatted up a Bangladeshi dude that had just tossed away the remainders of what was a joint. He said that he would walk East London’s streets at nights endlessly, and that he would love taking me for a ride, if I were up for it.

The alleys and corridors of East London were full of energy and subversive art. Mostly graffiti. At some point, we passed by a brick wall, plastered with tiles of miniature artwork. While I generally photo-shot the hell out of the district, I also took an image of a ‘Mr. Dick Pic’-tile. Just because I thought it was a good laugh, I shared this image with my spontaneous night-guide – right from the back-display of the camera.

Now, it turned out that this photograph elicits quite a story in my new-found-friend:

He went on narrating that this tile must refer to what we might call subversion or street hacking: because parts of East London were pretty run down, and because of the city government refusing to refurbish, an artist was seeking own inventive ways. Spraying ‘dick pics’ onto public space, it turned out, made the government fresh-paint walls and even redo street-asphalt, all in an effort to erase the disturbing imagery from public gaze.

Turned out this ‘adverse effect’ encouraged many more people in East London to roam out into the streets, and to do just the very same: ‘dick pic-mark’ whatever they considered to be in need of some fresh paint or renovation. The rule was simple but straightforward: spray a dick-grafiti onto whatever, and the next day it will be all covered-up, in new fresh color.

The learning of the story might be three things:

  1. The power of cultural calibration as a technique of settling into the scene;
  2. the power of an image as a research stimuli to generate rich narrative insight; as well as
  3. the inventiveness of people to life-hack, subvert and appropriate their immediate life-world.

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