Can Street Artists Survive a City in Lockdown?

LONDON — One recent Friday, Nathan Bowen, a graffiti artist, was spray painting a boarded-up storefront in East London.

He was wearing a reflective vest, hoping any police officers who drove by would mistake him for a builder. But he still stood out. He was the only person on the whole street.

Mr. Bowen was not an essential worker, he acknowledged, but he said he was providing a necessary service, of sorts. “In this time, you need people like me to go out,” he said. “If no one’s doing it, the city has no vibe.”

Before the pandemic, London teemed with street artists and performers: Buskers sang to commuters on the Underground, street magicians entertained tourists, graffiti artists covered the city’s walls.

But now — with a few exceptions like Mr. Bowen — they are all gone. What has happened to the artists who used to add so much life? And when the pandemic is over, will they be able to go back out?

The day that London went into lockdown, Mr. Bowen, 35, had a different reaction to the news from most others in the city. He was walking home from a friend’s house, he said, when he saw a storekeeper boarding up their windows.

“I just saw that blank board and thought, ‘Yeah! There’s going to be so many opportunities to paint,’” he said.

“For me, this lockdown works in reverse,” he added. “Everyone’s left the city now, so it’s time for the underworld to come through.”

The next day, he went to the store he’d seen and painted the boards with a construction worker in a face mask, holding open his jacket to reveal a thank-you message for the National Health Service.

Mr. Bowen has been going out every couple of days since, he said, and has been shocked to find that he appeared to be the only street artist out. “This lockdown’s a true test,” Mr. Bowen said. “You get all these graffiti guys going on about how they’re so anti-system, so radical, yet this comes around and I haven’t seen one bit of ‘graf.’ ”

Frontline, a British graffiti magazine, has been urging its readers to “stay home, stay safe,” since the lockdown began. Even Banksy, perhaps Britain’s most famous street artist, has resisted the urge to go out and paint an attention-grabbing mural. In April, he posted a picture on Instagram of some stencils he’d done around his bathroom with the message, “My wife hates it when I work from home.”

Mr. Bowen said that during the pandemic, he was only painting work with supportive messages for the National Health Service, Britain’s beloved state health care provider. He wanted to give hospital workers a boost at this time, he said, and he felt that pieces on other subjects would open him up to criticism for breaking the lockdown.

“This is proper street art, as it’s about communication — promoting positive messages that raise the spirits,” he said.

On a recent Friday afternoon, nobody stopped Mr. Bowen as he painted. A handful of joggers ran past, giving him a wide berth. Two police cars drove past.

The owner of the building did appear, Mr. Bowen said, but rather than chasing him off for property damage, the owner just asked him to add some balls to the painting to reflect the fact the building had been, before lockdown, an adult ball pit.

It looked like Mr. Bowen would finish the piece without a hitch, until he encountered a common problem for street artists in London: It started to rain. Mr. Bowen swore and huddled under an awning with his dog Klae (who also wore a reflective vest). He’d just have to come back and finish it tomorrow, he said.

The last time that Kirsten McClure was busking in a London Underground station, in early March, she could feel a change was coming.

“People were wearing face masks for the first time,” the 52-year-old singer-songwriter said, in a telephone interview. “People in face masks don’t give you much money,” she added.

On March 21, Transport for London, the city’s public transportation agency, banned all buskers from its network.

“I was really surprised,” Ms. McClure said. “I didn’t think they’d shut it off. I had this fantasy that I’d go and play all these nice soothing tunes for medics going off shift. It was just that weird denial everyone’s had.”

Ever since, Ms. McClure, who said she usually made half her income from busking, has been staying at home with her husband and son. She was lucky that she still had income from her second job as an illustrator, she said. Some buskers she knew had started claiming unemployment benefits, she added.

She had seen one busker’s desperation at first hand when she went out to exercise and saw an accordionist playing next to a line of shoppers outside a grocery store. “It was pointless — absolutely pointless,” Ms. McClure said, “But that’s the busker’s mentality: You go where the footfall is.”

She threw the accordionist a coin, maintaining the recommended distance of two meters, or about six feet, she said. But the coin hit the ground and rolled straight back to her. “I thought, ‘This is awful! How do you actually give someone money without going in two meters?’”

Ms. McClure said that she had considered busking online — performing on a livestream and asking for donations — but had felt that it would be difficult to drum up enough attention. Instead, she has started teaching herself violin in case she is forced to wear a face mask when she returns to busking. “I thought it might be easier to play instrumentals, than sing with a mask,” she said.

She was optimistic, though, that the ban would not last long. Over recent weeks, Transport for London, which regulates busking on the subway, has sent its licensed buskers several emails telling them how to apply for emergency support from charities and saying that the service hoped to have them back soon, she said. Busking was also a vital component of the city, “a sign of it being happy and healthy,” she added.

“It’s going to be really good for people to see buskers out again, just to take their mind off things,” she said. “That’s what we do: distract and cheer them up.”

Nathan Earl had two tricks in his routine before lockdown.

One was a staple of magic shows worldwide. He’d take solid silver rings and smash them into each other so that they suddenly linked. He liked to perform the trick with the help of a child from the audience drafted in to hold the ring, who would often look on with wonder at the feat.

The other was a card trick, in which he would pull a spectator’s chosen card from a deck set in an animal trap. He’d grab the card just before the trap’s jaws slammed shut.

Both tricks involved audience interaction, Mr. Earl, 24, said in a telephone interview. For the card trick, he’d stand alongside someone as they picked a card from the deck. “Obviously, people will be afraid of touching after the pandemic,” he said. “That’s what all street magicians are worried about.”

Social distancing could also have an impact on his street shows in another way, he said. “Magic relies on being a spectacle. If people are standing apart, it just looks like a rubbish show, and people walk through the gaps as well.”

“It’d be a mess,” he added.

Mr. Earl was not alone in his concerns about social distancing, according to Jay Blanes of the Westminister Street Performers’ Association. Some performers feared for their livelihood if they were banned from gathering crowds or if fewer tourists visited the city. “I think some people are being too optimistic,” Mr. Blanes said in a telephone interview, though he expressed hope that things would improve.

Mr. Earl said he hoped he could just get out on the streets as normal, and soon. He lived with his parents, he said, and was financially OK for now. “But if it goes on like this for a while, I’ll have to look at other options,” he said. He didn’t really want to contemplate stopping street magic, he added. He loved the freedom, he explained, and the feeling of community among the street magicians.

“It’d be really sad to stop,” Mr. Earl said. “The streets would be quite sterile without performers.”

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