HIDDEN GRAFFITI ON THE JOURNEY TO THE VAULTS
WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL HICKIN
The journey to The Vaults is filled with art in the Leake Street Tunnels.
Finding The Vaults wasn't an easy task. This mysterious arts centre was almost as if it didn't want to be found, a hidden location that was steadfastly holding on to its secret. The first day I went looking for it, I switched on Google maps, typed in the location and traced the path that took me to the back of Waterloo station: an empty, almost deserted road that seemed to be known only to cab drivers and the few people who worked in the offices in neighbouring streets.
After about ten minutes of Google Maps telling me I was standing right on top of The Vaults, I walked down one of the passageways that, mercifully, led to a tunnel. This had to be it, I thought. It’s a tunnel. It’s underground. It’s open. And there are people headed towards it. As I turned into the tunnel, what I saw before me was partly disconcerting and partly breathtaking. I’d walked into the famous Graffiti Tunnel, just by Leake Street.
It was otherworldly. An artist sprayed a second round of paint over an original creation. A couple of photographers marvelled at the big, bold statements that were shouting out at them. Passersby walked the length of the tunnel as if it was their daily commute. And right in front of me, hanging from above, in a shape that resembled a “wired” rocket were the words “Vaults” lit up in white light. I walked towards the door it pointed to. It was bolted shut. Failed attempt No.1.
It’s true what they say: You don’t always find what you’re looking for. Sometimes you find something infinitely better.
So I did what any other person with time on their hands would do. I walked through the tunnel looking at the different graffiti, admiring the various talents of people for whom these public walls were perhaps, their only canvas. And I wondered: when does street art become okay and when does it border on vandalism? Why is the marking or even the “ownership” of public space with paid advertisements acceptable and, in most cases, celebrated? What makes one art form legitimate over the other? Here, this unused, abandoned tunnel had been transformed with these colourful graphics, and it was welcomed. Was it because it elevated an otherwise run down part of the city? Or was it because the space was undesirable to begin with?
I went back to The Vaults the week after, making sure to check the opening days and times on the website. It looked a bit like a creepy warehouse and, perhaps, was slightly underwhelming after the colourful explosion that is the Graffiti Tunnel. But it was also the perfect location to perform Alice in Wonderland and Goosebumps, both of which were showcased in immersive and interactive sessions. One of their upcoming shows was The Collector (Read: The Kidnapper) by John Fowles, one of my favourite books of all time and also one of the creepiest I’ve ever read. The venue, which is dark and dreary, lends it self perfectly to these stories. Not to mention the presence of the sprayed art that surrounds the Vaults theatre, giving it an even edgier and more thrilling vibe. It is the perfect venue to stage such plays.
Like in life, what you expect is vastly different from what you eventually get. It’s true what they say: You don’t always find what you’re looking for. Sometimes you find something infinitely better. So it was with the Graffiti Tunnel and the Waterloo Vaults.
The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN. Phone: 020 7401 9603