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  • Writer's picturesarahhawley

Leake Street Arches: Under London's Underground

I know I have probably said it before, but London is such a diverse place. I have experienced so many unique opportunities in this city and I think that is why I continue to go back. It is a familiar place that is never the same. No two visits are alike and it never gets boring. There is always something new to see, try, and discover.

In London in the borough of Lambeth is the Leake Street Arches. A 300 meter stretch of road in an underground tunnel, situated below the tracks and platforms of Waterloo Station. Everywhere you look, this place is absolutely plastered with graffiti. The ground, walls, and ceiling of the tunnel is covered with street art. Here graffiti is legal and is even promoted, even though graffiti on public property is against the law in the UK. The Leake Street Arches website claims that it is a place that celebrates the creativity of urban culture.

They encourage the many people that flock there, to take photographs to share their visit on social media and to tag the Leake Street Arches in their photos. But the graffiti tunnel is more than just a cool place to take Instagram worthy pics that your followers will drool over. It’s a small artistic community with a great hangout spot, and if you’re up for it, it’s literally a taste of urban life and underground culture in the big city. These arches offer a small selection of restaurants and entertainment. You can book the tunnel for an event, a filming or photoshoot, and you can even sign up for a graffiti workshop, where you learn how to paint with the Leake Street Artist in Residence.

The main draw of course is the large murals of colourful street art that lines the inside of the tunnel and spills out each end. There is very few bare patches of brick or pavement in sight. Upon entering the space you are immediately hit with the smell of a fairly strong chemical odor, which is the aroma of freshly sprayed paint in the air. A subtle reminder that this is a creative space with a constant rotation of artwork displayed on the walls. The murals that adorn the walls (and every other surface) of the graffiti tunnel are continually changing and evolving as new artwork is painted over the previously existing ones. I can only image how many layers of paint has built up on these walls over the years. Walking through the space you can see some fantastic examples of street art in Britain. The tunnel features the work of many talented artists and showcases a range of different styles, techniques, murals and subject matter.

Over the years the Leake Street Arches has generated quite a reputation for itself, attracting artists and tourists from all over the globe to see the graffiti tunnel in person. It's also a popular venue for holding events. Anything from a wedding to a rave. You may also hear people refer to this place as the “Banksy Tunnel”. Although there isn’t any work by the artist currently featured in the tunnel, Banksy is credited with the huge transformation that the tunnel underwent back in May of 2008. It was Banksy who chose the Leake Street Arches as the site for the Cans Festival. This festival was a gathering of street artists, led by Banksy himself. After a few short days, the dark, dingy brick work was transformed into an explosion of colour, giving the tunnel a new look and purpose; People have been painting on these walls ever since.

I should mention that if you are thinking of visiting this place or if you wish to leave your mark on the walls, there are a set of rules that need to be followed. The complete list is available online on the Leake Street Arches website. At present, there is a list of 17 rules that outline expectations, proper behaviour, and what can and cannot be painted on the walls. These rules are not too over the top and are likely in place to maintain their positive, welcoming environment, while also respecting the surrounding neighbourhoods. As I said, these rules are not asking too much of their visitors, simple things like keeping the noise down after 10 pm, no indecent behaviour, and no graffiti that features discrimination of any kind including racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.  

I must have spent at least a good hour in the Leake Street Arches, when I visited the space in early October of 2023. I walked up and down the tunnel several times, taking in all the imagery on every surface possible. I watched from a distance, a graffiti workshop being taught, and a few other artists on site - quietly working away on their own creations. I studied the architectural elements in the space, and had the difficult task of deciding what might make a great image that really captures the vibe and culture of this place. That is always the toughest part – capturing the essence and having that come through in a photograph. Taking an image is easy, but an image that embodies the character of a person or place takes much more. There were so many interesting angles, vents, doors, concrete slabs, railings and more, all colourfully painted of course. I went in the middle of the day, during the week. There was a steady stream of people passing through the tunnel and a few delivery trucks on the road, dropping off supplies to local businesses, but the space wasn’t overcrowded or anything. Like me, there were a few other photographers there trying to capture that magical spark, or whatever it is that makes the Leake Street Arches so special.

I am sure you can see why the graffiti tunnel is a great subject for photography. It’s also great for any photographer looking for a challenge. There is a fine balance of other people not getting in your way and you not getting in their way. Pro tip! Don’t wear your best outfit, it occurred to me several times when I would lean against a wall or railing or kneel down on the pavement for a photograph, that there might be wet paint anywhere and everywhere. It’s a great space to try out abstract or minimal photography using interesting cropping in conjunction with angles and other details in the architecture. Obviously the colourful murals are the main subject for most people’s photographs here, but it might be even more interesting to try and get an image by thinking outside the box.

Finally, I should also mention that the lighting situation is a challenge in itself. If like me, you didn’t bring along your flash, you will need to take photos in a dark tunnel with some track lighting in the ceiling and daylight at the opening ends of the tunnel. You are dealing with quite a mix of natural light, artificial light, an overall darkened space and people moving through the space, which may or may not give you an effect that you were going for. For instance, a longer exposure time will allow more light for a better exposure, but you will also get blurry people in your photos. Also, working with a higher ISO setting will help to get that better exposure, but you can also introduce noise in your photographs. It’s a great opportunity to learn from, and become a better photographer who can work on the fly in difficult situation. Personally, I welcomed the darkness as I felt it created dramatic lighting in some of my favourite images from the day.

Want to check out this place for yourself? Access to the tunnel is generally free (unless it is closed for a private event). You can enter from several points. From Waterloo, you can access the Leake Street Arches from York Road, Waterloo Station Approach Road or Lower Marsh. If you are coming from Lambeth or Westminster, you can access the tunnel from Westminster Bridge Roundabout or Westminster Bridge Road. The entrance is right next to the Park Plaza County Hall. The address is 26 Leake Street and is within walking distance from Waterloo Station or the London Eye. Leake Street Arches incorporates Leake Street (the graffiti tunnel) and a new pedestrian walkway connecting Leake Street to Westminster Bridge roundabout. Very few vehicles drive through the road inside the tunnel aside from a few delivery truck.

For those of you who won’t be making the trip to see the graffiti tunnel in person, you can follow the Leake Street Arches on social media who regularly post what is happening there as far as events and new artwork. You can also check out my gallery of images below from my visit.

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