LONDON — The 2012 Olympics logo was inspired by graffiti art, but that doesn’t mean the 2012 Olympics is friendly to graffiti artists. In an arrest sweep the week before the opening ceremony, British Transport Police arrested at least four known graffiti artists — including one who had done professional work for adidas and was approached for projects by Team Great Britain — not for actually painting anything, but merely on “suspicion of conspiracy to commit criminal damage.” Somehow it was legal to do this and bail the artists out until November with a ban, until that time, against going within a mile of any Olympic venue, using any public transportation or owning any spray paint or marker pens.
That should give you a sense of how scared organizers are of having Olympic venues — or merely the surrounding areas — defaced by members of London’s vibrant street art scene. In addition, plenty of existing graffiti in the vicinity of Olympic Park was painted over by city crews in the lead-up to the Games, as a sort of white-washing before the areas were overtaken by official-sponsor signage.
My hope is to document as much Olympic-related outdoor art, both legal and illegal, as I can around London — but the subject here is an Olympic mural that no longer exists. The story of its appearance, vandalization and disappearance in February should give you a sense of the sometimes-contentious relationship between the corporate-sponsored Olympics and the localities it inevitably transforms.
Once-rundown Hackney Wick is an emerging artists’ neighborhood — a Bushwick of London, if you will — in the shadows of Olympic Stadium. Hackney Wick is a haven for graffiti, and from its above-ground train platform, this piece by the revered street artist Sweet Toof was visible if one turned in the direction of the stadium in early 2012:
One day in February, that Hackney wall — the whole area, really — was painted white. What was happening?
It turns out that Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola bought the wall to use as a setting for a stop-motion commercial:
The finished product, by a crew from High Rise Murals, looked like this:
It was quite an undertaking by High Rise, whose spokesperson told SI that the mural was only intended to stay up for a short time after a Feb. 17 publicity event with (cringe) Mark Ronson and Katy B. But as you can imagine, the fact that the mural committed the double sin of replacing a revered graffiti artist’s work and being commissioned by an official Olympic sponsor, complete with the rings and the Coke logo … did not go over well with the locals.
They paint-bombed the sprinter on the right and “SHAME” and “SHM”‘d the wall:
By Feb. 23, High Rise painted over it with an “HW” to, they said, represent that the wall once again belonged to the neighborhood. A rather lively discussion ensued on their Facebook page, with readers making anti-corporate comments in abundance.
Soon after, the “HW” was edited to remove even more evidence of the Coke mural.
All that remained of the original image was a sprinter’s paint-bombed right deltoid and a section of a table tennis player’s head. Over the next few months, Olympic Park, which has no shortage of Coca-Cola branding, rose up in the distance.