At the corner of Carnaby and Broadwick streets in London is one of my favourite murals, and perhaps the main reason why I decided to hunt down other people in London who like street art as much as I do. Aptly named The Spirit of Soho, this colourful piece depicts a towering woman, standing with an outstretched skirt that holds all things classically Soho. Very Mexican at first glance and constructed of beautiful mosaic, this mural was created by the Soho community in 1991 and was coordinated by two organisations – Free Form Arts Trust, who designed and executed the work, and Alternative Arts, who coordinated the workshops and public programme that went alongside.
Having been part of a community project myself earlier this year (the Brixton Windmill Mural Restoration Project that the London Mural Preservation Society played a big role in) I understand how pivotal and enriching it is to get people in the community to work alongside each other on arts projects. All the more so on ones that will eventually depict them and their history for future generations to see.
What makes the Spirit of Soho so unique and so special is a sense of timelessness – the scenes it depicts are no less relevant and symbolic of present day Soho than they were of the area through the 20th Century.
In the 17th century, Soho was famous for green hunting grounds that were much favoured by aristocrats. Towards the 18th century, grand houses replaced these hunting grounds and became venues for parties attended by the trendiest and most fashionable of London’s elite. But as more migrants moved into London, the area was rapidly transformed to include workshops and restaurants, and soon became a hub for creatives of all sorts. Poets, writers, artists, designers, jewellers, musicians, the best of London’s most famous, have all had their days in the sun in Soho. This mural pays tribute to all of them; if not in image then definitely in colour, form and spirit.
Because of the mural’s location and the narrow streets around, you are forced to look at it from close quarters. But it remains enchanting, and with the amount of activity it holds, it is rare that any two people look at it and notice the same thing first.
The Spirit of Soho does have a bit of a distracted expression on her face, but then so would most of us if we had a dragon entangled in our tresses and a street parade dancing down our arm. She still manages to hold her skirts open though, as if to let fall a bustle of activity onto the street below. Shaftesbury Avenue and the theatres along it are pictured on her skirt, as is Oxford Street and a little panel dedicated to China Town with a host of pubs, restaurants and an abundance of vegetables and fruits. Books and magazines are also carved into her skirt to pay tribute to the writing and publishing industries that have stood ground in Soho, alongside the film makers, textile traders, recording studios and musical instrument makers.
If you do read up on the mural, you will learn that it was a very important community project in the early ’90s, with the local community getting actively involved in putting the mosaic panels together. It is a large piece of public art that those involved can walk by and point out a little squiggle in the corner and say – ‘I made that squiggle’. It makes you feel you have left your mark and made a bit of a difference, even if it doesn’t come with your name attached.
As we become more physically isolated in our little internet bubbles, what better way to get out and feel alive than by adding some colour and history to your neighbourhood walls. And that’s what the Spirit of Soho does and stands for. It is not a pretty picture that appeared overnight, but is very much a testament to street art that enhances the ideas of commitment, community and collaboration.