Words Kirk Truman
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“To me, it’s just like a blank canvas. It’s an opportunity for me to do something…”
Over six months ago, my curiosity was aroused by a series of faces. They weren’t the faces of my fellow Londoners, passing by on the city’s crowded streets, although they did appear in the most ordinary of public places across the West-End. Their painted eyes looked out from hoardings wrapped around buildings in Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, and Soho; it seemed that the city’s many unappealing building sites and demolition zones had become an unlikely home for one artist’s work.
As I continued to come across these curious visages, I wondered what their story might be. Were they the graffiti of a spraycan-wielding madman, or yet another Banksy wannabe? Were they part of some widespread demonstration against rapacious London property development? These were some of the ideas that crossed my mind. When I discovered the faces were the work of the kind-spirited and energetic artist Anna Laurini, I had to abandon my previous theories and meet the woman who had created them. Anna arrives to meet me for coffee on a brisk Sunday morning, mid-January. I reach out my hand to greet her, and she extends her own, covered in blue, black and white paint. “I just did one now. I saw a space and wanted to do it,” she explains.
Having grown up in Milan, Anna’s adult years have been spent living in London and New York. The idea for her faces came two years ago. At first, she began to experiment with a face only occasionally, drawing one over in East London from time to time. By summer 2015, her faces project had become very much a full-time one, and Laurini was well on the way to becoming an unconventional street artist. It soon becomes clear to me just how full-time her work is: she rummages through her bag, revealing her brushes and pots of paint, ready to be utilised whenever she spies a new painting spot somewhere in the city. “To me, it’s just like a blank canvas. It’s an opportunity for me to do something,” she says. And it’s London’s cultural and architectural diversity is that often inspires her choice of location for a new work.
Much of Laurini’s artistic output emerges from a small studio in East London. Her faces, which she insists are entirely impromptu creations, are often accompanied by intriguing phrases which reveal a relationship with modern day consumerism and capitalism, prompting observers of her works to look at the world through her unconventional vision. A slogan beside one particular face read: “Soul instead of gold”. For Laurini, her life and work is a testament to the notion that “all good things are wild and free”, a motto that sat happily beside another of her many faces. She finds comfort both in canvas and in London’s winding streets when creating her faces. Despite their similarly bold approach, they don’t really resemble the Surrealism of Cocteau or the Cubist portraits of Picasso; Laurini paints with a distinct elegance, strong strokes and sleek lines. Although they are visibly feminine, she insists that not all of them are women, even though drawing a female face feels instinctive to her. From her travels on both sides of the Atlantic, she has come to draw inspiration from the sights and sounds of the modern metropolises of New York and London.
The first time I noticed her work was after it graced the hoarding of a building on Fitzrovia’s Cleveland Street. It captivated me – but it was only the first of many similar encounters. A hoarding in Fitzroy Square and Charlotte Street; another on Soho’s Peter Street and Berwick Street; a whole fleet of hoardings on Oxford Street, others hidden away in the side streets of Bloomsbury, Shoreditch, London Bridge, Portabello Road. Laurini’s faces have become to be a regular fixture of my London, just as they are of hers. “They go where I go. They’re part of my day-to-day life,” she says. And where Laurini’s faces go, the developers follow, keen to repaint their hoardings. “One of the first places I did them was on the hoarding of the Sorting Office on New Oxford Street. I did them all around the building, I covered it. Within a few days they’d painted the whole thing black – that really bothered me,” she says. “I’ve never actually gotten into any trouble for doing it. People understand that it’s art – it isn’t vandalism. They understand its message. I’ve had people ask me why I’m doing it… they’re surprised to realise its just one person doing it. They think it’s a group. But no, its just me!”
Laurini’s pieces have been sold via online platforms like Saatchi Art, as well as exhibited internationally in galleries, warehouse spaces, restaurants and bars. She has produced a number of commissioned works, and also graced private houses with her creations. I’m no expert, but she doesn’t strike me as a typical street artist. She pursues her vision by utilising the urban space itself to frame her work, presenting a creative and alternative perspective to Londoners, with each face being unique and specific to its location. Through them all, though, runs her message of soul instead of gold.