Sketchbook: `Is that really me?'

Street artists from around the world ply their trade in London's Leicester Square. For around the price of a CD you can't expect a masterpiece, but some degree of draughtsmanship is to be hoped for. Maggie O'Farrell asked the punters if they were impressed

Year after year, in whichever European city you care to be wandering, you can bet your bottom traveller's cheque that two minutes after you enter the main square someone will be yelling at you in broken English, "Over here! Have your picture done!" Street artists are as much a part of the global traveller's landscape as Immodium and flip-flops: the nylon camping stools, the collapsible easel, the furled golf umbrella, the smudgy, slightly skewed renderings of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claudia Schiffer.

Observe them, however, and you'll notice faultlines striating this seemingly uniform group: the old-timers who've occupied the same spot for 15 years and the young artists who work their way across Europe in a van; the pastel users and the charcoal wielders; those who fume at the mention of the police, and those who say, licence or no licence, the boys in blue leave them to their own devices; East Europeans and West Europeans; the portraitists versus the caricaturists; those who have friends to tout and conscript and those who work alone.

The street artist seems to have only two gears: the in-your-face chutzpah required to net the customer's attention, and the ardent, mute concentration that kicks in as soon as a tourist hits their stool. The latter is essential, as an audibly judgmental crowd will gather at your back as soon as you put pencil to paper.

London, a Latvian artist called Liga tells me, is the best place to do street portraits: "There's a real buzz here, like nowhere else." In Leicester Square the atmosphere among some 30 artists is one of good-natured competitiveness. August is high-season for street artists, and tourists circle their group like slow-moving tropical fish. The only sign of any artistic temperament is displayed by one or two artists who, when I tell them I'm a journalist, disappear into the crowds, leaving their bulldog-clipped sheets of paper flapping in the breeze.

And their subjects? All tourists. When taken out of one's safe, domestic context, no one is immune to the lure of knowing how others see you.

Cristel Elzenga, 15, from Holland. Picture by Kirke from Sweden. Price, pounds 10

Cristel, visiting her London-based father, is unconvinced by her portrait. She unrolls it and holds it uncertainly between her fingertips. Does she like it? "Ye-es," she says reluctantly, "but it doesn't look like me. It makes me look nicer than I do ... I didn't really want to do it," she flusters. Then why did she? "I don't have any pictures of me now. I wanted to remember what I looked like at 15, and ..." she trails off. And? She shrugs: "And my camera broke."

Mike Kettlewell, 55, from Lincolnshire. PIcture by George from France. Price, pounds 12

Mike tells me the portrait had been an "impulse thing. I'd just been chucked out of the cinema round the corner because the projector broke down, and thought, why not?" He is very pleased with the result: "I was watching people go past and most were nodding their heads, so I think he's got something." When I ask him what he intends to do with it, he says, "I was diagnosed with cancer last year, and while I always want to look on the bright side, I had it done to give to my daughter in case I don't make it."

Costas Georgallides, 61, from Cyprus. Picture by Ishet from Kosovo. Price, pounds 15

Costas, a retired government official, lived in Birmingham as a student over 40 years ago and used to come to London on trips. He is very proud of his home country and before he will discuss his portrait, he forces a promise out of me that I'll visit him, handing me photographs of his villa. His portrait today is "just accidental. My brother-in-law wanted to have one and I came along too. I think it is very, very good; a bit bright perhaps, but very three-dimensional. I am satisfied." He's not sure what he'll do with his new pastel image; he has written books of poetry and short stories, and it might end up as his author picture.

Jimin Kim, 34, and her daughter, 8 months, from Korea. Picture by Liga from Latvia. Price, pounds 5 per face

Jimin speaks no English so her sister translates. Jimin's husband works in Belfast and she, her sister and her baby daughter are over in Britain for a short break. The two sisters are delighted with the caricature: "It's very funny. It will always make me laugh. It is a good memento of London." The picture will be framed and hung in the Kim living room in Seoul. "I wanted it for my baby," Jimin says, "for when she grows up, so that one day she will come back to London and to Leicester Square."

Khalifa Mustapha, 17, from Atlanta, USA. Picture by Ferdinand from Albania. Price, pounds 15

Khalifa is on a long holiday to visit his cousins who live in Woolwich. His 17th birthday fell in the middle of his trip. "We were all walking past here a few weeks ago and we thought it looked pretty nice. My cousin told me I should do it for my birthday. She gave me the money." He was "kind of scared" to come on his own so brought his younger cousin Anso with him for moral support. So what does he think of it? "Beautiful! It's going straight on my bedroom wall when I get back to the States."

Becky Harmer, 15, from the Isle of Man. Picture by an artist who ran when asked his name. Price, pounds 15

"My mum pushed me into it," Becky tells me. "I do like it, though, because it doesn't really look like me." Becky believes her mother will "frame it and stick it on the wall". Will she mind? "I'm hoping that it will replace an awful one she has up at the moment of me, naked. That's why I agreed to have it done." When her mother appears, she tells a different story: "Becky's an artist herself. There's nothing like a bit of street art to encourage her."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk