Three women, tie-dyed to their toes, sway in the Hackney Wick wind that creeps off the canal into the A12 underpass. Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ is blaring through car speakers, it’s a spiritual, celebration of freedom and our psychedelic-altered brains aren’t too sure how to take it.
The space under the bridge engulfs with a sudden light, the car creeps down the slope onto the stage, each car door wide open, balancing on the bonnet is a man sporting MI5 shades, welcoming his guests with open arms, the king to his castle.
The timing is impeccable. This is now Rocket Man’s bridge. Finally, we had a name for the 48 year old man who is responsible for the organised chaos we all know too well, under the bridge in Hackney Wick.
This location has been a favorite of mine since I made the move to East London. Every day a new project was being constructed by multiple artists, concrete beams now canvases, washing machines now time machines, car-seat chariots and breeze-block sculptures making the average underpass a place for creative freedom.
“I see such a broad human race underneath that bridge, from this to that, kids to old people, from veterans to grandma’s, rich people poor people, druggies, thieves and everything else you get in the world, it goes through that bridge. Boaters, workers across the canal, where they work 24 hours, they know me the best” he explains. Though this ever-changing outdoor gallery isn’t just the work of one man, it is the absolute life of Jay’s.
His hands are cracked, but his strength floors me. Much like a lot of the creative spaces in London, the flyover that holds his work has been in jeopardy for the entire 2 years he has settled there.
Many Hackney Wick residents are saddened that artist studios and warehouses are now being overshadowed by towering, overpriced flats. Not only does this physically push out community buildings, but the entire fabric of the community will inevitably be changed. But we keep on keeping on, much like Louise, a local artist.
“They’re [the council] not doing any planned attack, it’s always been like that. You just hang in there. It’s ok, you just have to laugh at it. There’s no point getting pissed off. This is an inevitable story. it’s depressing, which is why it helps to talk about it.”
Jay’s eviction, for me, is yet another dig at the creatives of The WIck. Those who wear the trousers feel a sting, too much freedom is to be had. So why couldn’t Jay just work between the four walls of the remaining studios?
“I work during the night, it’s fresh air. I talk to the birds and the bees and the squirrels, I got two of ‘em. This is a piece of everyone’s heart, I can’t do it on my own” he explains, Jay found comfort watching the snow in winter form mini tornadoes against the black sky: “it’s the little things, that’s what kept me driving. Nature was just giving me so much back, was making me pump.I’m a million miles away but I do come back every 500 years to make sure everything is alright.”
Art is available around every corner in London, but Jay allowed us to watch the birth of his projects. From one breezeblock to the next. Jay’s art was never meant to be confined to one space, his connection to nature and need for freedom made the flyover his life-line. From saving swans to humans from the depths of the canal, who had fallen in after raving in Hackney Marshes, he talks of the time that he paddled his engine-less barge along the canal surrounded by day-time drinkers, on his birthday, with wood under his arms like a victorious jowster. “This is how I survive under the bridge. I become Tom Cruise, Charlie Chaplin. I don’t watch TV, this is my film.”
27/10/18 marked the date of Jay’s eviction. “I was sleeping in my boat, and all of a sudden I heard Louise’s voice. I opened my door, and I see 15-20 guys including 4 security men fucking with my stuff.” An assemble of the community trekked to the flyover to make sure no damage was done during the eviction, yet still the atmosphere was sobre.
It was a joint effort of the council and the Canal and River Trust who cut off one of the main arteries of Hackney Wick’s heart. As Jay reminiscens about that day, a faint clapping can be heard from one of the next door warehouses. Jay sat in silence for what felt like eternity. The clapping was earth’s way of thanking him for his efforts.
“Now I go back to it and I look at the place, and it’s worth all the memories that I have inside of me. I am lucky enough to have experienced it by myself and with others. Imagine how many people I met in two years, from the boaters that moved every two weeks. Imagine how many people I met being underneath that bridge. Since I was born everything just comes. I think of it, or nature knows that I need it, and I believe in it. For a lot of people this happens, but they don’t realise that its for them. This is who you are, take it, or use it, because it’s the tool that you need in your life. You have to be patient. They’re testing you, who? Do you think I know? Do you think I know what I’m sculpting?”
Since then, his presence has been sorely missed, “People are asking me where I am” he explains, twiddling a bike light found on the desk, “those who go to work at 5am and smile and say hello, those who watch me sweep the place or making sculptures. People miss it, I miss it too, but i’m not going to do it again. I’ve done my job.”
“To restrict the artist is a crime. It is to murder germinating life.” - Egon Schiele
Words: Ruby Munslow @rubytues_
Images: Fynn Collins