Twin Cities? This Artist and Mapmaker Is Charting How a London Art Hub Is Becoming a Fully-Gentrified Mini Manhattan

The Shoreditch district, once a playground for YBAs, is becoming more and more like Lower Manhattan.

Adam Dant, Shoreditch as New York, courtesy of the artist.

The artist and mapmaker Adam Dant, who just published his collected works in Maps of London & Beyond, is starting a new project: mapping New York.

That’s no accident. Dant sees London and NYC as twins of sorts. “The two cities are becoming more like each other because of gentrification,” he tells artnet News. “The buildings in Shoreditch and Lower Manhattan are probably owned by the same hedge fund managers. Who knows?”

Dant was one of the first wave of artists in the early 1990s to settle in London’s Shoreditch district when it was becoming a playground of Young British Artists or YBAs. It was scruffy and “beyond edgy,” he recalls. He knows something about edgy neighborhoods, having lived in the Bowery back when it was a no-go area for many New Yorkers.

The similarities between Shoreditch and parts of Manhattan inspired Dant to create a New York-style map of the East End, which is featured in his new book. His illustrated map, Shoreditch as New York, looks surreal if strangely familiar. “There’s a New York equivalent in Shoreditch: Columbus Circle becomes Arnold Circus; there’s a Rivington Street in both cities.” The narrow streets and tall, red-brick former warehouses and businesses do look like parts of SoHo and TriBeCa, although imagining the 242 bus as the Staten Island Ferry takes a leap of imagination.

Flashback to the early 1990s and the resemblances between Shoreditch and parts of New York were worthy of an early Scorsese movie. Dant remembers friends arriving from west London with trepidation. “Visitors from Fulham would say there’s a New York-y feel about Shoreditch,” he says. “It was a polite way of saying they felt like they were going to get jumped at the corner. They meant New York in The Warriors or Driller Killer more than any architectural comment.”

This was the era when artists including Gary Hume, Cornelia Parker, Tim Nobel, and Sue Webster, had moved in. “I moved there because there were lots of printers. There was a letterpress printmaker to get all your invitations done,” Dant says. “As an artist, you want to be in the center of things.” Nearby in Spitalfields, Tracey Emin, as well as Jake and Dinos Chapman, moved in to join the area’s pioneer artist-gentrifiers, Gilbert and George.

Adam Dant with Jonathon Green, New York Tawk, copyright the artist, courtesy of TAG Fine Arts.

Dant, who was the official artist of the general election in 2015, recently had an exhibition of his maps at TAG Fine Arts in London. His print of St James’s Square in London has sold out at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. In the show, he included a new map of New York slang, a collaboration with the lexicographer Jonathon Green, who is the editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

“He sent me a list of New York slang, which was basically what one ethnic group was calling their neighbors in another ethnic group, so it was like a racist charter,” Dant says. To avoid that problem, for the Tawk of New York, they focused on the history of Manhattan’s neighborhoods.

“We have used the Diamond District for Yiddish and Hell’s Kitchen for Irish. Gay slang in Greenwich Village,” he says, adding “Chinatown was quite difficult.” The Bowery where Dant used to live focuses on “Hobo pictograms,” Dant explains. “When they were riding the railways, they would scratch these signs in chalk on [the] wall. ‘Bad dog here.’ ‘Kind lady will mend your clothes.’”

Artist and cartographer Adam Dant in his Shoreditch studio.

After more than three decades in his Shoreditch studio, Dant now must look for space elsewhere, as his landlord wants to redevelop the site. The artist is philosophical about being gentrified. “They say the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the gold,” he says. Like other London-based artists, he has looked downriver to cheaper areas of east London and beyond.

In his search, Dant has ventured as far as Gravesend, a town at the entrance of the river, where Pocahontas is famously buried. (She died aboard a ship sailing back to the US.) “I went to all those places like Gravesend when I did the shipwreck map,” he says. “It is where Conrad’s Heart of Darkness starts, with the mist on the Thames and the horror—the horror of Gravesend.”

The prolific cartographer’s next book is due to be published in the fall in the US. Called Living Maps, in the spirit of a early atlas makers, Dant depicts a host of cities in caricature: LA is the city of phantoms; Zurich “a gold guzzling monster,” and Gotham is dissected like a medical specimen to discover its secrets.

Adam Dant, Maps of London & Beyond, is published by Batsford in conjunction with Spitalfields Life.


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