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Meet the man behind south London’s awesome bridge murals

Lionel Stanhope MLS
Photograph: Rob Greig

With a whole series of railway bridge murals bursting with local pride, Lionel Stanhope has combined his passions for street art, sign writing and south-east London…

‘I grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames and first got into art in my late teens when I tried my hand at graffiti. It was in the ’80s when hip hop started coming to the city, and there was this book going around called “Subway Art”, which was full of pictures of street art in New York. Everybody had it because, before the internet, it was all we had to go to for inspiration!

I painted for a while but after I got arrested I started to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. That was when I first trained as a sign-writer doing lettering on vehicles and shops. After a few years I moved to Brockley, where I got involved with a company building theatre sets and painting scenery for films and television. That was when my art took on a more creative side.

I’ve lived in Brockley for 15 years and the area has changed a lot in that time. Like many parts of London, it’s started to smarten up and get more restaurants, and the arrival of the Overground has brought in a lot more people. It’s a really friendly place with a lot of creative and artistic types who are open to seeing art in the area.

My street art really took off about five years ago when Global Street Art organised the first Brockley Street Art Festival. I knew I wanted to get involved, and a year later a group of us decided to keep the festival going. Each summer we invite artists and visitors to come along and see the art. Brockley’s probably got about 35 or 40 pieces now. I think people value street art because it brightens up an area and there’s nothing too taxing about it: it’s just nice to see. We change them every now and then as I think it keeps it more interesting if an area is constantly evolving.

Back in 2013, the community in Herne Hill wanted to rejuvenate the area after it was flooded by a burst water main. They asked me to paint a mural on a bridge which was Network Rail property, so we had to get permission. The response was great: Network Rail not only said yes but totally got behind the project, as they could see the benefits which came from these old bridges being brightened up.

Since Herne Hill I’ve since done ten rail signs across south-east London. The bigger signs and those with animals take around two days to complete. The first seven were commissioned by local communities, but eventually Network Rail made funding available so local people no longer had to pay. Now communities can simply get in touch with them if they want a sign.

I like to get local people on board with the design process. If they have an online forum, I’ll share some options so they can vote for their favourite. It was a local who suggested including the Horniman Museum walrus for the Forest Hill sign. Every area of London is unique, so I think it’s important to make the murals unique too.

I love the signs because they combine my love of typography and street art, but the nicest thing about the rail signs has been the interest from the public. I meet people while working and they’ll say, “Oh, wow – I’ve seen all of your signs!” There’s a waiting list for future signs across the city which we’re going to work through, with Plumstead, Brixton and Clapham already in the pipeline. It’s cool to know that they’re out there.

Want one of Lionel’s signs on a railway bridge in your neighbourhood? Contact eddie.burton@networkrail.co.uk

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