The estate on Laburnum Street is an unlikely canvas. Windows are bricked up or smashed. Long-abandoned bicycles lie tangled in the balconies like dead insects.
Then I see the monsters. Yellow and grotesque, they gnash against a black sky. It’s as if Where the Wild Things Are mated with The Simpsons and moved to a London council estate. In between a man with a chin on steroids and what might be a three-eyed antelope is a door. It opens and their creator, Nazir Tanbouli, beckons me inside.
Tanbouli was born in Egypt but has spent the last ten years of his life in the UK – the last five of which he has lived on the condemned Kingsland estate. A fan of Mexican folk art, Tanbouli wanted to bring the same kind of exuberance to his neighbourhood. However, as a professional mural painter, he was also attracted by the opportunity to build the kind of portfolio that would be impossible to achieve by commissions alone.
The rolled-up posters in his studio, a large airy room in one of the flats, testify to the scale of the work. Tanbouli paints on paper spread out on the floor and as we talk, he dips a large brush in ink and begins to draw a new shape. He does not know what it will be. “I start with a line and it becomes like chasing a rope, seeing what’s at the end of it.”
Since wet weather started in April, the end has often been gloomy. Tanbouli says that he finds himself thinking about deep-sea creatures and mechanical monsters. “My early work was all about line drawing and plenty of white,” he says, “But I have two sides of my head operating at the same time. The Joan Miro side and the Goya side. The Goya side is very dark.”
Some residents agree. Although the project was approved after a public consultation, one local has accused Tanbouli of “making demonic shapes” and “bringing demons” to her doorstep. “The funny thing is she doesn’t dare vandalise them,” he explains.
The rain is the murals’ real enemy. Roughly half of the posters were reduced to mush in the recent downpour – or at least became wet enough for passers-by to peel them off the wall.
This has cost Tanbouli time, but not much money. He attributes his ability to manage on a small budget to his experience in Egypt: “When I was growing up there was no funding whatsoever. You just had to steal some money, get some ink and paint, and do something.
As funding dries up in Europe, he believes that immigrants have an advantage. “People who have come from poorer places can add into the scene their experience of how to create major scale projects on minimum budgets.”
In this, he is inspired by an unlikely figure – St George and the dragon. An important saint for the Copts in his hometown of Alexandria, for Tanbouli he represents a challenge. “Over the years as a mural painter I have learnt to work at very high speed. So taking a commission 30 metres wide by 3 metres high last year – that was 19 hours with one assistant. “I felt like these dragons became too small. I felt the urge to create a bigger dragon to have an exhausting battle.”
Now, he acknowledges, “I’m exhausted.” But there is still a lot to do. Tanbouli and his team aim to have the murals ready for a party at the end of June. That leaves the summer months for visitors to see them before the estate is demolished in the autumn of 2012.
As Tanbouli describes his project, the painting on the floor comes to life. It started off looking like a human figure, but has ended up a fish. I have to ask him: how will he feel when his work is knocked into rubble?
Happy, he insists. “This place is a shit hole. Heating doesn’t work. Walls are not insulated. The ceiling is leaking. The windows are draughty and the doors are draughty and the heating system doesn’t work. There’s mould in the bathroom.
“Anybody who gets upset,” he adds, “Is somebody who has some kind of romantic fantasy about world war Britain, and who doesn’t live here.”
The King’s Land Project is located on Laburnum Street, Hackney, and will be open for visitors until demolition in autumn 2012. A launch party may take place on 30 June 2012. For more information, visit Nazir Tanbouli’s website for the project and his blog.