Leake Street Arches, London’s Graffiti Tunnel

Leake Street Arches graffiti tunnel

photography by: Sinéad Browne

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As a vibrant, thriving city that is home to creatives from all over the world, London has no shortage of diverse street art, from the multitudinous murals of Hackney Wick to the psychedelic scenes on display in Shoreditch. However, while street artists revere the former railway arches of Leake Street, it flies far under the radar of most visitors to the city, giving the relatively few tourists who visit here the opportunity to mix with true urban art afficionados more than willing to share the fascinating history and modern cultural significance of the eight-arched area.

Foundation and Early Years

Dating back to the 19th century, the arches were initially used to store train cargo from the busy hub that was (and still is) Waterloo Station. The natural mystique generated by the dark tunnels and the hedonistic years of the “Roaring Twenties” led to the street’s evolution into a hive of drinking emporiums, attracting those in search of everything from the finest whiskey to the cheapest moonshine.


The days of debauchery were not destined to last; the establishments gradually fell into decline as the Great Depression and World War II took their toll. Originally known as York Street, the name changed to Leake Street in the 1950s after Dr. John Leake, the founder of the nearby General Lying-In Hospital, one of Britain’s first maternity hospitals.

The Eurostar years (1994-2007)

The tunnel took on a new purpose in the 1990’s when Waterloo Station was selected as the London terminal of the Eurostar international rail service, connecting the UK to mainland Europe via the Channel Tunnel. Forming part of the road entrance to the Eurostar, the street was open to through traffic from 1994 to 2007, when St. Pancras International replaced Waterloo as the company’s London station. The street was subsequently pedestrianised in 2008.

Banksy’s Cans Festival (2008)

In early 2008, Leake Street was dark, dank and generally disused. However, something about it clearly inspired internationally acclaimed street artist Banksy, who organised the Cans Festival in the tunnel from 3-5 May 2008.  In just 3 days, the shadowy recesses were revolutionised in line with Banksy’s idealistic mission to “transform a dark, forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art”.


Some of the most famous pieces from the weekend were Banksy’s own “Injured Buddha” and Sten Lex’s “Saint”, though no trace of either of these remain today. This is in line with the laneway’s clearly defined rules: that the art is “by its nature live and evolving”, so that work can be painted over as any artist sees fit. However, while the famous creator’s work may no longer be on display, his influence is everywhere, so much so that many locals have unofficially renamed the street to “Banksy Tunnel”.

The Leake Street Legacy

The subcultural legacy of Leake Street is significant, reflected in the fact that while graffiti on public property is against the law in the UK, it is not only legal but promoted in this 300m space. A number of independent restaurants, bars and clubs have sprung up in and around the tunnel, supporting local enterprise and giving the whole area a new lease of life.


This sense of community is underlined in the tunnel rules, where any form of political statements, sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other form of discrimination is expressly forbidden. This does not preclude the graffiti from being at times irreverent, humorous and satirical, with the ever-changing landscape interspersed with razor-sharp artistic interpretations of everyday life. A sojourn to the arches is, on the whole, an immersive experience – the eye-catching creations will continue to play behind the eyes of visitors even as the pungent smell of spray cans fades into the distance.

Events and Challenges

For a truly unique London experience, visitors to Leake Street Arches can contribute to the expansive canvas by participating in a graffiti workshop with the Artist in Residence (Marc Craig as of the time of writing, October 2023).


The workshops run from Thursday to Sunday and while the art may not last long, the experience of being part of this creative community is guaranteed to leave an impression. Marc Craig’s work can be seen in the Leake Street Galleries virtual space, a project that was launched in January 2023 to allow visitors to digitally explore urban artwork by both emerging and established artists.


For a number of years, Leake Street Arches hosted VAULT Festival, celebrating a range of artistic disciplines including theatrical performances and live music events. Unfortunately, the festival in its current form will not go ahead in 2024 due to what appears to be a desire by the venue to focus on more commercial projects. Whether or not this general gentrification of the area reflects a fundamental change to the unique atmosphere of Leake Street remains to be seen.

Visiting Leake Street Arches

The easiest way to get to the graffiti tunnel is by train or tube into Waterloo Station; leaving through exit 1, a right turn takes visitors straight to the steps leading down to the end of the arches at the Station Approach Road end of the tunnel. From the river side of the station, Leake Street is southwest of York Road. From Lambeth or Westminster, the tunnel is accessible from Westminster Bridge Roundabout or Westminster Bridge Road, next door to the Park Plaza County Hall.