A Jack the Ripper mural – are you serious? How the Eastenders hit back

A demented face leers through a hole in the wall, his blood-spattered fingers gripping the shattered brickwork as he stares at passersby on the pavement below. This enormous, utterly grim trompe-l’œil image appeared in London’s East End in March – just before lockdown – unsettling many Spitalfields locals. But when people realised that the mural, by street artist Zabou, was supposed to be a modern representation of Jack the Ripper, they were horrified.

I, too, had seen the bowler-hatted man – face covered in blood – on the side of the Duke of Wellington pub, just a few streets away from my flat near Brick Lane. But I failed to put two and two together. Yes, I lived in an area where people mercilessly exploit the “myth” of a brutal serial killer who eviscerated five women on the streets here and in Whitechapel in 1888. But surely, I thought, no one would seek to glorify him in the name of street art? I was wrong.

Then, in early September, I looked up to see that someone had clambered up and whitewashed over the mural and written the name of one of the ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – over the top of it. I did a little dance, just like the artist – it seemed to me – had danced on the graves of Eddowes, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly.

That someone – I had asked around – turned out to be the writer Tim Elliott, who lives next to the pub. “I got together with a neighbour and painted over the top of it,” he told me. “The mural seemed to be playing the ripper for laughs. I contacted the artist and said, ‘Are you aware of the general feeling in the neighbourhood about Jack the Ripper – and how the whole industry around him is exploitative?’ But she wasn’t.”

Elliott added: “It seems very strange to wash your hands and not have any opinion on a piece of art and its context. The neighbours and I left it for a while, as we hoped the pub would rethink it. Then one Sunday afternoon, we popped up and painted over it. While we were up there, I thought of putting up a name. We thought that would redress the balance. I admitted to the pub manager that I did it.”


‘The intention was never to shock or make anyone feel uncomfortable’ … Zabou’s mural was painted over with the name of one of the ripper’s victims.

‘The intention was never to shock or make anyone feel uncomfortable’ … Zabou’s mural was painted over with the name of one of the ripper’s victims. Photograph: Audrey Gillan

The Duke of Wellington had offered the wall as a “blank canvas” for Zabou – a French-born, London-based street artist – and her spray cans. It’s just a few metres away from a barber called Jack the Clipper, and not too much of a distance from Jack the Chipper. Pre-Covid, there were constant Jack the Ripper tours here, with large groups traipsing round pavements led by theatrical guides acting out the gory details of the murders, stopping at sites where the mutilated bodies of the women were found, at pubs where they drank, flop-houses where they stayed when they could afford it. There’s even a Jack the Ripper museum, which opened in spite of much local protest.

This ripper industry disgusted me, but it didn’t surprise me. I was truly surprised, however, that a female artist simply didn’t think twice about seeming to exalt a murderer of women. When I spoke to Zabou, she was keen to emphasise that the pub had not asked her to use the image: she had been given an open brief and chose the killer.

“Its purpose was to create a piece that plays with the space and surprises/interacts with the audience,” she said, referring to the trompe-l’œil effect of the figure seeming to burst through. “I chose Jack the Ripper because he is strongly linked to the area, but I also looked into other characters or historical figures.

“The intention was never to shock or make anyone feel uncomfortable, or ‘glorify’ him in any way. It’s completely normal that everyone has a different reaction to the mural – opinions and tastes differ widely. Some loved it, some hated it, some ignored it. I believe there are no wrong subjects in art, and that artworks in general should be the start of a conversation. If not, the bigger danger for artists becomes self-censorship and correctness.”

She added: “Painting it over with the name of one of the victims was a strong statement. Obviously, it’s always a little sad when a mural is taken down.” She is thinking of the days of hard work that went into it. “But at the same time, street art is ephemeral and pieces might live just a couple of days, months, up to a few years. It’s constantly changing: the wall will make space for another, different mural in the near future and I love that idea.”


Exploiting the myth? … Jack the Chipper in Whitechapel.

Exploiting the myth? … Jack the Chipper in Whitechapel. Photograph: Robert Evans/Alamy

Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five, an award-winning account of the lives of the women who died at the hands of the ripper, says it’s time people stopped cashing in on the murders. “This is a celebration of a killer – a man who murdered women, who literally ripped them apart. And then we as a society, going back 132 years, have been fanning his flames. A lot of people haven’t thought about this.”

Before lockdown, Rubenhold had been campaigning for a permanent mural picturing the five women. When we spoke, I suggested that the Duke of Wellington wall might be the perfect site. She immediately replied: “With Zabou as the artist – now wouldn’t that be brilliant?”

Rubenhold had also been surprised to learn that a woman painted the ripper mural. The whole thing could be turned on its head, she realised, if Zabou were to create the new mural, where people would think about the victims and who they were – not as sex workers (they were not all sex workers, as the myth claims), but as women. “I would like Zabou to be involved,” she added. “We can help people realise he’s not Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde. He’s a real person and he killed real people. It’s time to restore these women.”

How does Zabou feel about this? “I think,” said the artist, “having a mural of the victims somewhere in the area is a great idea.”

Meanwhile, someone else has now whitewashed over Catherine Eddowes’ name – and stuck up a Camden Town Brewery sign. “Complained about art,” sighed Elliott. “Got advertising.”

The Guardian

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