By Dorri Mang
The graffiti and underground street art scene in London is exploding. Banksy began his popular anarchist graffiti career here and the art world is continuing to grow. From what Banksy began to random teenagers, street artists have become rampant, and are from all different backgrounds. But the amazing part about it is they’re not just doing it for fun any more, they’re turning it into a profitable business.
In London, street art is a hugely widespread attraction. Since the rising popularity of street artist Banksy, who began in England, and went on to gain a global reputation, street artists have had more admirers and more legal spaces to work, but also, more competition.
Rob (32) is from Kent, England, and says that he “began doing street art like anyone else, I toyed around with the paints, sprayed random scrawls across the wall, and called it a day”. Rob has been painting since he was 16 years old- half his life. He started by spraying random walls and then breaking into train yards, and now he does it as a hobby and for the thrill. For the past 16 years, he has seen a lot of ups and downs in the underground street art world, and he says that recently, a lot of things have changed. This includes people who used to just do street art for fun, using it to make money. “There has always been respect for people who do impressive street art, but nowadays a lot of rookies come around and paint over anything. They don’t care about the work that’s been done before them, because a large sum of them don’t even know the art they are dealing with. They tag over a piece of street art with metallic paint, and then walk away feeling accomplished. But that’s the name of the game these days. Your artwork stays up one day, maybe two if you’re lucky”. But at the same time, accomplished street artists are coming in and painting over a lot of the rookie art to teach newbies how to make their mark.
Rob had just finished a piece on the wall in the tunnel on Leake Street, in Lambith, London, right underneath the tracks of Waterloo Station when we met up. Leake Street is 200+ meters of free artistic space where street artists and graffiti artists will not be prosecuted. The council and the police are complicit in allowing artists to create masterpieces on the public property.
“More areas like this are popping up, because they have become tourist attractions. But what I’ve found is that it has caused street art to lose one of it’s most drawing traits: the adrenaline. If you notice, there is an increase of street art in places that is not designated; the walls of the tube, in train yards. That is where you find the real street artists.” Rob doesn’t believe that there will ever be a way that most street artists can make sufficient money doing what they do, although there is a new market that is expanding for tourists. “I know quite a few guys who this year have begun giving tours of the underground street art community, and even graffiti lessons. Get that. They’re teaching tourists how to tag.”
He wasn’t joking. Companies are popping up all over London. One such company, Graffiti Life, is a company which sublets artists out to do pieces, but also holds street art workshops for aspiring artists. They even market out their services as birthday parties, bachelorette parties, or a fun idea as a date. Not only are companies like Graffiti Life gaining traction, but individual artists are also taking in some of the profitability.
In fact, I met Maurice, 39, who goes by Mo, as he was setting up for one of these graffiti classes. “They’re gaining popularity. People think it’s a cool thing to be able to say they know how to graffiti. They are attracted to the idea that they can pay to do what is taboo where they come from, and spray paint on a wall”. Mo says he is creating a whole business out of it, telling his students the history of graffiti art, and even some undercover hints of how not to get caught, like not giving student journalists his last name. Since the police and the council have become complicit with the street art on many streets in London, this is an activity that most likely will continue growing in popularity.
Both Mo and Rob think that spraying is on the rise. Each artist usually has their own social media account that is just for their work, typically Instagram and Facebook, that is not at all connected to their personal lives. Rob even commented that “it’s trendy, it is getting likes on social media, and it is catering to people’s secret desires to be an anarchist. With things happening like Brexit, people, especially younger people want a way to stick it to the government without having too many repercussions. Since there is a flood of people reaching for the can, they feel safe”.
*did not want to give his last name for sake of anonymity