When David Speed was a teenager, scrambling over train tracks to paint graffiti on station walls and buying spray cans from car boot sales, he never imagined he would be paid by the likes of Microsoft or the Metropolitan Police for his hobby. Yet this year, Mr. Speed, who has five members of staff and 30 freelancers on his books, expects to raise revenues of £260,000. Three years ago he formed a company, Graffiti Life, to create advertising, murals on company walls and corporate bonding sessions. He is also big in bar mitzvahs.
Like most creatives who have turned their skill into a business, the humdrum nitty-gritty of accounts and marketing take up the bulk of his time. “I probably spend 80 per cent of my time talking about graffiti and 20 per cent actually doing it. I would be happy to go and paint every day but that’s not realistic because we have to build a business.”
Tucked away in a shop off east London’s Brick Lane, home to hipster coffee bars, boutiques and tattoo shops, Mr. Speed, wearing a smart hooded jacket and rucksack, is unpacking at his new headquarters – a small gallery with white walls, completely bare except for a small picture of Elvis on the light switch. Adam Brazier, an architecture student turned graffiti artist, is discussing his weekend mission: to find the best chicken and burger joint in London. Iona Thomas, the company project manager who also looks after the accounts, strides in mid-morning, wearing a black turban and gold lamé jacket.
Despite the fashionable atmosphere, Mr. Speed is keen to portray his business as serious, not quirky.
He is often taken aback by some of the “suits” who participate in his team-building sessions. “Sometimes, the corporates are worse than the schoolkids [he also does art workshops with children]. We give them a couple of minutes at the beginning to just let off steam and go and write on the wall, and get it out of their system before we actually focus.”
Graffiti art lends itself to the cut and thrust of commerce, Mr. Speed insists. “Whenever you’re painting a wall it’s an unwritten [rule] that you are competing against the people you’re painting with. There is always a sense of one-upmanship.”
In the U.S., Erik Wahl, a graffiti artist who has just published a business book on the creative process, The Art of Vision, is a motivational speaker.
In a world where consumers are bombarded by images on social media, television and the street, companies are seeking out bespoke advertising. “Everyone is trying to engage people [with their marketing]. It’s so easy with this stuff. It’s made for that. People automatically want to share it because they think it’s cool.”
Businesses in search of gritty urban cool, however, can be nervous about contacting graffiti artists directly, which is where Graffiti Life can step in: “They know that they can trust us,” says Mr. Speed. “They’re not just going and picking someone up off the street.”
Mr. Speed will consider most projects. At a bar mitzvah, for example, a couple of artists turn up at the party and tag personalized designs on to guests’ hats or shirts.
Raised in south London and adopted by parents who fostered children, he is keen to kill the image of a graffiti artist as a product of a difficult childhood. “I don’t come from a broken home. My dad was a plumber for many years. It’s a stereotype that a lot of graffiti artists are smashing people’s windows [and doing petty crime]”. In the 1970s and 1980s, tagging – writing a graffiti artist’s name – became popular, and was associated with dereliction, dilapidation and vandalism. Aged 17, he told his mother of his ambitions. “I [would say], ‘I’m going to be a famous artist’ and she said ‘not doing that graffiti you won’t’.” Now she loves it.
He learnt most of his craft on a wall in Brighton where it was legal to paint, and he was free from the anxiety of being stopped by the police for vandalism. Then, in 2000, there were a few legal spots where he could paint, before local authorities closed them.
Between 2003 and 2005 it was very difficult to paint anywhere, he says. During this period, he was working as a teaching assistant in a primary school. “I took a lot of pride in being a positive male role model to these kids because it was quite a rough school and a lot of them didn’t have that in their lives”.
By day, he would teach and at night he went out to paint. It was a “strange time”, he says. “If any of them had said to me they wanted to paint graffiti, I would have absolutely not approved.” It was, he realises, a hypocritical stance.
In order to graduate from teaching assistant to teacher, he studied fine art at university. There he was taught by a bitter tutor who had a profound impact. “He [said] if you’re going to be an artist, your future is working in a café, getting just enough money to support yourself. Basically, you were never going to make any money out of art. And I just thought, ‘I think I can’.”
Luck played a big part, as did his quiet confidence. In 2003 came the “Banksy explosion.” Graffiti was no longer viewed as vandalism but as high art. He credits the elusive Bristol street artist, whose stencilled satirical works comment on consumerist society and war, with transforming attitudes to graffiti. “Love him or hate him, his stuff is clever. He is a brand.”
Banksy’s works now fetch hundreds of thousands at auction. In 2007 his work “Space Girl and Bird”, was sold by Bonhams of London for £288,000, 20 times the estimated price. Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera are among his celebrity collectors. Mr. Speed’s view counters the prevailing attitude to Banksy among the graffiti community, which sees him as a sellout.
Much of the criticism is down to jealousy, Mr. Speed says. “Most people start graffiti because they want to become well known. Who’s done that better than Banksy? Who did it better than him? No one.” Without Banksy, Mr. Speed says he would have no business. “He opened the door.”
Surely Graffiti Life’s work for multinationals such as Microsoft or BMW runs counter to the subversive, secretive ethos of street art? Despite selling for thousands, Banksy’s message is counter-capitalist. He once wrote: “You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”
For Mr. Speed, working for companies is a means to an end.
“There are people who are keeping it real and working a job that they hate and then go out and paint on the weekends. I did that. But working for those clients gives me the opportunity to do what I love every day. So you can call it selling out, but I’m trying to build a successful business”.
Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.