Graffiti, for decades dismissed as vandalism, is now the target of a multi-billion pound market. At high-end art fairs in London, New York and Miami, and in fashionable galleries such as Pure Evil and Stolen Space, works by the likes of Ben Eine, D*Face, JR and Stik are restored, framed and traded. It is perhaps no surprise that a piece by Bristol-born Bansky, the most famous graffiti artist of all, was recently declared to have toppled Constable’s The Hay Wain as the nation’s best-loved work of art.
Girl with a Balloon is among many works that have been removed from the street and sold, in some cases for millions. It follows that today, instead of painting over street art, urban planners and developers are saving it, copying it and even commissioning it.
Shoreditch, London’s graffiti capital, is a prime example of the trend. Here, land values have rocketed and the developers who have moved in have – somewhat paradoxically – found themselves the owners of works of art that are not only unlawful but anti-capitalist.
Just off Old Street, a hoarding painted in what looks like street art bears the logo of Exclusive Residential. Is it a hoax? It would not be the first – a few years ago, a wing of the V&A museum disappeared behind hoardings claiming it was being converted into a “unique residence”, which turned out to be the work of Scandinavian artists Elmgreen and Dragset. Exclusive Residential did not comment but it’s a good bet those colourful walls won’t be going into the skips.
The hoardings themselves might even end up on a wall; this is what happened to works by local street artists commissioned by the Peabody Housing Association, which are now in the marketing suite at Fish Island Village in Hackney Wick (prices start from £432,500).
Karim Samuels, a street art expert and guide for London Street Art Tours, says graffiti art is a performance, a hobby, a PR stunt. “It used to be vandalism but the art has matured,” he says. “If you paint nowadays, you can either end up in jail or be offered a space in an art gallery.”
Well-executed works fit into the “creative place-making” mantra loved by architects and planners. Just a couple of streets away from the Exclusive Residential site is The Stage, a 37-floor project by Galliard Homes on Curtain Road, where one of London’s first Shakespearean playhouses existed. Galliard has pledged not to hurt the famous Shoreditch Art Wall, and a collection of pop art illustrations by local street artist D*Face is on show in the marketing suite, where the slogan is: “Global finance and pinstripes succumb to edgy art”.
Galliard is also preparing to conserve the other pieces of graffiti on site. Some of the works will be cleaned up and turned into focal points for the well-heeled residents of the £750 million development. When completed in 2019, The Stage will include more than 400 luxury apartments priced from £685,000.
Down the road at The Hudson, a collection of six apartments by HC Development, a work by Banksy is to be installed in September although the developer will not yet name the piece. According to the marketing brochure, the decor will be “heavily influenced by the industrial gritty urban feel that is synonymous with Shoreditch”.
Banksy is also being used to market a luxury development in Notting Hill, which claims to be “London’s first new development designed around graffiti artwork”. The piece, which appeared overnight on the side of a Victorian house on Portobello Road, shows a traditional looking artist, palette in hand, painting the Bansky tag in bold red letters.
Enstar Capital has acquired the building and plans to move the work, already under glass, to the first floor and illuminate it. The development is to be renamed Sartoria House in honour of Ozwald Boateng, the fashion designer whose first showroom was here; a collection of his suits will be on display in the foyer. The apartments will be let as luxury turnkey pads for £1,000 per week.
It used to be vandalism but the art has matured. If you paint nowadays, you can either end up in jail or be offered a space in an art gallery
Property owners who try to sell works that have appeared on their walls overnight – particularly those by Banksy – face the challenge of who owns street art. Does it belong to the owner just because it is painted on their bricks? Stephan Keszler, a Southampton-based dealer, believes it does. As the graffiti is done on other people’s property without permission, the owners “can do whatever they want with it”, he says. Street artists generally dispute this, due to intellectual property. “There have been cases where graffiti artists have sued” for commercial use of their work without approval, says Samuels, pointing to suits against McDonald’s and Cavalli.
Another paradox in this burgeoning new economy is that street art – left untouched by other artists as an unwritten rule – is no longer safe on the street. In 2003, a stencil called Slave Labour showing a child making Union flag bunting was removed from the wall of a Poundland and shipped to Florida to be sold. The resulting outcry at this “theft of people’s art”, including a campaign by Haringey Council, scuppered the sale but it appeared soon after in London and was sold to an anonymous buyer.
A rash of similar cases led to the creation of Pest Control, a body that authenticates all of Banksy’s works. Some claim this has killed the market for Banksy’s art, as the major auction houses refuse to sell Banksy works from the street. “A Banksy only has value if it gets a certificate from Pest Control,” says art market expert Georgina Adam.
Last month, a huge illustration of Nelson Mandela, spanning three floors of a former warehouse in Camden, was unveiled by five artists from Global Street Art. Paintings such as these, which cover a whole wall, are becoming increasingly popular commissions by the owners of buildings. Erna Low, a ski property agency with an office in Kensington, commissioned a mural depicting a busy ski slope for its white external wall. Its building is next to the former home of the artist Francis Bacon, so there is also a life-size portrait of him to the side.
In New Cross, south-east London, the developer Anthology paid for a mural of mountains against a sky to be painted on top of the bottle green Marquis of Granby pub near one of its developments, Deptford Foundry (prices start from £360,000). And they’re even being moved indoors: Taylor Wimpey has commissioned a wall of vibrant graffiti for the foyer of its luxury development in Dalston, FiftySevenEast, where apartments are available from £565,000.
Using graffiti art as part of “place making” is a worldwide phenomenon better associated with the Meatpacking District in New York or Wynwood, Miami’s former industrial district. The derelict factories and warehouses of those areas provide the perfect backdrop for this style. However, the UK is quickly catching up. In West London’s White City, where an £8 billion regeneration is under way, designers Craig & Karl have painted a derelict petrol station using the colours of a TV test card as a nod to the BBC’s heritage in the area.
Digbeth in Birmingham is the UK’s most decorated urban area outside London, where the art serves as a record of the people and their stories. “Here graffiti is valued as art rather than vandalism and is not only embraced but maintained and encouraged by the community,” says Jonathan Stephens, managing director of buy-to-let advisers Surrenden Invest.
Street art style has become so fashionable that interior designers are beginning to incorporate it into their work. At Decorex, the fashionable interiors show taking place at Syon Park in September, fabric maker Timorous Beasties is launching several versions of graffiti-inspired wall coverings. It’s a more attainable way to bring street art indoors – at least for those who can’t get their hands on a Banksy.