In a world beleaguered by companies vying for attention, there’s something to be said about advertisements that stand out. Graffiti Life, a London based agency, paints ads that speak, images with character and soul.
What began with a couple friends painting bedrooms has grown into a reputable art firm, with a clientele that lists the likes of Google, Microsoft, Adidas, Nike, and Disney, to name a few. Established in 2010, the Graffiti Life team does more than just paint murals for big companies – their services include everything from painting office interiors and exteriors, to hosting workshops on art.
While in London, I stopped by the Graffiti Life office in Shoreditch. From the building terrace, I could see the streets below; several of the agencies murals were visible, one a promo for the London Shuffle Club, another sponsored by the World Wildlife Foundation, dedicated to awareness about the extinction threat faced by tigers.
I spoke with David, one of the founders of Graffiti Life. During our interview we talked about growing a business, gentrification in Shoreditch, and David’s own artistic journey, from graffiti writer to business owner.
As he explained, “Graffiti Life was born when we realized there’s something more here.”
In 2010, David was at a crossroads in his life.
“I saw a lot of my friends and peers go to jail, for graffiti.”
Frustrated with the harsh punishments and the media demonization of an art he had been practicing for a decade, David considered what path to take forward.
He knew he wanted to do art – the question was, how to make a living from it.
David had tried the gallery route, to no avail. While he’d sold some cavasses, the money coming in wasn’t enough to cover the bills. Not to mention that his life painting in the streets met a cultural dissonance with the white-walled world. David knew he had talent, having clocked his 10,000 hours, but there didn’t seem to be a platform for him to go legit.
David wasn’t born an art prodigy. As a kid he loved coloring books, and took an interest in cartoons and comics. But at 15 when he took the GCSE, London’s standardized test for academic qualifications, he scored a C. He got middle grades in art; in his words, “not a good mark.”
But as a teen, David fell in love with the graffiti subculture.
“[I had] some of the most fun times of my life, crazy adrenaline rushes. Bonding with friends, sleeping on the couches of people who didn’t even speak the same language, [it was] kind of a brotherhood.”
However, one of David’s school teacher’s told him, “art was not a career option” and that he should be more “realistic.” Coming from an authority figure, someone meant to inspire you, David took the comments to heart. But not as a lecture – as a challenge.
“Luckily, I’m rebellious.” David grinned. “I’ve got a bit of ‘fuck you’ in me, so I thought well I’m definitely doing that, then.”
David decided one way or another, he would make art his life.
At the ten-year mark in his painting career, David came to the crossroads. After talking to a few friends, he realized they were in a similar boat.
David suggested, “Well why don’t we build something, so we can make opportunities for ourselves. Let’s make our own platform.”
Making a Business
“We started this because we thought it could work. We had no idea if it would work.”
Like any start-up, David and his co-founders Iona and Adam learned what it takes to make a business through trial and error.
In the early days, business was slow, but they took jobs where they could. To save on cash, David moved back in with his parents. Each day, he would put in the hours for Graffiti Life, but with leads hard to come by, he’d end up spending time bullshitting on the internet. One day, a mentor caught him on Facebook, and David got a hard lecture:
“If you had no money coming in, and you knew you would not eat tonight unless you made the money… how would you be working differently?
The lesson cut deep. David realized his safety net was limiting his ability to grow.
“I was setting up a business and I wasn’t acting like I was starving.” The epiphany reshaped David’s thoughts on Graffiti Life. “You have to go all in and double down.”
Graffiti Life earned a reputation for painting quality work, and through word-of-mouth they started to find more clients. As more work came in, David’s responsibilities as a business owner grew.
“Hiring our first member of staff was a big decision. When you’re paying their wages, their livelihood, you can’t have a bad month.”
However, investing in new staff has had a positive return. Now 8 years into the business, Graffiti Life has grown to a team 15 employees, as well as several freelance artists who work part time on various projects.
David explained with pride; “I just want this to grow, so we can help as many artists as possible to make money from their art.”
The success of Graffiti Life hasn’t been without its missteps. In their mission to give back to artists, Graffiti Life established a gallery as a side project. Running a gallery is difficult, even under the best conditions, and the team invested a lot of time and money into the project.
“We wanted to give shows to people… We never set out to make money [from the gallery], but we wanted the project to be able to support itself, because it was about giving back to artists.”
David learned the difficult side of managing artists. Several of the artists they invited to participate in the gallery didn’t take it seriously, acting entitled and unprofessional. They missed deadlines to submit and didn’t promote the show among their audience, lashing out at Graffiti Life when their art didn’t sell like they wanted.
The gallery was never financial sustainable and ran a lot loss. Still, Graffiti Life kept it running for 3 years, until it became clear that the team would need to cut their losses and move on from the project.
“You can’t expect success overnight. But it was a thankless job…. Maybe if everyone had been grateful, we’d still do it.”
Despite setbacks, Graffiti Life has continued to grow. As the staff and team have gotten bigger and bigger, they’ve upgraded offices a few times. They started in a small garage in Norwood, South London, before moving to Brick Lane five years ago. They’ve been in their current Shoreditch office for four months, and soon they’ll be moving to an even bigger space.
Graffiti versus Street Art
The label graffiti is often associated with “vandalism, destruction, all of these negative words.” Given this, I wondered if their name would hurt their commercial brand. But for David, the name Graffiti Life was a representation of his art form, and the life it had given him.
“Street art didn’t exist when I was painting Graffiti. It wasn’t a word people used.”
The question of what is street art and what is graffiti leads to vague answers at best, because the two arts are so intertwined. Some people insinuate that the difference between street art and graffiti is legality, but David brushed aside labels.
“I don’t really care if you’re a graffiti artist, a street artist, a spray can artist, a muralist, a public artist… all these names that get bandied about for what is basically the same thing. Painting outside. Sometimes you have permission, sometimes you don’t have permission. At the end of the day, you’re painting. Making the world a brighter place.”
The idea of street art didn’t take off ’til the mid-2000s, and David’s experience came from the days before coffee table books and public acceptance.
“Trains, trackside, abandoned buildings —it’s taken me to the weirdest places. From abandoned hotels and warehouses that you’ve got to trek 6 miles to get to, with all your paint on your back. Waking up at 4 am, hiding in bushes… That’s what made us who we are.”
With graffiti, David traveled, painting the world. In Europe some of his favorite memories were in Belgium and Amsterdam. David even painted at the legendary 5-Pointz in New York a number of times.
“Meres is the soundest guy. Super cool. He’s doing a lot to support artists. I have a lot of respect for that.”
Some graffiti writers moan about those who paint legal ‘street art,’ seeing it as a betrayal of the culture. (David himself admitted to having that the mindset when he was younger.) However, as he puts it, “I grew up.”
With over a decade of illegal work under his belt, David paid his dues. Now an adult with a family, a business, and a mortgage, David can’t live life as carelessly as when he was 18 and had nothing to lose.
“At my age, the risk for painting illegally could have serious repercussions on my life.”
Still, he doesn’t want to discourage young graffiti artists. To David, kids tagging walls is just them learning to express themselves. The beginning of an artistic journey, much like the one he took.
He joked. “They could also be a little shit-bag and never do anything with it.” David smiled. “But a lot of them will grow and get bitten by the bug and start progressing and doing more.”
For David, the bottom line is this:
“If you’re making something rad, I’m into it.”
These days the team explores paint in all forms, whether that’s street art, murals, or advertisements. However, the name remains an homage to their origins.
David explained; “I’ve had the most surreal experiences of my life because of graffiti. For me, we called ourselves Graffiti Life when we started, because graffiti gave everything to us.”
David attributes much of the success of Graffiti Life to the team’s ability to understand their client’s needs.
“If it’s something you want to make a living from, you’re reliant on an audience to see value… I think artists forget that making art is transactional, it’s a 50/50 deal with your audience. If you’re only making it 100% for yourself and neglecting that other people are looking at it, that can be a problem.”
David explained it in terms of his own career.
“I’m not the best artist in the word, but I’m successful. That’s because I understand marketing. I understand branding. And I understanding that I could make 5 million pieces of art, but if I didn’t have anyone to see it, what would it matter?”
But as with any craft, marketing can only take you so far, if you don’t have the skills to back it up. In meeting the needs of clients, David has had to push his own skills. While his personal style focuses on photorealistic imagery, he forced himself to learn lettering, so that he could provide a wider range of options to Graffiti Life customers.
His advice to aspiring artists: “Push through the boredom of doing stuff you’re not good at. Be confident in your own talent. Practice. If you’re not good enough, then put in the work. Hard work is so important.”
In getting his message to a broader audience, David has ambitions to someday do a TED Talk, as well as to write a book, tentatively titled ‘How to Make Money from Art.’
“I’m of the belief that there’s no such thing as talent. It’s all hard work. …If people aren’t willing to put in the work, then nothing’s gonna happen.”
David is as enthusiastic as ever about Graffiti Life, and the future possibilities it can bring.
“They are artists who are able to pay their rent, because of the jobs we’re providing for them. That’s what gets me up in the morning. I love it.”
He laughed, remembering the teacher who told him to be more ‘realistic.’
“If I had been more realistic, I wouldn’t be sitting here, doing what I absolutely love, every single day.”
“Everyone should do what they love every single day. If they’re not, they’re wasting their life. Cause you’ve only got one, and if you’re not doing what you love, what’s the fucking point?”
Written by T.K. Mills
Photos Provided by Graffiti Life and T.K. Mills
For more by the author, check out his website tkmills.com
To learn more about Graffiti Life, check out their website: https://graffitilife.co.uk/
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