LONDON, United Kingdom — Tourists flock to London’s Shoreditch to admire the street art that coats the trendy neighbourhood in a riot of colour. What they may not expect to find alongside works by Banksy or Mr Cenz are the spray-painted logos of Swatch and Christian Louboutin.
From London to Los Angeles and Sao Paulo, advertisers have latched on to graffiti’s visual pull and are paying spray-paint artists to add a gritty, urban edge to their brand campaigns.
Companies that were previously put off by graffiti’s association with trespassing and criminal damage have realised the best street art can go viral on social media, giving an image splashed on the wall of a back-street office block global impact.
“The biggest brands in the world are using graffiti artists, who are basically vandals, and that’s amazing,” said Darren Cullen, founder of London-based artist collective Graffiti Kings.
Cullen, who started painting as a 10 year-old, likes to reminisce about what he considers the glory days of British street culture in the 1990s, but he says his work has never been so in demand as it is now.
Music and sportswear companies have been buying graffiti ads for several years. Now the luxury industry is getting in on the act. In May, Kering SA’s Gucci brand began a mural campaign in Mexico City, while London’s Global Street Art Agency recently made a mural for Louboutin in Shoreditch.
The biggest brands in the world are using graffiti artists, who are basically vandals, and that’s amazing.
“You’re now starting to see street wear and street culture filtering into their lines. Wall murals help them fit into that street culture vibe,” said Jay Young, creative solutions director at media planning and buying agency Talon Outdoor.
A decade ago, the ad industry’s big obsession was digital — how to grab the attention of consumers who were spending more of their time socialising and shopping online.
“What you’ve got now is the flip of that — digital is becoming business as usual, because it’s prolific, because it’s everywhere,” said Louise Stubbings, creative director at advertising agency Clear Channel UK, a unit of Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings Inc. “Our clients are always going to look for something different to make themselves stand out. That’s what you’re seeing now with graffiti and murals.”
Billboard campaigns work by bombarding consumers with simple messages and their effectiveness is typically measured by the pedestrian and vehicle traffic that passes by. Graffiti campaigns are all about gaining traction on social media.
A 17,500 square-meter (188,368 square-feet) mural that Zippo Manufacturing Co.’s lighter brand produced in east London with artist Ben Eine and Global Street Art Agency gained over 11.5 million views across all web platforms. The ad, the size of 67 tennis courts, can only be viewed properly from the sky. Another collaboration between Global Street Art Agency and Fendi, a unit of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, has gained 4 million views on YouTube.
“Nobody takes a photo of a billboard,” said David Speed, a director at Shoreditch-based street art collective Graffiti Life. “When it’s hand-painted, people pay attention to it. Not just the final product, but also the process of making it. There’s a spectacle to it. And the beautiful thing is that because people do take photos of it, it lives a second life online.”
When Speed started painting as a teenager, the term “street art” didn’t exist and graffiti wasn’t a career option, he said. “Artists like Banksy have brought this art form more into the public sphere, and with that public acceptance came opportunities.”
Not every graffiti artist is happy to see what was an anarchic art form drift into the commercial mainstream. Within the street art community, there are tensions over whether terms such as “graffiti advertising” accurately reflect what big brands are doing.
Lee Bofkin, chief executive of Global Street Art Agency, prefers the term “hand-painted advertising.”
“The aesthetic of what we’re painting is very different from what street art is generally. It’s got a lot more in common with large-format advertising, but with the skills and technique of spray paint,” said Bofkin.
Whatever you call it, brands can’t get enough. But that doesn’t mean the sector is standing still. Several recent projects are combining wall paintings with augmented reality features, suggesting that the world’s oldest out-of-door advertising format can continue to adapt.
By Greg Ritchie; editors: Rebecca Penty, Thomas Pfeiffer.