Street art, urban art, graffiti - whatever you call it - the big brands want a piece. Nick Spence discovers the artists successfully mixing creative expression with commerce.
For advertising agencies and big brands such as MTV, Nike, Reebok and Xbox, the appeal of incorporating street, urban and graffiti art into their campaigns is obvious. "Brands like MTV and Nike are ostensibly youth brands, so they will naturally use imagery that reflects what the youth are perceived to be into," insists Richard Blackshaw of Scrawl Collective, which showcases some of the best street artists around. With artists such as the ubiquitous Banksy, Shepard Fairey, D*Face and Invader gaining mainstream attention, guerilla marketing on the rise and an anniversary of sorts celebrated at the recent Street Art Awards, the underground is very much in vogue.
While many have welcomed the exposure, the majority would be drawing, painting and spraying with or without the attention of big business. Much of the appeal of art that originates on the streets is its temporary nature, the thrill of creating on the fly, free of Mac and mouse, and the competitive comradeship along with the kudos and respect that comes with producing art for the love of it. For Nicholas Hardy, director of Factory 311, whose origins are as a graffiti agency, street art has the ability to shock and awe: "It offers that raw feeling of creativity. It creates that effect of 'the second look' - the jaw-dropped expression of the end viewer when they see actual footage of it being created. There is nothing more powerful than seeing something being created with freehand artistry, especially when it comes from a spray can."
The power of street art is evidenced by Peter Kennard, whose politicised photomontage artwork has been displayed in The British Museum, The Imperial War Museum and the V&A as well as on the streets. "It seems to me street art came about because people wanted to speak out about everyday situations - it wasn't about selling objects, although that's all changed because money is involved now. It always happens with capitalism: anything that has political or social energy gets taken up by the system and sold, for instance selling street art in galleries."
However, continues Kennard, street art's invasion of the fine art and advertising worlds is changing those worlds for the better. "As most [street artists] haven't been though art school, there is a raw direct energy running through it all." Banksy and his big-selling contemporaries, he suggests, are supporting young artists: "They have made a lot of money, but they are putting some of it back [into] encouraging new street artists. Due to the recession, the commercial bubble currently around street art probably won't continue, with the exception of Banksy and others, which might not be a bad thing. We may see some more political messages coming though, which will be good."
Harnessing that freedom of expression and turning an often raw talent into someone who can fulfil a brief is something that, until recently, has been difficult. Concerns amongst street-based artists over not receiving the same kind of monetary gains that more structured or established design studios might earn has also been raised. "We never got taken seriously at first, and agreeing on a fair budget was always difficult," explains Hardy.
Monorex, a successful collective of street-based artists, was formed specifically to address concerns over not being treated as worthy artists. "This can sometimes be the case," offers Monorex founder Terry Guy, "especially when the artist has little experience on the business side and is representing themselves. One of the main reasons we started Monorex was to collaborate as a group of creative individuals and protect ourselves from the dangers of the outside world."
Being fashionable can, of course, be a double-edged sword. Big business has a tendency to absorb and spit out trends in a desperate rush to appear cutting edge. Accusations of 'selling-out' to brand names, simply adding logos to street designs, may deter some but, for Richard Blackshaw, street art has learned a lot from advertising: "Street art has been influenced by advertising far more than the reverse. Ideas in graffiti, like repetition of the same image or tag over and over again, I believe are symptomatic of our times - all information must be broken down into easily digestible concepts. I think the reason advertising companies like street art so much is because they were made for each other. They are natural allies." Despite some clear concerns, Blackshaw believes working with big clients shouldn't always mean compromise. "It's often a very easy relationship. Obviously there are bound to be moments of awkwardness between a corporate agenda and an artist's agenda, but today advertising is a lot more to do with branding and brand awareness than hard-selling specific products, and this suits street art's more vague concerns."
Microsoft typified this type of relationship between artist and brand when it launched its Zune portable media player in 2006. Although its core advertising and marketing was handled by the Stardust creative agency, Microsoft roped in a range of street artists and graffiti writers to take on the iPod's brand status.
Artists including famed LA graffiti writers Tempt One and Slick, former Computer Arts cover artist SKWAK and numerous other illustrators and artists produced bespoke designs for the Zune casings.
Brands, suggests Terry Guy, will always be happy to invest in anything 'hot', and the relationship can benefit both parties if handled correctly. "I can think of so many examples of global brands getting it wrong and, basically, misunderstanding the scene they are buying into," he says. "It is great to see brands supporting any type of movement or event but, for it to be successful and respected as a piece of art in its own right, it needs to stay true to what the artist feels is right." Originality will ultimately help ensure your work remains respected and valid, however fickle fashion might be. "Making a living from street art is definitely possible, as long as you're pushing the boundaries and always striving to be different," concludes Hardy.