Why you should care
Because a loan officer with a spray nozzle is an unlikely sight.
Bankers survey the materials lined up for them in an outdoor studio on London’s edgy Portobello Road: spray cans, stencils and tagging gear — the kind of supplies normally used to create graffiti while the city sleeps. But the white-collar professionals in protective jumpsuits are not going out to make their mark illegally on a neighborhood that has already attracted Banksy and a wealth of other street artists. This is strictly a team-building exercise taking place within the confines of the Graffik Gallery, which has turned the making of graffiti into mainstream — and corporate — entertainment.
Founder Oliver Fox is not an artist, but a former headhunter who sold his collection in 2008 to fulfill his ambition to make street art a marketable commodity. From giving artists a space to exhibit and sell their work, he has moved on to offering workshops for bachelor and bachelorette parties, kids’ parties and 50th birthday celebrations, as well as to corporate groups that are looking, he believes, to kick-start their employees’ creative thinking.
But are they practicing a valid creative activity? Sarah Walters, arts editor of the U.K.’s Manchester Evening News, is not so sure. “Street art can be humorous, subversive and provocative,” she says, but these are individualistic sentiments — not the kind encouraged in a team-building exercise that is designed to bond a group of people through a shared activity.
Most street artists stay below the radar, but they’re generous about sharing their techniques.
Oliver Fox, founder of Graffik Gallery
Workshops last for two hours and cost around $65 per head. Groups sizes range anywhere from five to 40. Around 50 percent are corporate events for companies such as J.P. Morgan, Barclays Bank and sundry law firms, as well as Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Participants are first taken on a tour of the current neighborhood scribblings to get inspired. Then the instructor covers various graffiti techniques before inviting participants to practice their skills on a freshly whitewashed wall — which features the company logo for corporate sessions — in the studio’s backyard.
On hand to help at the sessions — drawing on a repertoire of four or five teachers — are the likes of artist Paul “Don” Smith, who has been decorating London streets for more than 20 years, and others who prefer not to state their identity. “Most street artists stay below the radar, but they’re generous about sharing their techniques,” says Fox. He points out the use of spray cans and stencils is not taught in conventional art classes and graffiti is not as easy as the results may make it look.
Is there an upside to merging the art of the streets with men and women in suits? Walters believes that if the workshops aid in the tolerance and understanding of the skills needed for good street art — and its power to convey a message — then “perhaps giving it a little corporate tickle in the careful hands of street artists isn’t as harmful for its reputation as it at first appears to be.”
One thing’s for sure — since Banksy put his work on canvas and started attracting six-figure sums, street art has entered the mainstream in ways its early practitioners never envisaged. So perhaps learning how to wield the spray-nozzle and cut a stencil is a useful skill for bankers who, after all, have seen their numbers decimated in a volatile era. They may one day want to make their own protest.