Prison sentences, protests and regeneration - the changing role of street art

From being sentenced to a 10 year stretch to being invited by a local council to put their work over a council estate, it’s clear that there are still some differing attitudes towards the role of graffiti artists in modern society.

However there’s no doubt that respect for the practice has grown in recent years. We spoke to professional graffiti artist, David Speed [below, right], to understand more about the role of graffiti and public art in mainstream culture.

In 2010 Speed founded Graffiti Life, a platform that provides opportunities for artists and creatives, in response to the lack of viable opportunities at the time. The team grew from three to 15 people in the years that followed and Graffiti Life now works with some of the world’s most influential brands daily, painting walls and collaborating on other creative projects.

What role do you think art and creativity play in society?

Art and creativity play a fundamental role in society, it's what sets us apart from other species and a world without it would be impossible to live in. Creativity is the most important thing and it's the reason that society continues to evolve. It's the reason that we now live in historically the best time to be alive, ever. Creativity is strongly linked to art, music, dance and so on, but it's responsible for so much more than that. It's how the wheel was invented, it sparks the innovation that our world is built on.

How effective a tool is art in highlighting important political or social issues?

Every revolution starts with art. Murals on the West side of the Berlin Wall showed the unrest of the people before it fell. Protest songs against the Vietnam war helped mobilise the youth, which swayed public opinion and ended the war. A few years ago the Je Suis Charlie movement bought huge awareness to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and to freedom of speech as a whole. It's very effective and with social media it can be even more powerful today. When Trump is impeached art will have helped to make that happen. And yes, I argue that videos and memes on twitter are an art.

How important is it that we have art in public places?

I've been painting since 2000, the world has changed a lot since then. There was no social media, the internet wasn't much of a thing and graffiti was very different. The term 'street art' didn't exist, there were no coffee table books about it and it was, for the most part, an underground subculture. Around '08 and '09 several of my peers were being sent to prison, with long sentences for painting graffiti. I was reading headlines about 'destruction' and 'vandalism' but something was missing for me.

The art my friends and I were making was fun and colourful! People would drive by and beep their horns or roll down their windows and shout approval, old ladies brought us cups of tea. It was this public feedback that brought about the idea of Graffiti Life and it's the same reaction we get when painting in public today. We've been involved in community regeneration projects and they can literally transform an area. Our studio is based in Shoreditch and walking to work every day is like visiting an art gallery for free. There are new paintings being produced all the time, it's such an exciting time to be an artist and producing work in the streets allows you to reach a huge audience.

Why is it important that children are taught about the creative industries?

School was designed 200 years ago, in the Industrial Revolution, to produce factory workers that were crucial at the time. The formula hasn’t really changed since then but the world has. School prepares us for a future that doesn’t exist anymore and as we move into the realm of automation and AI, the system will quickly become even more ridiculously out-dated. The creative industries are worth more than £90billion per year to the UK which is, according to the creative industries federation; more than the automotive, life sciences, aerospace, oil and gas sectors combined.

Despite that; drama, design, music and art are disappearing from the curriculum. We don’t teach children about the creative industries, we don't teach them that they can be an art director, a curator, or a film maker. We don’t even teach them what those titles mean. But much worse than that, we don’t teach them how to be creative - how to develop the skill of creativity. We are currently working with brands on a consultancy level, to teach their staff to be more creative, to unlearn school. This country needs creativity, our economy definitely does. The world we’re heading into will be dominated by the creative.

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