Whatever your opinion of street art and graffiti, there’s no doubting that it’s a global creative phenomenon, with some artists finding incredible commercial success and mainstream fame. Much of it has its roots in the 1980s New York hip-hop scene, while other pieces have more in common with mediaeval frescos. In recent years, street art has taken its cues from pop art, classic portraiture and even the traditional styles of print, such as William Morris or ukiyo-e. But like all great creative genres, street art and graffiti observe and reflect life, taking inspiration from everything from politics and celebrity, to nature and fantasy worlds.
Most recently, street art and graffiti have found a second home on Instagram. Not just, as you might imagine, through artists raising their profiles and sharing new works, but in the world of influencer culture, tourism and simple, joyful art appreciation. Because their work is in the public realm, artists are more than happy to have their work shared by fans, but it is also being widely used as backdrops for photoshoots – both amateur and professional. “Street art in its essence is only temporary, so photography is so important. Photographers are the ones that keep it alive,” says David ‘Panda’ Brown, founder of graffitiartist.com and director of Birmingham, UK’s High-Vis Street Culture Festival, alongside Olly MacNamee and Juice Aleem. His company and the events offer street and graffiti artists curated and legal ways to bring their work to audiences. But Panda is seeing disappointment in the community that, more often than not, credit is not being given to the artists when their work is being used. “I think influencers should try a little bit more,” he says. ‘It’s quite easy to say they ‘didn’t know whose work it was, so how on earth could I get in touch with them?’, but there are a few little things that you can normally hunt out.”
Hunt for the tag
“A lot of street artists sign the bottom right-hand corner,” explains Panda. “But sometimes trying to decipher tags [the artists’ signature or name] can be hard. A lot of street artists put their Instagram, so you can see the @ at the start.” For graffiti artists, it’s even easier, as most simply paint their names. The recent revival of QR codes has also been adopted by some artists, especially in gallery spaces, who use stickers to link to their social accounts and websites, so keep your eyes peeled for those too.
If there are no obvious tags, “do a bit of legwork,” implores Panda. “Use Google Image Search to try and find the artist and see who to credit.” Take a quick photo of the piece of art and use the Google App to play Sherlock. Upload your snap into the search bar using the little camera icon on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, you should see ‘visual matches’ for your image – and hopefully they should lead you to the artist
Use the community
If you still can’t find the original artist, don’t give up. While graffiti and street art are sometimes divided in their goals – with some artists wanting mainstream success and other’s fiercely protective of the subculture, there is a tremendous amount of loyalty and support in the network. Panda sees this play out on social media frequently. “Say it’s [the artwork] in an Instagram post in the background,” he explains. “If 200 people have liked it and one is a street artist, they’ll tag you [the artist] into it.” Chances are, if you post your image and tag a couple of artists you do know, asking who created the piece, then you’ll get your answer.
As with the work of any artist, putting the correct acknowledgements in place is not only critical to helping them to gain further paid commissions, but it helps to grow their reputation and audience. And this is incredibly important when it comes to protecting their work and ensuring that they are compensated appropriately when it is used for commercial purposes. “I’ve been on holiday, getting an ice cream and I’ve seen wallpaper in the ice cream parlour – stuff from Digbeth [Birmingham] – all over the wall. I know the artist. And you just think how can you keep an eye on what’s going where?”
There is also a strong desire for people to understand just what it takes to be a part of this perceived ‘outpost’ of contemporary art. Panda explains: “You learn so many skills. You have to be an artist, first and foremost – you have to learn about colour, about composition. If you have a gallery exhibition, you have to photograph and print your work. You have to frame it, worry about where it’s going to go. You have to be in sales, you’ve got to be your PR, social media guru, time manager, everything…” Dropping a quick credit on Instagram or, if you’re a business or influencer, reaching out to ask for permission to use the artwork is a really easy way to acknowledge the thousands of hours that an artist has invested in beautiful work that adds so much to the world. It’s as easy as picking up your phone.
The High-Vis Street Culture Festival will be returning to Digbeth during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Follow them on Instagram for event updates, amazing street art and graffiti and more.