From Renegade to Respectable: How Street Art Is Changing the Urban Landscape


Street art used to be an outlaw phenomenon. Graffiti writers would ply their trade on the sly, tagging subway cars, train trestles and water towers, and then disappear, leaving their colorful calling cards behind.

But like other outsider movements, street art has since gained respectability, with festivals and galleries around the world devoted to the art form. And in many cities, and among many building owners, it’s no longer seen as a nuisance, but as a boon.

The rise of street art festivals and image sharing on social media has helped drive a dramatic rise in popularity.

Street art has become a relatively inexpensive way for municipalities and developers to invigorate the built environment, says Lee Bofkin, the co-founder and CEO of London-based street art agency Global Street Art.

“People are reaching out to [companies like mine] and saying, we want to change our neighborhood, or we have a very large private or public space we want to invigorate,” he says. “Developers are really trying to talk about how to activate their public spaces [using street art].”

Street art’s move toward the mainstream has been driven by several factors, Bofkin says. One key, he suggests, is the increasing technical sophistication of the art form. With the rise of digital tools and improvements in traditional ones like spray paint, “the materials have become much more technically complicated and varied, and you can do more with them,” he says.

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Mural in London for Adidas by Oliver Switch and other artists, produced by Global Street Art.

At the same time, the rise of street art festivals and image sharing on social media has helped drive a dramatic rise in popularity.

“The majority of street art that you and I see is not on the street. It’s online, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,” Bofkin says. “And people share the stuff they like most, so it’s basically converting new fans. You only need one example of how good street art can change a public space, and that image, that notion, spreads around the world.”

This rise in popularity has made it easier for street artists to earn a living from their work, which has led to higher visibility and higher technical quality, he adds. And that, in turn, has drawn the eyes of more established figures like city planners, developers and landlords.

Street art began as a largely urban phenomenon, Bofkin notes, and cities remain focal points of the art form today. That said, you can come across it anywhere. “You find it in small shipping villages in the north of Norway,” he says, adding that his firm’s website features artists from more than 100 countries.

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Mural in Abu Dhabi for Aldar Properties, produced by Global Street Art.

“The modern street art movement has collided with, integrated and assimilated the local cultures of painting and muralism around the world,” he says. And while, from a real estate perspective, street art is perhaps most commonly associated with buildings in arts districts or housing for creative businesses like tech and advertising, Bofkin says his company’s clients span a broad spectrum.

“We’ve painted everything from giant power stations in Abu Dhabi to insurance company offices,” he says. “It’s not just the tech companies that are paying attention.”

We’ve painted everything from giant power stations in Abu Dhabi to insurance company offices.

Whether a particular city’s street art scene flourishes depends on a variety of factors, Bofkin says, among them, the presence of a strong community of artists and an amenable legal environment and culture.

“It’s really a matter of how strong, well organized and talented the local artists community is; how open-minded and accessible the landlord and developer community is. And what does the local law look like? Is it geared up to enable street art to happen with low amount of administration?” he says.

In Toronto, for instance, street art and other public art is funded by various taxes, Bofkin notes, adding that cities like London, Berlin, Melbourne and Bogotá also have thriving street art scenes.

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Mural in Liverpool by artist Beta, funded by Sustrans and organized by Global Street Art.

On the other hand, officials in São Paulo, traditionally a street art hotbed, recently launched an effort to paint over buildings with murals, sparking heated debates about the role and value of these images.

Nonetheless, Bofkin predicts that, such occasional reversals aside, street art will become an increasingly common part of the urban landscape.

“With the trends and all of the organization that’s taken place over the last 15 years, it’s inevitable that our cities will be more painted in the future,” he says. “It’s absolutely happening.”


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