Railway arches, abandoned warehouses, bus shelters – we all know where graffiti is meant to live, right? We also know that it’s generally uninvited and, if the powers that be carry through on their promises, it will be painted over or removed as swiftly as possible.
Despite the fame of artists like Banksy, whose work is preserved and sold for substantial amounts of cash, the perennial argument around graffiti rages on.
Is it art or vandalism? Is it a vital part of the urban landscape or an eyesore that devalues property? And now, perhaps a more intriguing question has cropped up – does it belong on the walls of offices?
Considering how many artists are being commissioned to bring graffiti into the workplace, the answer is shaping up to be an overwhelming “yes” – and it’s not only quirky design companies who are doing it. Multinational corporations are also in on the trend.
Feel free to chuckle at the thought of corporate personnel brainstorming in a meeting room with tagged-up tables and chairs and a graffiti-covered wall (good backdrop for PowerPoint presentations, one presumes?). Yet this very scenario can be found at the Rotterdam headquarters of Unilever, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of food and home products. The corporate giant had the job done by a group of Dutch graffiti artists called the LastPlak Crew.
Of course, there are the more obvious unions of office and graffiti. The television studios of Nuts magazine employed graffiti artists to paint the length of a corridor leading to its primary offices, which somehow befits a rowdy, lads mag atmosphere.Contributing artist Kev Mundy from UndertheHat, a graffiti graphics and clothing company in Basingstoke, says that positive feedback from the job has led to more work.
Most of the projects are in trendier offices, says Mundy, although he has also done graffiti in the Wholesale Warehouse in east London – so it’s not just the cool crowd who see the value of this particular art form.
“Omar, one of the owners of the warehouse, takes his clients into his office with graffiti to create a more relaxed and friendly environment,” explains Mundy. “He told me to make it young and fresh with lots of bright colour. The other rooms are stale and old-looking but now that one is quite young and hip.”
So when did graffiti transition from an illegal form of self-expression on the street to a viable design element?
“I do think that graffiti is in vogue right now,” says Felipe Falé, business manager for office design company Iduna. “It’s being approached as a decoration item but there is more to it. It’s an affirmation of a whole urban aesthetic that needs to be addressed and should have a place in the mind of the modern designer.”
At the Ofitec show in Madrid, Iduna showcased its collaboration with Portuguese graffiti artist Francisco Bernardo – plain white storage cabinets sprayed with graffiti images. The ideas went far beyond the visuals themselves though.
“We don’t want to see it as a trend. We want to see it as a way of demystifying the graffiti as an act of vandalism, and demystifying the idea of a cabinet as just a cabinet,” says Falé. “It is the irreverence of the graffiti clashing with the architectural design of the cabinet. Graffiti is part of a new language that aims not to obscure or damage the base material, but to raise awareness of its versatility and ability to endure change.”
But not all graffiti in work environments has originated with such lofty ideals. Office Projects Ltd in London was inspired to install a tongue-in-cheek graffiti mural after its premises were broken into, laptops and key equipment stolen and spray-painted tags left behind on a brand new wall of storage units.
“They made a right mess of the place. We were in the midst of doing a mini-refit so we decided to take the mickey out of ourselves and enhance the graphic wall as a reminder of the urban environment we live in,” says marketing manager David Nagy. “As an organisation, we take what we do very seriously, but we still like to have a little bit of a laugh at our own expense. The great thing about urban art applied in this way is that we can change it easily – in the same way that real graffiti evolves.”
However, Elliot Thorpe of graphics firm Genix, who carried out the work for Office Projects Ltd, reveals that the mural isn’t graffiti in the proper sense. Instead, a “graffiti effect” was created from images and self-adhesive vinyl.
Thorpe says the demand for such graphics is growing as offices try to tart things up a bit, such as the graffiti-type graphics in Richard Hywel Evans’ offices that nod to the firm’s new East End location.
“It’s a reaction to our environment – there is a lot of graffiti around here. It’s a very different feel from where we came from in the West End,” explains sales manager Dickon Hayward. The graphics are abstracted images of the firm’s past projects – though indistinguishable as such. The colour and scale of the photographic images have been tinkered with, then traced over, to create the graffiti-type graphics.
“Our office is in an old warehouse building and it was a real ramshackle place when we moved in,” says Hayward. “In the process of doing that, the graphics wall seemed a more exciting option than painting.”
Aesthetic enhancement, artistic collaboration, reaction against robbery, reflection of an urban environment – most people would agree that these are all valid reasons to use graffiti in the office.
Most people, that is, except Roy Johnson, a member of the UK’s Anti-Graffiti Association, who has been highly vocal in various forums against the illegal act of graffiti and its promotion. What does he make of the idea of graffiti slowly seeping into offices?
“The Association is not in favour of anything that glorifies or attempts to glorify graffiti,” he barks. “If it’s acceptable in the office, it’s acceptable out there in the world. It worries me that young people will see it and then think it’s acceptable to put it on wall cabinets, chairs and then… out on the street!!” Harrumph.
Come on Roy, all the kids are doing it…