Economics of Graffiti

Sometimes I ask myself if market forces are broken. All over my suburb I get art, totally for free.

An army of workers accept nil pay, terrible hours, and poor conditions to head out and paint each night.

Right near Clifton Hill StationNot only do they work without pay, but they are forced to buy their own materials and if they get busted, the justice system is not kind.

I guess the economists whose models rely on rational actors maximising their consumption never woke up to find this on their back fence:

taggedWhat motivates these characters? Is it the cash??

Once upon a time, the notion would have been ridiculous. Graffiti was a way to raise your status among people who never had the chance to finish school or get the Benz. There was no money in it.

Is graffiti different today?

Two storeys tall. That's a lot of paint.

Piece by Putos.

The answer is both yes and no.

The graffiti economy works for guys like Cope2, who grew up in the Bronx and illegally painted subway trains for 20 years before cashing in. He sells pieces for around €3000. Banksy is the other case in point – probably the most notable street art millionaire.

Sheaprd Fairey (the HOPE guy) has also cashed in big time with his OBEY clothing line. Even Justin Bieber is dabbling in “street art.”

Then there’s things like this:

Royal Doulton puts these posters up in dodgy laneways near my house.
Posh dinnerware company asks: has street art jumped the shark?

How has graffiti gone from definitely underground to potentially lucrative? The difference is in the web.

Some graffiti really caught my eye when I was growing up but it was difficult to take interest in what was going on and turn it into understanding or appreciation.

Then the internet came along. I contend that it has done for graffiti what radio did for music. Made some superstars.

The first Melbourne artist I really googled is Rone, who paints pretty girls all over the place and is kind of a gateway drug for graffiti appreciation

Rone and wonderfresh street art - Won't Stop
Rone and Wonderfresh mural, Wellington St, Collingwood

Rone’s instagram reveals that he has recently been in Miami for Art Basel, after a stint in London painting in Shoreditch and being hosted by a gallery to paint a huge wall in Berlin.

The guys who I first noticed up around Collingwood and Fitzroy are from the Everfresh Crew. They have an extensive internet presence and advertise services for rent. Oh yes, there’s money in them thar walls.

Makatron
Makatron paints animals.

Collingwood’s Backwoods gallery is also in the game. They bridge “the gap between the street and the gallery wall, whilst remaining authentic to their artists’ history and vision,” by selling prints for around $100.

There’s not heaps of cash in it, but there is certainly the opportunity for travel.

Some Melbourne artists I follow on Instagram (e.g. dvate) recently took off for the Tahiti Graffiti festival (sponsors include a hotel chain, a bank and the Alliance Francaise.)

Many were already Pacific-savvy after having recently gone to the Hawaii Graffiti festival (sponsors include an airline and a clothing company.)

It seems the internet lets the artists who patrol the night control their image, and helps make money from it.

So is graffiti just another culture co-opted by capitalism?

jetso pzr
Jetso and Pzor

Not yet. Melbourne’s graffiti scene is arguably dominated by two names. Jetso and Pzor. And this is where you can go down the rabbit hole and end up like me, taking a photo of a dumpster.

If you start looking for them, they are everywhere. Their work tends not to be elaborate pieces but quick bubble-letter throw-ups, tags and stickers.

pzor left, jetso right
pzor left, jetso right

They have no website, no instagram, no representation in the gallery scene (as far as I know). Their art is not visually appealling at first. The art is in the effort. It’s hard to find a part of inner Melbourne, east to west, that shows none of their finger prints. Once you start to notice, it’s hard not to admire.

For these guys, there’s no money in it. And that tells you that for them, graffiti is not work. The question I asked above about market forces being broken is irrelevant. For these guys, painting is leisure. They’re doing it for the love of it. I respect that.

Melbourne is an amazing place, and it gets even better if you can appreciate the art that’s all around you. Here’s three amazing Melbourne graffiti artists you should know.

1. Rone

2. TwoOne

3. Lush (The artist behind the pirate cat. Also dabbles in cartoons. Often nsfw (not safe for work.))

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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