This whole article and interview starts with a quite personal story. It was a cold evening in October 2012, when Tiws from Copenhagen, Sago from Venice, London’s Towns and me were drinking beers from cans in a bar at Street-Art district Bricklane as suddenly one guy popped into our group. It was Lee Bofkin and he told us enthusiastically about his huge photo archive of more than 70.000 self-shot photos from all over the world and his plan to start a new website for Street- and Graffiti artists.
The next day, we met him again at Stockwell Hall of Fame, where he brought his computer to show everybody an immense database of photos, all meticulously classified and categorised by artist, style, country and more.
Lee was a former BBoy, travelling with his crew all over the world. His passion for urban art forms made him document art in public space, wherever he went. He holds a Phd in Mathematics and so it came just naturally for him to create a well categorised database of his shots. Soon after, he created “Global StreetArt” as a platform to publicise his content.
150.000 Facebook likes, 500 commissioned walls and countless artist profiles on the website later, he established an important brand in the international Urban Art scene. The show’s on, all eyes on Lee:
You created a global brand and platform for Street Art in a very short time. Can you tell us the three key factors behind your rapid success?
Firstly, GSA is three things – we are the website/platform (globalstreetart.com), with 150K fans on social media and the largest online street art photo archive (80K photos and rising). Secondly, we have a walls project – we’ve organized over 500 legal murals in London since 2012 – and third, we work with brands. That’s not street art anymore – it’s more about why hand-painting makes good digital content.
Our rapid growth – the platform only worked because we had an investment. I co-founded GSA with my business partner who’s a lot older than me and loves street art. He funded our ability to build the website. Secondly, I’m not an artist – that has helped a lot. Whenever we get permission for a wall it’s an artist that paints it – full credit to the artists for what they do! If I had to get permission for walls and paint that would take up a lot of time. Lastly, I live and breath what we’re doing. I love the art and I respect what artists do. Because it’s my work and my passion I don’t take time off. I work long hours and weekends – that helps!
Global StreetArt was originally planned as a huge photo archive, but you have a lot more to offer on the website and through your agency. What are the important “ingredients” of Global StreetArt?
See the answer above! The platform works because when artists sign up we promote them to a big crowd on social media. We do have a huge photo archive and we’ve thought about licensing, with artist consent and making sure artists get paid. It’s going to be a long hard slog and if we really pursue that route it will be manual for a long time. It can’t be automated until we’ve figured out what process works best for artists, clients and us. Hopefully we don’t burn our fingers too badly while we learn.
As for the Walls Project (free art side of what we do) – artists want to paint walls that won’t be painted over the next day/hour (a problem for legal walls in London) and the city could do with being brightened up. London is quite dirty in some places (which I like) and there are so many walls that would be improved by art – the landlords know that too. So it’s just sitting in the middle asking politely. It helps that the artists we work with are insanely talented and deserve a lot, lot more recognition than many of them get.
As for the brands stuff – we’ve only been doing that for a year. I don’t think of it as street art anymore. Let’s be honest, it’s advertising, which is different. I don’t mind that – I’d much rather hand painted adverts that were more pleasing to look at than the endless spew of billboards. But it isn’t street art anymore. To be honest, I’m not sure the big mural festivals are street art – they’re not commissioned but they aren’t the same as the commissioned, illegal art that has that ‘bite’.
There are a lot of good websites on the net. What makes Global StreetArt different and stand out from all the competitors?
The website is only part of what we do. Many artists who have signed up are friends or later became friends. We help people find walls and promote artists hard. It’s probably the offline stuff that we do that makes the biggest difference to the whole ‘package’. To be honest though, the website looks great and works well too – a lot of thought and design went into that. It was built by Dan, who now still helps us but has become CTO of Sofar sounds. He’s awesome.
Global StreetArt is continuously growing and expanding, what is coming up next? What are your plans for the near future?
We’ve never sold anything through the website until this Friday when we have our first print release dropping with CEPT. I’d like to see the website get to a level where it sustains its own running costs, while helping artists make money too. We have some more walls and projects planned but it’s hard to see too far into the future.
I’m doing more public speaking right now, with the Wired Conference coming up at the end of the year. We also have our book Concrete Canvas coming out with Octopus in October.
We’re also working with UCL, The Southbank Centre and Central St. Martins on the Graffiti Sessions (graffitisessions.com) for December. Yep, it’s an academic conference. I think it’s important to talk about what’s happening and reflect, see if we can do better/more. The conversation I’m interested in seeing happen more is about people learning to separate the crime from the art form. When you learn to talk about them separately you realize that art is a powerful tool for making cities nicer places to live. Whether or not that’s still street art misses the point. If you can change public perceptions of an area by painting it, instead of knocking all the buildings down and putting up new ones, then why wouldn’t you. From an urban planning perspective it costs a lot less and disrupts communities far less.
You work closely with different artists from London and all over the world. Where is the international Street Art scene right now in comparison to when you started in 2012?
More than anything, it’s better connected. The fans are connected together as a separate community based around the art, who mix with the artists, and the artists are also better connected. A lot of people doing stuff related to street art have become more professional too. A museum is inevitable – there are already a few in discussion.
A while ago, you were about to publish a book. What happened to this project? Any release in the future?
Concrete Canvas is out in October. I’m really happy with it because the artists who agreed to be part of it are really talented. The pictures are awesome. It also marks a time when street at was exploding, and in the book I talk about a lot of the themes also mentioned above. To me, it’s a history book, because the street art scene moves on so fast – there are new murals going up all over the world every day. To everyone else hopefully it will be something they’re happy to have on their coffee table. I don’t own a coffee table, or drink that much coffee, but if I did, then I’d put the book on it.
Photos (c) Lee Bofkin