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The Licensing Lookout: Art of the matter

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks back through his street art archives and how it showcases creative inspiration for licensing.

For obvious reasons my Licensing Lookout activities have been curtailed. While I have been shopping, I don’t think it is the moment to stop and take photos. One of the shopping trips I did this week was on behalf of my 79 year old mum who is self isolating. Let’s say her shopping list is a bit different to mine. It is quite challenging finding some of the items and has taken me to part of the store I didn’t know existed. I also pity the Nectar data analyst who looks at my data and has to decipher my sudden change in shopping behaviour. On the bright side I might be getting some decent offers on Sanatogen in the coming weeks!

So I thought I would take a step back this week and lookout at street art. I am a big fan of street art and take a keen interest in it. Others might call it graffiti or pop art but I prefer street art. Luckily for me I work with Aardman which means I make quite a few visits to Bristol.

One of the character brands seen most often in street art is The Simpsons.
One of the character brands seen most often in street art is The Simpsons.

Bristol is an epicentre for street art and the Stokes Croft area is a great open air gallery. I am also able to visit Waterloo’s Leake Street arches a lot as well. This is a hub for street art. Other street art hotspots include Shoreditch and the South Bank in London, while most big towns have street art corners. Some people take a dim view on street art, but in some cases there are now ‘official’ locations for street art and it is growing in popularity.

Indeed today I got an email from Lastminute.com highlighting cities I could visit to see the ‘best of’ street art. Not sure whether that was a hyper personal bit of direct marketing or just a happy coincidence. It is a measure of the draw of street art.

Matt Sewell came to prominence through his street art installations.
Matt Sewell came to prominence through his street art installations.

Street art and licensing have some connections already. Renowned artist Keith Haring has a well established licensing programme, touring exhibitions and a Foundation that protects his legacy. While Banksy images are used on a range of products – I believe these are licensed but who really knows!

A few years ago I worked as a consultant for Random House which included working with talented artist Matt Sewell. Matt specialises in illustrating birds. He came to prominence through his street art installations and continues to work in this sector while he has built a very successful publishing programme.

Last year Aardman collaborated with Bristol artist Cheo to create an original piece of art near its Gas Ferry Road offices. This followed on from a number of other pieces Cheo had painted around Bristol. This partnership also included developing an exclusive product range with TruffleShuffle featuring Cheo’s artwork.

Sadly, the World Cup didn't come home, but this tribute to Harry Kane was certainly striking.
Sadly, the World Cup didn't come home, but this tribute to Harry Kane was certainly striking.

Like all forms of art, there are different styles and genres in street art. It is not simply a case of one style. I personally like artwork that is more figural and ‘photo real’ coupled with big scale pieces while others might prefer pieces that are more focused on lettering, colours and icons. After a while you can tune into particular artists and spot their artwork.

Indeed in the age of social media many artists now include their Instagram or Facebook pages so you can follow them. Obviously artists take their inspiration from a variety of sources, but an area that seems popular is using or in some cases abusing well known characters.

Other themes include tribute pieces to well known people especially as memorial pieces or artwork that celebrates national moments. A good example of the former was an excellent tribute piece to Professor Stephen Hawking when he died, while there was a It’s Coming Home piece featuring Harry Kane during the World Cup. Sadly it didn’t come home. Things move fast in the street art world and while some pieces become permanent or semi permanent in locations like Leake Street there is a churn-over of artwork. In a way that is one of the attractions of the genre. It is fresh, topical and contemporary.

The Undercroft on London's Southbank featured this David Bowie tribute.
The Undercroft on London's Southbank featured this David Bowie tribute.

A good example of a near permanent piece of street art that is a tribute piece is a fantastic painting of Shakespeare that is on a wall in Bankside in London. Very near Shakespeare’s spiritual home of The Globe.

I also saw some fantastic David Bowie tribute pieces when he died. One was at the Undercroft on the South Bank while Brixton now has a permanent Bowie artwork opposite the tube station – a nod to David Jones’ birthplace.

Tweety Pie was on hand in Shoreditch with a simple instruction to passers-by.
Tweety Pie was on hand in Shoreditch with a simple instruction to passers-by.

Returning to characters, one of the character sets I see most often used are The Simpsons. This is probably a reflection on the age of a lot of street artists and also the fact that The Simpsons are such recognisable characters. They are also characters with attitude which is a great starting point for street art. A lot of street art has a sense of humour.

A good example of this was a Tweety Pie piece I saw in Shoreditch which was instructing people to send No Tweets. This may just be a visual gag or it might be the artist sending a message that we are on our phones too much. I still took a photo on my cameraphone.

I think street art is an interesting genre to look at from a design point of view. The way street artists see and portray characters could provide some inspiration for design. As mentioned this can be harnassed officially with ‘collabs’ like Cheo with Aardman, but generally I think street art is one of those things that is good to watch and ‘enjoy your moment’. I don’t think anyone would welcome being told not to do something but being featured is in some ways a badge of honour.

Some street artists can be direct and some wording wouldn’t ever be approved. I saw a Top Cat art piece that obviously didn’t say Top Cat but fortunately it had been ‘edited’ by another artist very quickly. The standard of artwork is generally high and you can see some fantastic artwork.

You can also see some very imaginative work. I once saw a ‘mash up’ design in Nottingham that featured Tintin, Harry Potter, The Simpsons and Dennis the Menace. It was a really striking piece of art, but a piece of art that could only really have ever happened on the street art circuit.

Tintin and his dog, Snowy were spotted in Brick Lane touting a spray can.
Tintin and his dog, Snowy were spotted in Brick Lane touting a spray can.

It is not uncommon to see classic characters featuring in street art as well. Recently I have seen Yogi Bear, Popeye, ET and The Pink Panther. Clearly TV, film and pop culture are big influences for street artists. It is not uncommon to see ‘retro’ TV characters and series represented in street art.

Sometimes characters are adapted and modified as I guess you would expect. A good example of this was a large scale piece of Tintin and his dog Snowy in Brick Lane. Tintin was depicted as a spray can touting street artist. It was a very effective and engaging piece.

Some companies have and are trying to harness street art as an advertising genre and sometimes you can see installations that are connected with or depicting brands. Last year there was a superscale art piece in Shoreditch that was promoting a Marvel computer game for example. As mentioned earlier I think this is a path that has to be taken carefully and, personally, I would like to see less of this kind of work but the reality is street art attracts a lot of eyeballs and artists need to make a living.

Invader creates artworks influenced by the classic Space Invaders brand.
Invader creates artworks influenced by the classic Space Invaders brand.

One of my favourite street artists is Invader. He/she uses mosaics to create his/her versions of Space Invaders or should I say artworks influenced by Space Invaders. These most often feature high up on walls around cities and in a sense are art trails. There are lots of these around London and other cities. Invader has a website and I believe you can buy Invader merchandise. I have spotted a fair few around London and elsewhere – there is a large scale one near Albert Embankment and a few around central London.

Invader has a website and part of his/her artist statement gives a good insight into the psyche of a street artist: “I define myself as an UFA, an Unidentified Free Artist. I chose Invader as my pseudonym and I always appear behind a mask. As such, I can visit my own exhibitions without any visitors knowing who I really am even if I stand a few steps away from them. Since 1998, I have developed a large scale project, code name: Space Invaders.”

According to the website there are currently 3,864 Invader pieces in 79 cities. That’s a lot of looking out to be done!

Wild in Art has created public art trails for brands including Wallace & Gromit.
Wild in Art has created public art trails for brands including Wallace & Gromit.

Talking of trails it is also worth noting how Wild in Art has managed to create public art trails which muster a whole army of artists and designers who decorate a specific art piece that then form a public art trail around cities. These are sometimes generic but often feature licensed characters. Trails have included Shaun the Sheep, Wallace & Gromit, The Snowdog, Oor Wullie and Elmer.

These are are fantastic art projects and installations resulting in some fabulous pieces of art and some imaginative collaborations. For example Gromit as Buzz Lightyear or Oor Wullie as Bowie. I am sure these trails have inspired lots of other artists and in the context of licensing fire up a lot of new design ideas. I also like the fact that in Bristol you can get a Ferry to Gas Ferry Road that is decorated with a Gromit sculptural piece.

Like everyone I am missing being, as comedian Mickey Flanagan says, “out out” but when we can go “out out” again I look forward to doing some street art spotting. As I am fond of saying it is a great free art show and in the context of licensing a great source of creative inspiration. I may well organise a street art tour as a fundraiser in the near future. Take care.

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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