Are You a Sell-Out?

I must start by saying; it’s very unlikely when you start selling your work that you’ll be called a sell-out, most people understand that we all need to eat, even artists. So please don’t worry too much about it. But I do know that, no matter what we do, if we get a million positive comments and one negative one, we focus on the negative every time. I decided to write this piece after seeing a post on Facebook. It was in a group designed for artists to help each other (blind leading the blind might be more accurate). A brave poster decided to share his opinion; “You’re not a real artist if you do it just for the money”. I read the comments and what became clear was how many artists do still feel guilt and shame around earning money.

Michelangelo has been portrayed as a ‘struggling artist’, but a recent discovery shows that he amassed a fortune of nearly $47million. Monet, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali and many other famous artists throughout history made great money and no one complained for hundreds of years.

Van Gogh died broke. However, Van Gogh wasn’t trying to be broke, by all accounts he was just a terrible salesman. I believe that it’s his story that has shaped the traditional, (romantic) narrative of the ‘starving artist’, for whom money is not a consideration. A tortured soul, born to create. Making art for art’s sake. Whose ‘genius’ will probably only be recognised when they’re dead. I first started to notice this story, growing up in the 1980’s. I realised that if Hollywood wanted to portray a particular character as a loser, invariably, he was an artist or musician. I noticed that if a band had a song featured in a car advert they were labelled corporate shills by ex-fans. Folks were outraged that YBAs like Tracy Emmin were making money from an unmade bed. It was a tricky business and I grew up believing that art would forever be my hobby, never a career.

If you make money in 99% of careers, that’s seen as ‘success’. If you’re a doctor and you do it for the money, are you not a good doctor? The logic just doesn’t apply. It is my view that we should celebrate artists and musicians for getting recognition. After all, money for art allows you to make more art and there is no way to support a vision without commerce. I’d love to live in a world where money wasn’t needed, however, it’s the system we’ve all agreed to and if you want to do what you love, you’re going to have to be okay with getting paid to do it. Anyone telling you that’s a bad thing has their own issues to work through. It is my opinion that if no one gets hurt, HOWEVER you choose to earn your living is up to you. And really, if you sit in a job all day, hating your boss and waiting for home time, haven’t *you* sold out?

I spoke at an event recently and during Q&A I was asked about my past; painting illegal graffiti. “You used to make rebellious art without permission and now you work with brands, do you worry that you’ve…” she paused, “sold out?” I piped in. The answer was; ‘no’. I used to work a crap job that I hated, doing what I loved during evenings and weekends. I painted illegally because I had no choice – legal areas in London were gradually being shut down. Graffiti at that time was not a career option. As I paid my dues and became a better artist things gradually began to change and it got to the stage where I could just about support myself with art commissions. I knew several talented artists were facing prison sentences for making art where they shouldn’t and realised that I could help. I understood marketing a lot better than they did and in creating our company Graffiti Life I could help them pay their rent each month by utilising their skills. Today Graffiti Life has 13 employees and works regularly with a team of over 10 freelance artists. Every commission we get helps these amazing creatives provide for their families. I love what I do, I’m proud of the money we make and what that money allows my team to do.

Working with brands allows us to dedicate time to causes that we care about. When our studio rent is taken care of by an advertising mural or design work for a big brand we are able to spend time painting walls for WWF, the Mental Health Foundation and other organisations that we care about. In days gone by many artists would be backed by a patron, someone who supported an artist financially. Today I was alerted to this article in the Atlantic, arguing that brands are the new patrons. The article states; “With the diminishing impact of traditional advertising, companies are seeking new ways to capture the attention and goodwill of the public.” Brands need artists more than ever and in my opinion, they can offer a lot to those that they chose to work with. I’ll end with the words of my hero Henry Rollins because he can sum it all up better than I ever could:

“Of course the ad is trying to sell you something and by using a band you like, attempting to gain your confidence by exploiting the band’s integrity for a commercial end. So what? You’re not a fuckin’ moron are ya? You see through that, don’t ya?

Do you have any idea what some of these bands went through to make that music? The fact that there might be some money for them all these years later is great.

You think that paycheck is in any way a slight to their integrity? Are you fucking kidding me? Pay them. Pay them double. Pay them now. It’s about fuckin’ time.”

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