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By Ronald de Vlam, Founder

A couple of years ago, the Chicago studio was lucky enough to have Keith Upchurch working as a Design Director in the Brand Identity team. He was a very talented designer; actually he was an artist first, a graffiti artist. He would show me these murals photographed on his iPhone that he would work on weekend after weekend. It was a passion beyond my initial understanding, by that I mean, I thought the art was beautiful, but I did not comprehend the graft and the skill that this craft required.

A week ago, I was attending the annual Fuse Conference which for the first time in seven years had changed its location from Chicago to Miami, Florida. As is usual with Fuse, there are several ‘afternoon tracks’ that you opt in to, and both Chris Hart and I chose to spend Tuesday afternoon taking a guided tour around Wynwood, an up and coming neighborhood in Miami, gentrified by both real-estate investment and the amazing work of graffiti artists from all over the world.

I was blown away. The scale, the vastness of the canvasses plus the quality and subject matter of the artwork was truly amazing. I could not believe my eyes. Thanks to the expert commentary of our guides: Man One (www.ManOne.com, @ManOneArt) and Mikel Cirkus (insight expert) we were given the background of how some of the art was commissioned but also, some of the often glamorized stories, told by one of the artists himself.

What I learned:

1.     Art is still the ultimate catalyst. Without these murals, undoubtedly this neighborhood would be unsafe and undesirable. Yes, it did also take some investors who noticed that commissioning art on vacant buildings invited rent-paying residents which started the renovation which then encouraged businesses to thrive. The art on the Wynwood Walls signaled a new future; colored streets coded a new, contemporary culture.

2.     Art has an ultimate cost. It can never be commoditized. Ten years on from when this program started, artists from all over the world are now flown-in to contribute to this project and there are even walls fenced-in and protected by 24-hour guards to stop any vandalism. Still, some of the first original artists had to endure some pretty dangerous working conditions to get paid. Some lost their lives. By tagging the work, you are marking territory that other gang members may not appreciate and for which there are street-law consequences.

3.     Graffiti is not permanent. Fact: unlawful painting is a felony and carries a jail sentence if caught and proven guilty. However, someone who is caught posting bills is often told to just move on. It is almost impossible to remove posters stuck on bricks, and thus do far more damage than spray-paint, however, society has a very different view. Walls are often repainted after a couple of years, so each street is a continually evolving collage. Hence, color strategist and cultural anthropologists come to Wynwood to learn annually what is next, what is hot and how this will inform fashion and design.

Back to Keith Upchurch who I learned was also one of the artists that painted Wynwood. Thanks to Keith, my eyes have truly been opened and thanks to Keith, the Chicago Brand Identity team has a new designer that started this week: Alicia Mallory, who worked with Keith at her previous agency and who highly recommended Webb deVlam to Alicia. The world may be a small place but graffiti art is magnificently grand.


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