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January 10, 2010

Grime writing (reverse graffiti) — Paul Curtis explains it all for you

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From the November 23, 2009 Financial Times: "Paul 'Moose' Curtis [above] founded Symbollix in 2003, after his particular brand of 'grime writing' — creating pictures and slogans by selectively cleaning the dirt off walls and pavements — caught the attention of corporate marketing departments."

Here's what he said to the FT's Emma Jacobs about how he came to his business epiphany.

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I came up the idea of grime writing or reverse graffiti 10 years ago, while trying to promote a record that my record label was about to release. There was no marketing money, so I went to a tunnel in Leeds with a friend who was a great graffiti artist, and in seconds made a huge piece – just using an old rag and his fingers to write in the dirt. We had created legal graffiti. No one had ever invested any time in these tunnels and our work shone like chrome.

After that revelation, I carried on writing on walls as a means of self-expression. It was unique at the time. And it began to dawn on me that I could make money out of it. I had worked as a technician on events for the launch of the Xbox and showed it to the people I worked for – they programmed it into the launch a few months later. That’s when my hobby turned into a business. But I don’t refer to my work as reverse graffiti any more because of the negative connotations attached to graffiti. 

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I’ve just completed a marketing campaign for Motorola, the mobile technology company. It was a stencilled picture of a pair of headphones with a cable that ran along the pavement and walls directing people to where their products were.

Quite often, this side of what I do can be very formulaic. I’m given artwork and asked to reproduce it. But clients miss out in such cases. They should allow me to make images that intrigue the public. I work on the premise that people have a very short attention span and three seconds is all you have to get the idea across. So, I enjoyed working on a campaign in April for Puma, the sportswear company, for a music festival it ran in Liverpool and Manchester, because I could do more or less what I wanted.

Earlier this month, I did a big piece with Greenpeace, the environmental group, on the banks of the River Thames. We had limited time as the tide rose quickly and we were chased by the river police after completing our message, “Change the politics – save the climate”.

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It was pretty stormy but bad weather doesn’t bother me. It means there are less people around to get in the way. Sometimes the hardest conditions are not the weather, but finding a wall where I won’t be competing with too much advertising.

I’ve worked for everybody from big sports brands, television and radio stations and drinks companies to the Metropolitan Police (on anti-gun crime) and the Department for Work and Pensions. I’ve never had to advertise myself or my company. I get work through reputation. I’ve got to travel – Spain, the US, Germany, where the police tend to be more relaxed about my work.

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I’m currently talking to Turner Broadcasting in the US about a campaign – though things are moving slowly. American companies are less inclined to guerilla marketing. I very nearly worked for the Discovery Channel recently but even though its extremely thorough legal department couldn’t find anything wrong with what I do, they pulled the job at the last minute.

Environmentalists and street artists criticise me for selling out – I take it on the chin. I realise the irony in promoting consumerism that creates the dirt I write in. But there are benefits in companies paying to clean the streets. The question is where to draw the line. I don’t work for car companies or airlines, but then my competitors do.

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Banksy has a lot to answer for with the whole street art thing – it’s big business now, companies are springing up all over the place to jump in. But there’s plenty of dirt for everyone.

January 10, 2010 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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