The Business of Art: Graffiti Life

Written by T.K. Mills

Our late-stage capitalist world is oversaturated with companies vying for consumer attention, gambling everything to stand out. The advertisements that do manage this reach beyond a clever tag line. London-based agency, Graffiti Life, paints adverts that speak with character and soul.

What began with a couple friends painting bedrooms has grown into a reputable art firm with an exclusive clientele populated by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Adidas, Nike, and Disney. Established in 2010, the Graffiti Life team doesn’t satisfy themselves with murals alone – their services include everything from painting office interiors and exteriors, to hosting workshops on art.

Microsoft Mural painted by Graffiti Life
Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo Provided by @Graffiti_Life

While in London, I dropped in on the Graffiti Life office in Shoreditch. From the building terrace, I could see the streets below. Several of the companies’ murals were visible; one was a promo for the London Shuffle Club, another was sponsored by the World Wildlife Foundation, challenging viewers to be aware of the extinction threat faced by tigers.

“I saw a lot of my friends and peers go to jail for graffiti.”

I spoke with David Speed, Graffiti Life’s founder. During our interview, we discussed business growth, gentrification in Shoreditch, and Speed’s own artistic journey from graffiti writer to entrepreneur.

As he explained, “Graffiti Life was born when we realized there’s something more here.”



In 2010, Speed stood at a crossroads in his life.

“I saw a lot of my friends and peers go to jail for graffiti.”

Frustrated with harsh punishments and the media demonization of an art he had been practicing for a decade, Speed considered what path to take forward.

He knew he wanted to do art – the question was how to make a living from it.

Speed had tried the gallery route, to no avail. While he’d sold some cavasses, the money coming in wasn’t enough to cover the bills. His life painting in the streets met a cultural dissonance with the white-walled world. Speed knew he had talent, having clocked his 10,000 hours, but there didn’t seem to be a platform for him to go legit.

Speed wasn’t born an art prodigy. As a kid he loved coloring books, and took an interest in cartoons and comics. At fifteen when he took the GCSE, London’s standardized test for academic qualifications, he scored a C. He got middle grades in art; in his words, “not a good mark.”

Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo by @t.k.m85

However, as a teen, Speed fell in love with the graffiti subculture.

“[I had] some of the most fun times of my life, crazy adrenaline rushes. Bonding with friends, sleeping on the couches of people who didn’t even speak the same language, [it was] kind of a brotherhood.”

However, one of Speed’s school teachers told him, ‘art was not a career option’ and that he should be more ‘realistic.’ Coming from an authority figure, someone meant to inspire you, Speed took the comments to heart. Not as a lecture – as a challenge.

“Luckily, I’m rebellious.” Speed grinned. “I’ve got a bit of ‘fuck you’ in me, so I thought well ‘I’m definitely doing that then.’”

Speed decided one way or another, he would make art his life.

At the ten-year mark in his painting career, Speed reached a crossroads: find a way to make art work, or give it up. After talking to a few friends, he realized they were at a similar impasse.

Speed suggested, “well why don’t we build something, so we can make opportunities for ourselves. Let’s make our own platform.”

“If you had no money coming in, and you knew you would not eat tonight unless you made the money… how would you be working differently?”

Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo by @t.k.m85

Making a Business

“We started this because we thought it could work. We had no idea if it would work.”

Like any start-up, Speed and his co-founders Iona and Adam learned what it takes to create a business through trial and error.

In the early days, business was slow, so they took jobs where they could. To save on cash, Speed moved back in with his parents. Each day, he would put in the hours for Graffiti Life, but with leads hard to come by, he’d end up wasting time bullshitting on the internet. One day, a mentor caught him on Facebook, and Speed got a hard lecture:

“If you had no money coming in, and you knew you would not eat tonight unless you made the money… how would you be working differently?”

The lesson cut deep. Speed realized his safety net was limiting his ability to grow.

“I was setting up a business and I wasn’t acting like I was starving.” This epiphany reshaped Speed’s thoughts on Graffiti Life. “You have to go all in and double down.”

Graffiti Life earned a reputation for painting quality work, and through word-of-mouth, they started to find more clients. As opportunities came in, Speed’s responsibilities as a business owner grew.

“Hiring our first member of staff was a big decision. When you’re paying their wages, their livelihood, you can’t have a bad month.”

Investing in new staff has had a positive return, allowing the team to take on a wider variety of projects and expand their operations. Now eight years into the business, Graffiti Life has grown to a team of 15 employees, in addition to several freelance artists who work part time on various projects.

Speed proudly explained, “I just want this to grow, so we can help as many artists as possible to make money from their art.”

Graffiti Life’s success hasn’t come without missteps. In their mission to give back to artists, they established a gallery as a side project. Running a gallery is difficult even under the best conditions, and the team invested a heavy amount of time and money into the project.

“We wanted to give shows to people… We never set out to make money [from the gallery,] but we wanted the project to be able to support itself, because it was about giving back to artists.”

Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo Provided by @Graffiti_Life

Speed learned the difficult side of managing artists. Several invited to participate in the gallery didn’t take it seriously, acting entitled and unprofessional. They missed deadlines to submit, failed to promote the show among their audience, and lashed out at Graffiti Life when their sales suffered.

The gallery was never financially sustainable and ran a net-loss. Still, Graffiti Life kept it running for three years, until it became clear that the team would need to cut their losses and move on.

“You can’t expect success overnight. But it was a thankless job…. Maybe if everyone had been grateful, we’d still do it.”

Despite setbacks, Graffiti Life has continued to grow. As the team has grown bigger, they’ve upgraded offices a few times. They started in a small garage in Norwood, South London, before moving to Brick Lane five years ago. They’ve been in their current Shoreditch office for four months, and soon they’ll be moving to an even larger space.

Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo Provided by @Graffiti_Life

Graffiti versus Street Art

The label ‘graffiti’ is often associated with “vandalism, destruction, all of these negative words.” Given this, I wondered if their name would hurt their commercial brand. For Speed, the name Graffiti Life represents his art form, and the life it has given him.

“Street art didn’t exist when I was painting graffiti. It wasn’t a word people used.”

Discerning street art from graffiti leads to vague answers at best, because the two forms are so intertwined. Some people insinuate that the difference between street art and graffiti is legality, but Speed brushed labels aside.

“I don’t really care if you’re a graffiti artist, a street artist, a spray can artist, a muralist, a public artist… all these names that get bandied about for what is basically the same thing. Painting outside. Sometimes you have permission, sometimes you don’t have permission. At the end of the day, you’re painting. Making the world a brighter place.”

The concept of street art didn’t take off ’til the mid-2000s, and Speed’s experience came from the days before coffee table books and public acceptance.

“Street art didn’t exist when I was painting graffiti. It wasn’t a word people used.”

“Trains, trackside, abandoned buildings — it’s taken me to the weirdest places. From abandoned hotels and warehouses that you’ve got to trek six miles to get to, with all your paint on your back. Waking up at 4 am, hiding in bushes… That’s what made us who we are.”

“At my age, the risk for painting illegally could have serious repercussions on my life.”

With graffiti, Speed traveled, painting the world. In Europe, some of his favorite memories were in Belgium and Amsterdam. He even painted at the legendary 5-Pointz in New York a number of times.

“Meres [Curator of 5-Pointz] is the soundest guy. Super cool. He’s doing a lot to support artists. I have a lot of respect for that.”

Some graffiti writers moan about those who paint legal ‘street art,’ seeing it as a betrayal of the culture. (Speed himself admitted to having that the mindset when he was younger.) However, as he puts it, “I grew up.”

With over a decade of illegal work under his belt, Speed paid his dues. Now an adult with a family, a business, and a mortgage, he can’t live life as carelessly as when he was 18 with nothing to lose.

Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo by @t.k.m85

“At my age, the risk for painting illegally could have serious repercussions on my life.”

Still, he doesn’t want to discourage young graffiti artists. To Speed, kids tagging walls are just learning to express themselves; the beginning of an artistic journey, much like the one he took.

He joked, “They could also be a little shit-bag and never do anything with it.” Smiling, he added, “a lot of them will grow and get bitten by the bug and start progressing and doing more.”

For Speed, the bottom line is this:

“If you’re making something rad, I’m into it.”

These days, the team explores paint in all forms, whether that’s street art, murals, or advertisements. The name remains an homage to their origins.

Speed explained: “I’ve had the most surreal experiences of my life because of graffiti. For me, we called ourselves Graffiti Life when we started, because graffiti gave everything to us.”

“I’ve had the most surreal experiences of my life because of graffiti. For me, we called ourselves Graffiti Life when we started, because graffiti gave everything to us.”

Hard Work

Speed attributes much of Graffiti Life’s success to the team’s intimate ability to understand their clients’ needs.

“If it’s something you want to make a living from, you’re reliant on an audience to see value… I think artists forget that making art is transactional, it’s a 50/50 deal with your audience. If you’re only making it 100 percent for yourself and neglecting that other people are looking at it, that can be a problem.”

Art by @Graffiti_Life // Photo by @t.k.m85

Speed explained it in terms of his own career.

“I’m not the best artist in the word, but I’m successful. That’s because I understand marketing. I understand branding. And I understand that I could make five million pieces of art, but if I didn’t have anyone to see it, what would it matter?”

As with any craft, marketing can only take you so far without the skills to back it up. In his effort to meet client needs, Speed has had to push his own skills. While his personal style focuses on photorealistic imagery, he forced himself to learn lettering so that he could provide a wider range of options to Graffiti Life customers.

His advice to aspiring artists: “Push through the boredom of doing stuff you’re not good at. Be confident in your own talent. Practice. If you’re not good enough, then put in the work. Hard work is so important.”

To broadcast his message to a broader audience, Speed has ambitions to someday do a TED Talk, as well as write a book, tentatively titled ‘How to Make Money from Art.’

“I’m of the belief that there’s no such thing as talent. It’s all hard work… If people aren’t willing to put in the work, then nothing’s gonna happen.”

Speed is as enthusiastic as ever about Graffiti Life, and the future possibilities it can bring.

“They are artists who are able to pay their rent because of the jobs we’re providing for them. That’s what gets me up in the morning. I love it.”

He laughed, remembering the teacher who told him to be more ‘realistic.’

“If I had been more realistic, I wouldn’t be sitting here, doing what I absolutely love, every single day.”

Speed grinned.

“Everyone should do what they love every single day. If they’re not, they’re wasting their life. ‘Cause you’ve only got one, and if you’re not doing what you love, what’s the fucking point?”

Founder of Graffiti Life, David Speed // Photo Provided by Graffiti Life

For more from the author, check out

For more about Graffiti Life, check out their website and youtube channel