Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys: The Devaluing of Public Art With Lucas Geor

Written by Stephanie O'Brien

Street art has gone mainstream, murals are everywhere, and artists are getting paid, but has everyone noticed that the quality is going down? I hardly need to point out that our walls are more beautified than ever, and no coffee shop, community centre or worthwhile store is free of a mural to call its own.

Whatever your views on the mainstreaming of alternative culture, the increased demand for murals is a win for artists. But no new sector is free of exploitation. Especially one that stems from an art movement where people paint for free.

“It’s funny the hand that artists play in gentrification. Artists will move into an area because the rent’s cheap, maybe the buildings are a bit run down so people don’t mind you painting on the walls. They make the area look cool, and people start to come, and then developers catch on to it. They put up apartment blocks. And then they run out all of the artists who live there. That’s kind of the cycle. As more and more of that happens, I guess people just seem to think that art is for free, you know?”

Lucas Geor

That’s Lucas Geor, a contemporary fine artist and street artist from Melbourne, Australia. In June, I got to sit down with Lucas for the Street Art Unearthed podcast to learn more about the man behind the walls and what motivates him to paint on the streets.

“It just grew out of a curiosity, and then at a point, I just wanted to see how things would look on a wall. I took some spray paint to a wall and started small. The first time you do it, your heart’s racing, and you’re looking over your shoulder. Then you just kind of get more confident in where you can go.

“Once I sort of started to learn some more technicalities of it and I could get a little better, that’s when I started to be a bit more active as well. I did get into letters for a little bit. And then it grew into eyes when I was trying to figure out cool ways to use the wall. I’ve always been interested in that as well, you know, like not just like painting, but figuring out how to use the environment. So figuring out fun ways to paint eyes coming out of a window or a wall or a pipe or something like that.”

Although Lucas is well known for his walls, commercial murals are just one part of his practice. He’s lucky, in a sense. He enjoys the fruits of the mural business boom while having the freedom to turn down shitty offers. But he’s not spared the arduous task of trying to educate clients on why artists should be paid fairly.

“The amount of times I’ve had people inquire, and they’ll give me some garbage proposal for absolute peanuts and say, you know, that’s great exposure. I’m like, ‘Okay, cool. I’ll email my landlord right now and see if he’ll take exposure as payment for rent.’

“No, sorry, I’m not available to work for free so that your business can make more money.”

“I think that in the last five years, there’s definitely been a massive explosion of people doing these projects. There are just a lot more people out there claiming to do the same thing, and they can’t. And people don’t quite catch onto that until they get the work done. And then they’re like, ‘Oh, well, this is substandard’. But that’s what happens if you’re going to pay peanuts. You’re going to get monkeys.”

This problem is not unique to Australia. On Street Art Unearthed, this topic comes up all the time. In the US, Mexico, Brazil, Europe and across the Asia Pacific, artists battle for fair pay. And maybe just as important, the integrity to paint their own work.

I did say the increased demand for murals is a win for artists, but it’s also a nail in the coffin of street art culture. When muralists (the budget kind) are driving prices down, making dull murals mainstream (I’m talking to you, angel wings and girls with flowers), the value of art is being driven down.

The standard of what constitutes art is being lowered. And what people are willing to pay is based on budget art.

“Although street art is for free, it’s then when people are trying to commercialise that for themselves. They don’t understand that it costs money.”

“I had an inquiry for an 18-meter wall, and they wanted to pay $500.”

“I’m on [sites like Book an Artist], and I do every now and then browse to see if there are any interesting jobs. I think it does work for a lot of people, but I had an inquiry for an 18-meter wall, and they wanted to pay $500. Book an Artist then takes 20%.

“This is that thing with all the popularity, I guess. We’ve seen a wave of people jumping on the bandwagon being like, ‘I can do that too,’ even though maybe they don’t quite have the skills or they’re not quite ready or whatever. This is where they find work on platforms like this. Then that’s why people think that an 18-meter wall can cost $500. Because maybe there is someone out there who’s gonna paint it, maybe they don’t need to worry about money.

“Payment is a huge thing because dealing with payment as an independent artist can be really troublesome, you know, just getting people to pay on time. For some reason, people seem to think that creative services are just not that important. When it comes to getting your car fixed, or you go to the dentist or whatever, you pay on the spot. But you commission an artist to do a mural, and the due date is irrelevant. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll get to that in six months.’

“8 out of 10 people pay on time, and they’re great. It’s the 2 out of 10 that you have to chase.”


“I think a union would be great.”

“Just like having someone just have your back who could be like, ‘Cool, we can take care of that for you.’ Because a lot of artists are just like sensitive souls, too, they just want to create and get paid appropriately for it.

“You know, in New York, they have a law called Freelance Isn’t Free. It’s basically like, ‘Someone’s not paying you? Cool, we’ll take care of it.’ They have VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) here, and there are avenues you can take, and you get debt collectors and lawyers and things like that, but it all just takes up time and money.

“It takes your time and energy away from other work that you can be doing or other projects. That’s the other thing that comes with hiring an artist for any kind of work. You are hiring them for the work that they do, but what you don’t really understand is that you’re hiring them for their brain, essentially. All the books that they’ve read, all the paintings that they’ve taken in, all the art, all the music that they’ve listened to. You’re hiring them for their unique vision and the way that they’ve taken in all of this content and then have been able to put something out that’s unique themselves.”

“I feel like there will be a shift in the other direction where people will realise that, just like anything, good work costs good money.”

“Hopefully, that will see either people lift their standards, or it will just be that the very best people are getting the very best projects. I think it will come from people continually trying to get the cheapest option and then not getting the best work.

“Although sometimes I’m quite negative about the fact that things have become so popular and with the popularity has become sort of this misunderstanding of what cost is, hopefully with the popularity as well, eventually that will shift to more understanding. You know, like not being shocked when you give them a price. Being like, ‘Okay, cool. That’s how much this person costs. I’ve got that in my mind. I can, you know, suss out some other options.’

“It’s definitely a very interesting and contentious topic because, on the one hand, I do really think that art is for everybody. Everybody should be able to enjoy art, and that’s what street art and graffiti are so great for. It’s for people to be able to view things on the street, and things should always be free that way. But at the same time, if you want this in your house or you want this on your wall, or you want this to have your logo, if you want to have an influence on it, then you need to also be prepared to pay for it.

“Just because people have been doing it their whole lives and they might do it in their free time, and they might do it for free on the street, it shouldn’t take away the value from the fact that it is a business and it needs to be treated like that.”

This article is written from the Street Art Unearthed podcast episode with Lucas Geor.

Stephanie O’Brien is a writer and podcast host based in Melbourne, Australia. Fascinated by street art and constantly curious about what compels artists to take their art to the streets, she has been on an international mission to share street art and its stories with the world. Her podcast, Street Art Unearthed, boasts more than 100 episodes featuring interviews with some of the world’s biggest artists.