A City Experience: Canvases

I’ve been thinking for a while about contributing to the latest design craze among my peers: cities. I’m not an architect but I like cities as a user, as a designer, and I thought I’d write very short bursts about what I like about them, having lived for years in some of the best and most beautiful cities: Paris, Montreal, Milan, Amsterdam and now London.

I also think there’s a huge distinction to be made between travelling a lot and relocating often enough. It makes you actually taste the culture, get a model in your head of a city, the experience you have in it and what makes it great, special or horrible. Cities have voices, personalities, habits, just like the people who live in them. Hopefully I’ll write a little about each of those elements, but for this one, I’ll concentrate on graffiti or “tags” as the French would say (funny the flavour that word has now).

My theory is that you can tell how well a city is doing creatively based on its walls. Graffiti sort of end up acting as a “creative industry barometer” of a more realistic sort for me.

Milan for example (and Turin for that matter) has some beautiful paper-based ones. Most of it happens organically as well, with no money involved, anonymous but known artists like Tuboy and Humen just keep popping up and it becomes the city’s signature.

Great milanese graffiti

Paper graffiti


This signature can be so strong, like in the case of Amsterdam-based artist Laser 3.14, that when I saw his work appear in London’s fashionable Shoreditch, I did a double-take and looked around for my bicycle.

In London???

Then there’s graffiti as historical tourism. Bruxelles takes advantage of its walls as canvases of communication and uses them to deliberately to showcase its long history and involvement in the comic strips / books industry in Belgium and France in the 60s to late 90s. There’s even a tour you can take in the city to visit all the different “paintings” and this is where the lines get blurry and you have to ask yourself if this even counts as graffiti. Is it still a graffiti if its been commissioned. I’m sure these kids would argue otherwise.


Mannekin pis 2

Mannekin pis 1

Then you have cities who try to organise creativity on their walls and deem genuine graffiti “dirty”, such as Montreal. Only the occasional building will have a piece of art that someone chose, got a permit for, made in broad daylight. Boring. A manufactured narrative of creativity.


"The pizza will arrive cold"

And in the UK, graffiti take on a more political, news-relevant flavour, like an unofficial, slow newspaper. Only the events worthy enough make it onto the walls. Another way to own the city and its narrative. To own what stays and what goes. Manufactured democracy.

Graffiti wars

MJ graffiti


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Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London, Head of Bulb Labs till May 2019.