From DIY to ‘walk this way’, each (street art) culture gets the tours it deserves

Individual discovery is one of the fundamental joys of street art lovers, many of whom ritualistically go on unscripted explorations to encounter, and be enchanted by, new additions to the surfaces of the city. Walking, curiosity and a camera are the main resources of the self-motivated enthusiast, who maintains full autonomy in deciding what is of interest and what is not, which routes are more promising and which inscriptions deserve to be considered, captured and shared. This mirrors a culture whose production processes are similarly serendipitous, individually-driven and contextually responsive, as opposed to corporate-sponsored, ownership-enabled, or government-sanctioned. The more surface production becomes professionalised and branded, the easier it is for similarly professionalised walking tours to present themselves as authorities on the matter. They take independent exploration and turn it into group herding by curating routes and content, and prescribing participants’ interests. It is what happens when a low-key, DIY, multiple movement, turns into a prolific and profitable creative industry.

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Is tours’ role in the formation of a corporatised street art culture problematic? I have certainly argued that it is. Would the culture of street art re-focus on more minor, self-sufficient and less predictable productions if it were not for the tours? Perhaps so, but only to a certain extent. Walking tours are the lesser of all evils which have led to the strategic branding and cooption of this culture, and they fall behind more powerful agents of creativity-minded local governance. Indeed, most tours could do a better job at being more critical, engaging and politically-minded, and they should show more accountability, but at the end of the day, they are but one of several ways people choose to engage with street art culture in London and elsewhere.

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