Only four years ago Central Croydon was visually a very different place.
The streets lacked creative inspiration. It would take a few dedicated artists to start a movement that would change the community and its landscape. In 2014 artists began flocking to Croydon’s blank canvas and using its troubled past to paint a better future. Since then Croydon has since been given a major splash of colour by some of the world’s most talented street artists.
The street art movement is thriving here due to the strong foundation of community that it is built upon. Every day visitors arriving at the East Croydon station are greeted by a colourful installation inviting them to “Explore Croydon”. This installation is the work of Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison, who is plays a huge role in the vibrant community. “There are over 200 languages spoken in Croydon, so all the colours represent different ideas and cultures here”, said Morrison in reference to installation. Morrison opened the RISE Gallery in St George’s Walk on 24th October, 2014 and has been working closely with the community ever since. The gallery is a secondary market for selling famous works like Andy Warhol’s. It’s also a market for local artists to sell their work. Part of the profits from the gallery are used for community art projects and also support ArtHalo. ArtHalo is a charity organisation founded by Morrison, who uses art as a means to give back to Croydon through service and volunteering.
The street art movement in Croydon caught its big break when RISE gallery pushed to form an arts quarter around the gallery in St George’s Walk. Kevin sought an endorsement from the Council to create it and they approved. He strived to make the process as official and fair as possible. “We spoke to landowners and we got about eighteen mural spots where people can come paint whenever they want. It’s all done by a submission process, where everyone gets to do something”, said Kevin. Gaining the Council’s permission and trust was a monumental win for the street art community. A mutual relationship between street artists and local authority is a unique phenomena. Once the movement began making progress, artists flocked to Croydon to contribute. The increased level of street art then led to a unforeseen conflict that year with tagging crews.
“One of the big problems we came across trying to start a movement was the local graffiti community, because Croydon has a massive underground scene for this kind of stuff”, said Kevin. Members of this underground scene such as the Kaos crew were responsible for tagging and defacing murals across Croydon. At this time, the war between graffiti and street art had come to a peak across London. Kevin took a different approach to the conflict that would make Croydon unique. He chose to work with the opposition. “People were saying lets get them arrested for dogging our murals, but I said actually no, all of us are one community. How do we collaborate? How do we work together?”, said Kevin. “I managed to get an agreement for them to paint at a housing site, which is close to the council building. So it’s a 350 metres long and it’s the biggest legal wall in London now. Anyone can come paint there whenever they want and do what they want”.
Instead of rejecting graffiti artists as opposition to street art, Kevin supported their ideas. A mutual respect between both groups was established for the first in Croydon. This resolution was a tipping point for many of these communities to understand each other better. Local artist Morgan Davy saw a change in the graffiti artists’s style after the groups came together. “The collaboration also encouraged a lot of young graffiti artists to start thinking outside the box and consider doing it as a living. As opposed to the older generation where some of the taggers were set in the mind-set of pure anarchy”, said Davy. “This was a very sore subject that needed to be addressed and Croydon was the first place there was peace”. Even after peace was agreed upon there was still moments of tension in Croydon’s art community. Kevin recalled a decisive moment in Croydon’s history that proved there was progress. In November 2015, the famous street artist Dotmasters painted a mural of a doll on the rooftop of Davis House in High Street. It was soon vandalised by a member of the Kaos crew who sprayed a tag directly onto the mural. Kevin reached out to his connection in the Kaos crew reminding them of their previous agreements. “The idea is that our murals are protected by them and we protect their space. It’s a self policing model where we look out for each other and after each other”, said Kevin. The mutual relationship led to a member of the crew apologising and repairing the damage done. Such an act from a graffiti crew was unheard of until this point. Kevin believes that a better understanding emerged from the conflict, which pushed the relationship in the right direction.
Today, Kevin sees the next turf war as a conflict between artists and developers. However, the artist community is working hard to create a mutual relationship with future developments. Kevin has already seen the results of working with the Council to create safe art spaces. “Footfall has increased 400% where we are and the unit occupancy has increased by 75% around the arts quarter”, said Kevin. It’s often easy for developers to take advantage of artists and their work for commercial gain, so Kevin is working to create rent protection for studios so Croydon’s artists can actually live where they work and vice versa. If he is successful, Croydon may become home to the cheapest studio spaces in London. Shoreditch has become an example of gentrification that is pushing artists out and destroying their artwork in the process. “Shoreditch has been gentrified very quickly, but in Croydon we get an opportunity now to get that balance right before that happens”, said Kevin. Croydon is growing as a street art brand and the community is working to make sure their art is protected from future developments. The art community here only continues to expand as more artists come to help. Leaders like Kevin make the movement possible and the results are truly visible.