Subversive, irreverent, edgy.
You can find your own description of the culture that has taken street art from the fringes to the mainstream. Globally, several artists have elevated street art into an entity that can command formidable sums of money – notably, Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, went from near anonymous graffiti artist in the Eighties to posthumously commanding $110.5m for a painting called Untitled three years ago.
While street art has been a recognised and developed art form in mature art markets such as the US and UK as early as the Eighties and Nineties, it’s been only a few years since it began to gain in popularity here in the region.
Determined to raise the stakes with this art form is Dubai-based investor, collector and entrepreneur Louis Wright.
Wright isn’t an artist himself and neither was art an all consuming focus for the most part of his life. He dropped out of school at 15 for personal reasons and worked odd jobs including at building sites and shops. At the age of 23, he switched to selling financial products in the UK. Not long after he was approached by Woodbury House gallery in London’s Soho district to work with them.
That’s when he was introduced to the works of prominent street artists like Richard Hambleton and sculptural artist Schoony who counts Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt among his collectors.
“I started to approach artists myself and form relationships with them. I threw my first independent art show in summer 2018 in Mayfair, London. It was a concept created by myself and a colleague and we featured one blue chip artist – Richard Hambleton, one emerging artist – Matt Dosa, and one established artist, Ben Eine.”
At around the same time, he started his own business called Fortune Favours Art (FFA) and brought it into the UAE market looking to tap potential within the region.
FFA focused on Arabic artists, as well as emerging and established artists. While that initial venture didn’t go the distance, Wright decided to go back to the drawing board and focus his energy exclusively on just one art form – street art.
He rebranded FFA and christened it Vandalist Art in 2019, a venture that would be dedicated to the genre of street art.
Showing at World Art Dubai a few months later, he won the Best Art Gallery. That he had on display works from the likes of Banksy, Richard Hambleton, Conor Harrington, Ryca, Osgemeos, Martin Whatson, Nick Walker, Pure Evil and Ben Eine, helped propel the credibility of his street art business.
Artists like Ben Eine are already familiar names within the UAE. In 2015, he unveiled a mural on the British Embassy wall in Abu Dhabi and his work has previously been presented to the likes of Barack Obama and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan too.
Soon, Wright extended Vandalist Art’s services to include live events.
“World Art Dubai led on to Urban Art DXB. We had 10 artists painting on one wall, each painting their individual murals which turned into one big 20-metre mural. The wall at the end of the event looked amazing.”
This year was supposed to be the year that Vandalist Art finally got a strong foothold in the market. The coronavirus pandemic changed all of that.
“We had several events booked in for this year including Sikka Art Fair, World Art Dubai and the Dubai International Boat Show and even our own art show. But then coronavirus happened and everything slowed down.”
Wright didn’t let the lockdown dampen the business plans altogether – he used the period to conceptualise a new online extension of Vandalist Art called Red Dot Rooms – a name borrowed from the fact that a red dot is placed on a painting at an exhibition once it has been committed to a buyer.
“It will be an exclusive online members only portal. The point [of charging for] the membership is to give you that exclusivity. You can only view the collection if you sign up to it.”
But the USP for Red Dot Rooms will be the integration of VR and augmented reality into the virtual gallery.
“For the digital tours, you can log in from your own device. We will also be incorporating virtual reality, which will basically mean that you can put on a headset and virtually be in our room. The augmented reality element of it is introduced by way of taking pieces from the virtual art room and projecting them against the wall in your own home or office so that you can view
how it will look in that space before you purchase it.”
Wright says that they are even planning VR events in Dubai for Red Dot Rooms. So instead of going to a gallery and viewing the artwork on the wall, his team will hire out spaces, purchase virtual reality headsets, and then have an open-door exhibition where the artwork can be viewed solely using those VR headsets.
However, those events will only happen by 2021.
Red Dot Rooms launched with Pure Evil exhibiting his work on it – but Wright won’t reveal just yet the other artists that will subsequently be shown on the platform.
“There’s a great book called The Value of Art and it explains that everybody who purchases art is motivated by 1) a true genuine love [for art], 2) its investment value, and 3) the social prowess or the fact that it is a talking point amongst friends. It’s very rare to find a real true collector that’s not stimulated by all three of those things,” says Wright, who also has an art consultancy business with clients spread across the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
He adds that although he doesn’t personally know artists like Banksy whose works can easily fetch $150,000, he does have access to their work and says that he can source the works of any street artist should clients request it.
He confirms that he recently sold a Richard Hambleton in Dubai for GBP45,000, but the most expensive piece he has sold was in the UK for GBP600,000. Wright himself owns over 100 pieces of art and says that 50 per cent of his investment portfolio comprises of art.
This month, he has initiated the process to take Vandalist Art to Saudi Arabia. Since Wright does not have a gallery of his own, he works closely with The Cave Gallery in Dubai’s d3 district, which also intends to enter the kingdom alongside Vandalist Art.
For now though, until those expansion plans take shape, Red Dot Rooms will target clients in the UAE and the UK and the e-commerce platform on it will facilitate online sales as well.
Regionally, the artist that Wright is following closely right now includes Makkah born Majeed Ahmed, who held the Guinness Record for the longest glow in the dark wall art undertaken in Ras Al Khaimah.
Wright says that the value of the work from street artists is determined by demand and supply of their work, cautioning that a glut from them could result in a sharp decrease in the value of their work. However, a key factor that determines the price of an artwork is its performance in auctions, and for now at least, street art hasn’t become commonplace within regional auctions.
“Street art is massively growing here,” he says.
“We’ve got a long way to go in educating people in Dubai on the true value of art before we start to sell Banksys in an auction over here.”