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Street murals and property prices: Talking business with renowned artist - How we made it in Africa
User Image - Blocked by "Display Image" Settings. Click to show.Ricky Lee Gordon

Ricky Lee Gordon (also known by his street artist handle, Freddy Sam) is an internationally acclaimed muralist and painter. He is mostly recognised for his street murals which can be found across the globe from Mumbai to Azores to Kigali and is responsible for the 40-metre tall Nelson Mandela mural in Johannesburg.

In addition to being a visual artist, Gordon is an entrepreneur, offering a specialist service that has caught the attention of international property developers and town planners.

It is like any business. If you do it well and offer a really good product, then you will succeed, he told How we made it in Africa.

Artistic and business journey

Gordons first public street mural was completed when he was 16, and inspired by his surroundings. He grew up in Gallo Manor, a wealthy suburb of Sandton, Johannesburg, and witnessed his neighbourhood becoming gated cordoned off from the rest of the city securely behind walls and controlled entrances.

It was very depressing because it used to be full of life, people commuting into the Sandton area through our road from the Alexandra township. Then all of a sudden it was a dead suburban area, recalled Gordon.

I was young enough to not understand, but old enough to question it.

He used to watch the cars coming from Alexandra on the highway and one day he grabbed his paints and headed to the outskirts of the township, where he found an abandoned wall.

I asked permission from the fruit and veg seller there if I could paint the wall behind him. He agreed and I painted my first proper production. It took me three days to do and it was an experience I realised art wasnt just art. It was a tool for me to see the world, to cross boundaries, to challenge myself, and to reflect.

User Image - Blocked by "Display Image" Settings. Click to show.Gordon is also responsible for the 40-metre tall Nelson Mandela tribute in Johannesburg. The mural is titled I am because we are, and Gordon said he chose to paint the iconic image of him boxing as Mandela believed all were equal in the ring.

At 18 Gordon begandesigning clothes and started his own label, which attracted investment from financiers. They taught me how to sell, how production and distribution work and the business side of things. It was a really good experience for me. My mother used to say while my friends were at university, this was my university.

But when his investors decided to mass produce only three generic designs as opposed to producing originals Gordon realised he could not utilise his creative skills the way he wanted, and opted out.

I was forced to realise I had to then buy back my clothing because they had already manufactured a large amount of stock from that year. So I accepted it, and it took me two years to buy back the product. I did it and it was the best lesson ever.

After that, Gordon worked as a creative consultantforbrands and companies. In 2009 he launched A Word of Art, organising exhibitions and art project residencies including international exchanges for artists and facilitating outreach activities in communities such as The Gambia and Swaziland. During this time he continued to develop his own reputation as a muralist, with his work increasingly gaining attention. Before long, he was being commissioned for projects across the globe.

And now it is my livelihood, he added.

The power of street murals in property development

Gordon has completed a number of murals for the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburgs urban core commissioned by its young property developer, Jonathan Liebmann. The area, once derelict, has seen buildings regenerated into trendy mixed-use developments that have breathed life into the city. The use of art and design has attracted a younger, trendier crowd into the urban centre, and raised property values.

Gordon noted that street murals can be an extremely powerful property development tool that is generally used more frequently overseas than on the continent.

Governments, corporations, property developers and private patrons have adopted muralism street art as a very cost-effective way of enhancing the physical environment. A sculpture can cost millions; a mural can cost infinitely less. It is also a permanent piece of artwork which is popular, and more accessible to the youth, he explained.

So overseas street artistsandmural artists are doing very well and there is a demand.

While there is some interest locally for street muralists, Gordon said most South African street artists have to look internationally to remain sustainable. He owes this to a negative perception in the country that street murals are in the same category as graffiti. As a result, municipalities and governments have introduced stringent laws around getting permits for murals often resulting in off-putting requirements and long waiting periods.

User Image - Blocked by "Display Image" Settings. Click to show.Gordons mural in Azores, Portugal titled The road to solidarity.

You have to get the permission of not only the property owner, but also the council. And to get their permission you have to submit a design, you have to submit a material list and you also have to submit a time frame of how long it is going to take. So artists dont like to be doing this kind of administration, never mind being told what they can and cant [produce].

Street art and gentrification

While street murals can play a part in uplifting prope

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