It took David Brown (aka Panda, aka Flake) a bit of time to find his calling – or for it to find him rather – but once he’d grasped the graffiti vibe, he fell headlong into it and now has a flourishing business in Digbeth despite taking a battering on Dragons’ Den
People are quick to dismiss graffiti as mindless vandalism, but says David Brown, it’s the complete opposite. Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about the random scrawl of a cock and balls in a piss-stained subway, but carefully put together pieces of work.
Artists spend hours sketching and getting the design just right. They’ll prep and paint the wall before they start creating a piece they’re proud to put their name to. It’s tougher than it looks and pieces need to be original, yet fit into a certain genre of work. David’s carved out a career from his love of the artform and runs a successful business in what’s become Brum’s graffiti and street art (there is a difference) capital, Digbeth.
David fell into it after finding he was ‘crap at a few things’ growing up. He says: “I tried BMX aged 10, but I was crap at that. I went to senior school and didn’t fit in and I wasn’t at all sporty. When hip hop was just coming in around 1984/85 I had a go at break dancing. I was crap at that. I had no self-confidence, so rapping was out.”
David fell into graffiti, essentially writing his name everywhere although it’s more technical than that as explained above and aged 13/14 started getting better. There are many splinters to graffiti and there’s no doubt you can get in to a lot of trouble if you go down the illegal route. Some people do it for a living, others just for fun and David says the artists can be varied from ‘drug users to project managers in Mayfair.’
David got through school ‘alright’ and although his art teacher let him paint the classroom, the creative art provision wasn’t brilliant. He says: “The options were art or pottery, no graphic design and all I wanted to do was draw letters.” After leaving school, David did some jobs he describes as ‘crappy’ such as peeling hard boiled eggs, selling fireworks and labouring. He recalls: “One day I had to fill out a form and realised I’d forgotten how to draw a number eight. My mate told me I was wasting my talent. I jacked the job in and signed up for a course in graphic design at Solihull Tech which was a springboard to a foundation course.”
David signed on and while in the queue at the dole office one day was approached by someone from Partners for Business which is part of the Prince’s Trust who asked him if he’d thought about doing his own thing. He explains: “I’d been painting shop roller shutters for a mate who’d broken his arm. I got another job on the back of that and my mate said I should go for it.” David started his business Graffitiartist.com 21 years ago aged just 25 and began painting in hospitals and the like.
The shop at the Custard Factory is a bit of a dream. David explains: “The day I came to look at the shop, there were two photo shoots happening and a film being made in the street and I just thought, ‘yeah this is it.’ Digbeth’s so varied and the number of independents is brilliant.”
The business incorporates customised pieces, commercial art, TV and film work, design and consultancy, parties and team building sessions as well as selling supplies. Workshops showing youngsters how to use graffiti for art not crime feature too. The mantra ‘it’s nice to be nice’ is at the heart of what David’s about and he’s built a great team of people on that basis and says they’ve helped him as much as he’s helped them.
An appearance on TV’s Dragons’ Den in 2014 in which David had the figures written on his hand much to the Dragons amusement was as terrifying as it looked. He remembers: “It’s like a rodeo – you’re in there for as long as you can hang on for. I was in there for 40 minutes and half way through I couldn’t breathe out. No one offered me a seat. I think they wanted me to either piss myself or faint. That would have been good TV.”
Despite that, David says he got some good feedback and definitely got business on the back of it. He now attends a business course at Aston University every couple of weeks plus there are new premises on the horizon still in Digbeth obviously!
David’s toughest gig to date perhaps was convincing a group of near octogenarians at his mum’s University of the Third Age (U3E) group that graffiti’s not vandalism. David says: “It was my mum’s turn to organise a speaker, so I did two sessions talking about why people do graffiti, its roots and how hard people work at it. One woman dismissed it as mere vandalism and couldn’t understand why anyone would do it. She ended up asking me to create a graffiti style alphabet for her grandchild!”