How Digbeth gave a home to graffiti and street art

Image caption,
Artist Philth created this floral display

Just a short walk from the centre of Birmingham is the self-proclaimed creative quarter of Digbeth, where street artists from around the world have made a mark on its once-bare brick walls.

Recently deemed the city's coolest neighbourhood by the Sunday Times, the formerly industrialised hub is now home to digital natives, ruin bars and street food pop-ups.

Its strong independent culture is all the more evident in the artwork that adorns almost every corner.

David "Panda" Brown, who runs out of the old Bird's Custard Factory, says the sheer volume of public art is what attracts artists to the area.

Image caption,
The red brick walls of Digbeth were once an integral part of Birmingham's industrial quarter. This one has been claimed by street artist Newso
Image caption,
Many Digbeth businesses have embraced the work on their doorsteps, including this piece by GENT 48

"Street art and graffiti to Digbeth, it is just the heartbeat of it," he says.

"It just makes it so vibrant. It is ever changing as well, which is the beauty of it.

"It's an exciting place to be."

Image caption,
Graffiti focuses on names and tags, while street art embraces images and posters. Philth created this piece
Image caption,
Street artists paint on so-called permission walls in the neighbourhood. Newso and GENT 48 took advantage here

David says Digbeth had a mixture of "permission walls" and out-and-out illegal displays.

"The key is you have to seek permission to use them, it is not a free-for-all and because [of that], it makes the artwork really good.

"The rules of graffiti art are that you don't go over something if you can't do something better.

"Graffiti is all about the name, it is all about the tag. With street art it is... more about an image."

Image caption,
Most days you can see street artists, such as Raek, at work in Digbeth

The fact that some businesses have agreed to let artists paint on their walls is what brings artists in, says David.

He's heard of people travelling from as far afield as Australia and the United States to admire the works sprayed on Birmingham's bricks.

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"Graffiti artists love fame, that is why they do it, to try and get noticed.

"The photography, the Instagram side of things, that lends itself, because people need fresh stuff on social media."

Image caption,
Legal painting spaces are regularly sprayed over with fresh image - here Kios is at work
Image caption,
Most Digbeth street artists, including Broken Fingaz, show their work on social media

He says the innately urban nature of Digbeth has helped make it such a hub for artists.

"Because it is quite a gritty sort of place, it fits really well, it really frames the artwork," he says.

"There are businesses around here that love it, [some] businesses hate it, which is fair enough.

"A lot of the artists who paint around here completely understand it and they know not to take the mick."

Image caption,
The Hi Vis Fest in September celebrated the area's street art. This work by N4T4 was on display
Image caption,
Many of the images are on railway bridge arches, including this one by Justin Sola
Image caption,
The artworks are only a short walk from Birmingham's more traditional landmarks. Seen here are pieces by Kid Kash

David says he remembers when Digbeth was just an "empty area" in 1984.

But graffiti artists moved in not much later, when the hip-hop scene began to take off in the UK.

"I love Birmingham so much, I know it has got so much to offer," he says.

"I want more people to come and realise that."

Image caption,
Artists from Australia and the US have visited Birmingham specifically to see the pieces in Digbeth - many will have stood and admired Justin Sola's work

Photos: John Bray

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