A new study suggests a link between the amount of street art in and area and rising house prices. We go on the trail of the Muswell Hill chewing gum artist who’s turning ‘urgh’ into ‘hmm’

%image(15207699, type="article-full", alt="The study from the University of Warwick ranks Muswell Hill as one of highest density areas of London with photos tagged as 'art' on Flickr, indicated by the darkest red colour on the map. Image courtesy of Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe, via Royal Society Open Science")

You’re walking around your neighbourhood when you spot some graffiti. What do you do next? If the answer is whip out your camera and upload it to social media tag it as art then you could be unwittingly predicting a rise in house prices.

A group of academics from the University of Warwick collected data from the photo sharing website Flickr between 2003 and 2014 and compared it to data from the Land Registry on London house prices from the same time frame.

“Neighbourhoods which have a higher proportion of ‘art’ photographs also have greater relative gains in property prices,” the study concluded.

The report puts forward several potential reasons for this connection. For example, the presence of attractive street art in an area could be a signal that the neighbourhood is improving. Art in the neighbourhood may also cause a feedback loop effect when it comes to attracting people to an area and driving up demand.

“As people connected to the arts rely on socializing to advance their careers, are more ‘arty’ neighbourhoods attracting more cafes and restaurants, which in turn attract other groups of people to move into the neighbourhood?” asks the study.

By collecting data from photo sharing websites and social media, the academics argue that you can more effectively predict what areas are likely to become more desirable due to the presence of art. More traditional methods such as counting the number of art galleries or museums in an area are not as effective, as they often arrive in an area after it has already started to become attractive to a more art-loving crowd.

%image(15207701, type="article-full", alt="House prices in Muswell Hill have risen by over 55 per cent according to Zoopla.com")

Muswell Hill in particular was identified by the study as seeing a high concentration of photos tagged as art being shared online accompanied by a rise in mean house prices.

Local artist Ben Wilson has been creating miniature masterpieces painted on pieces of discarded chewing gum stuck on the pavement for 11 years. His fun and irreverent street art is popular with the photographic community on Flickr, where the 85 members of the group ‘Ben Wilson, Chewing Gum Artist’ have collected over 600 photos of his work.

Wilson’s work has been received with international acclaim, having been featured in the New York Times and starring as the subject of two documentaries. His primary motivation, however, remains firmly rooted in his Muswell Hill community.

In order to create his art, Wilson uses heat treatment and lacquer to turn discarded blobs of chewing gum into a canvas for his tiny paintings. Although it’s street art, unlike graffiti it’s perfectly legal. “I didn’t want to be sneaking around at night,” explains Wilson. Criminal damage occurs when someone drops the gum in the street, but Wilson’s form of art is removable.

“I’ve found a common space,” says Wilson. He traces his work back to the enclosure laws of the 18th century, where common land was seized from the common people by wealthy landowners. Wilson seeks to reclaim the urban environment from the consumerism represented by the omnipresence of commercial advertising and the nature of the gum itself, which he sees as a cipher for throwaway consumerism.

“On one level it is a form of protest, but it’s also fulfilling a social need in society: to acknowledge people in their environment,” says Wilson. By leaving his trails of colourful pictures hiding in plain sight, he creates a treasure map of delights to be discovered by individuals. “The more people can interact with their environment, the more then can engage,” he says.

%image(15207703, type="article-full", alt="Ben Wilson treats the chewing gum with heat and laquer before painting his miniatures")

Even the local police are firmly in his corner. When he was erroneously arrested in 2005 for doing one of his paintings, the Muswell Hill team were so outraged they gave a witness statement defending him.

Wilson strives to represent the community in his work, taking commissions from people who want to have a chewing gum painting done to mark a special occasion or commemorate a loved one. He never charges for the service, although he occasionally creates pieces on brickwork to sell in galleries to fund his community artworks.

“I didn’t want to do pictures only for people who could afford them,” he says.

“[My work] is about celebrating everyday life. It’s the diversity of life that we have to embrace, and I’m privileged that I get to experience everyday life.”

In the years since he started creating his art, Wilson has become increasingly concerned by the changes wrought in the community by the climate of austerity. “David Cameron is totally out of touch on a grass roots level,” says Wilson. “This immoral government is making poor people take on the national deficit.”

Wilson has witness first hand how the cutting of services has affected his community. Many of the local people he painted gum pictures for used the mental health services of St Luke’s Hospital. In 2011 the hospital was closed and subsequently purchased by developers for £26 million. Whilst 70 per cent of the planned housing will be for people of 55 years old, Wilson worries about those who previously relied on the services, and fears valuable community centres such as the local library could be next.

%image(15207705, type="article-full", alt=""On one level it is a form of protest, but it's also fulfilling a social need in society: to acknowledge people in their environment," says Wilson")

Muswell Hill has seen house prices more than double in the last decade, to a current average and the community Wilson creates his art for has been affected by this in a multitude of ways.

“My daughter is 23 and she can’t afford to live here. People who have grown up in the area can’t afford to stay,” says Wilson. Two years of successive rent hikes has taken its toll on Wilson too, as he relies on housing benefits to supplement his income as an artist. “I’ve had to fight to remain in my flat,” he says.

As the Warwick study shows, the presence of art, and by association artists, in an area is connected to house prices going up. Ironically, the very artists who helped make the area so desirable find themselves priced out the market.

On a macro scale, Wilson says artists contribute hugely to both London’s cultural cache and its economy.

“Art fulfils a social function, so there needs to be support for the artist,” he argues, “You need creative thinkers; you need people who think outside of the box.”

Like his art, Wilson is all about turning the negative into the positive. He’s determined to flip the narrative of artists being pushed out by rising house prices and of communities crumbling under pressure from developers on its head. It is, in short, what his art made from discarded wads of gum is all about.

“I’m taking ‘urgh’ and making it in to ‘hmm’”, he says.