Spray Pay: How Graffiti Artists Make Money

(Image credit: Unknown)

Meet Tom McDonald, AKA DCipher - a man who proves that graffiti isn't just something done by people with a talent for art and a lot of time on their hands.

It was when Tom began teaching street art to young students that he realised there was more to graffiti than the culture it's often linked with - the notion of crime and anti-establishment rhetoric often goes hand-in-hand with painted murals, although Tom says the stereotypes are “just paranoia”. 

Graffiti is a powerful medium that's highly in demand, as Tom's impressive client base proves; he paints full-time from Australia, where he moved from his native Ireland, and has provided art for the likes of MTV and large rail companies. We asked him how he managed to turn his passion into a full-time job, and found out that even the most creative professions aren't immune to the dreaded need to network...

Where did the intrigue start?

I fell in love with graffiti back in the 80s when I watched someone write “U2” in fancy 3D words on a wall next to my school’s football pitch. This was long before I even knew who U2 were [laughs]. I thought it was just some subliminal message, written by some mysterious person about their own subversive agenda. That’s where I realised street art has captivating power. That’s where my fascination kicked off.

How would someone become a professional graffiti artist?

It’s not something you can just randomly take up and get paid for. You need experience, and a lot of it. You need to hone your skills before you can charge people for your work as well as building up your reputation and style. Reputation is everything – same as with every profession. No matter what your art or passion is, you have to put the time into it before you can monetise it.


(Image credit: Unknown)

How did you make your first sale?

The majority of my work has come about through word of mouth – networking is a big part of the business. I must be doing something right because so far I haven't had to advertise! Graffiti is all about credibility – it comes down to how you sell yourself. If you have good reputation then corporate sales will come to you.

Have you ever been in trouble for leaving… unsolicited graffiti anywhere?

Luckily I was never arrested for any of the questionable work I did when I was younger. Once I started teaching street art to young people in my 20s, I realised the impact graffiti can have and the importance of using it to create lasting impressions instead of cheap work that’s only worth a glance.


(Image credit: Unknown)

What kind of commissions to do you work on, and have you had any notable clients?

I’ve done commissions for tons of different clients: Irish Rail and Cityrail here in Sydney, and from massive brands like MTV Europe to smaller franchise businesses. It’s an eclectic client base. Recently I painted a lovely couple’s newly refurbished kitchen, which was just as satisfying as some of the larger clients I’ve worked with.

People often think graffiti culture is linked to crime. What do you say to that kind of opinion?

These misconceptions are purely down to paranoia. A lot of this fearmongering stems from poor media coverage, negative hype from politician campaigns and parties with other motivations such as property sales. The reality of graffiti culture is we are just crews of guys and girls who like to congregate, create and celebrate art. Some of my strongest friendships have been based on this wonderful bond.


(Image credit: Unknown)

You’re from Ireland but moved to Australia – how is the graffiti and creative culture in general different over there?

Maybe it’s the sunshine but people here are generally in better spirits… without the need for spirits, as is often the case back home! The incredible weather also allows me to head outside and paint whenever I want. The USA and Europe have unique graffiti identities, and Australia identifies more with the USA whereas Ireland takes a lot of its influence from Europe.

Sam Razvi wrote for Men’s Fitness UK (which predated and then shared a website with Coach) between 2011 and 2016.