In our series of scouting locations for Community Media Cafés, we visited Graff Werk HQ, which is situated near the Leicester River Soar Canal on Frog Island. The enterprise is run by some very friendly and enthusiastic young people who are part of the alternative scene not only in Leicester but also nation-wide and even internationally. They have an interesting website where one can buy anything from spray paint to clothing, markers, inks, paints and much more. They also run a number of blogs on various issues. GraffHQ has a Twitter presence under the name ‘Graff Werk’ where they announce events and exhibitions in their gallery space at the Mill Centre. They also have a presence on Instagram.

Graff Werk is supporting street art artists, amongst whom are some well known and established names. They just recently acquired an old building, The Mill, which was originally a functioning mill some hundred years ago. The old mill water canal is still visible under the building. The entire site smells for history.

Graffiti art along the canal – photo: Gerhard Haas

There is a car park in front of the building which is shared by some other small companies and an alternative music establishment. Wherever one looks one can see street art, from the simple to the advanced.

An advanced piece of art on a garage door nearby – photo: Gerhard Haas

The unspoken rule is that one can only overpaint, or rather overspray, any existing art if one can produce something better.

A painting at the gallery – photo: Gerhard Haas

The team that run Graff Werk got permission from the Council to paint the walls along the canal spanning from one bridge to the other. Every inch along the canal is therefore colourfully spray painted. However, on a later visit, we found that the entire wall from bridge to bridge with its intricate artwork had been demolished to make space for a new housing development.

Spray paint for sale – photo: Gerhard Haas

Entering the Mill one finds himself in a large open space flanked on the left with a long counter with hundreds of cans of spray paint and on the right with a small Vegan Café.

The Vegan Café – photo: Gerhard Haas

In the middle of this space is a large table with chairs dotted around it, all made from recyclable and re-gained materials such as pallets. Graff Werk prides itself to have a strong sustainability ethos. Many of the materials have been donated by the Highcross Shopping Centre, materials which would have otherwise ended up in landfills.

A view from the gallery to the recycled table and chairs – photo: Gerhard Haas

The Coffee bar at the ground floor is run by a sub-contracted company and it is hoped that they will blend in with the ethos of Graff Werk and only use non-plastic cups and cutlery. This ground floor space is ideally suited for a Community Media Café, especially given the atmosphere and the approachability of the staff, in fact, I got the immediate impression that this is what community media is all about.

Bring the Paint in May 2019: We’ve got some amazing artists booked in to come. That will be over on the Cultural Quarter. It runs for a week, but the 25th will be the climax over in the Cultural Quarter. 26th we’ve got a very special event, all day down here. Again some huge artists painting the walls along the canal – Ant, organizer at Graff HQ

A wide staircase leads to a balcony area, the gallery, with framed street art paintings on the walls. From there one has an excellent view of the hall with its recycled seating arrangements.

The gallery – photo: Gerhard Haas

There are three more levels above, all of them still very much in the renovation. It is obviously a lot of work. Some of the upper space is designed to be a space for artists to work.

Interview with Anthony Overend and Izzy Hoskins from Graff HQ – video: Gerhard Haas

Ant called The Mill a creative hub, and I certainly could not agree more. He explained that his personal journey took him to Leicester some 20 years ago and he was engaged in creative music, putting on events such as dubstep events, the largest dub reggae event in the country, the United Nation Dub weekend, a four days indoor dub sound system festival with reggae artists from all over the world, the ‘Bring Paint Festival’ and many others.

The spray paint counter – photo: Gerhard Haas

Izzy, who paints for 20 years and is an artist herself, told us that she worked with Ant on the ‘Bring Paint Festival’. They found out that they had similar interests and a passion for underground culture and that they made a great team. They work on community arts projects and are effectively an arts collective. They are both the motor behind Graff HQ, although the actual team is much bigger.

Leave your signature or artwork – photo: Gerhard Haas

They envision creating a community of artists, not only graffiti artists but also musicians, photographers and others, come together and have a chat over food, expanding the culture, inspiring people, giving established artists, photographers, videographers, a place to come together, a community hub so to speak, and building on what they have got. Graff HQ receive support from Leicester’s Highcross Shopping Centre and De Montfort University.

Hundreds of spray cans and art materials – photo: Gerhard Haas

Graff HQ work with many different organizations such as SusTrans, a charity promoting sustainable transport solutions such as walking and cycling with the obvious associated health and environmental benefits. They organize workshops and groups to go out on cycling

Graff HQ is the definite winner of the four venues visited. This is due to their undiluted passion and grassroots involvement, lifting the unpossessed and excluded in society to a level of expressive art, thus creating a real community. What used to be annoying graffiti has become an accepted community of artists and an alternative culture, far away from the mainstream establishment.

Of course, the danger of the system and society at large absorbing and taming grassroots involvement and its subculture expression is always there, today street art is on walls of disused building, tomorrow it may adorn galleries. This has happened to the hippie movement of the 60s. What used to be an expressive artistic community of flower power and love, tearing down established norms, even of dress and appearance, with ripped jeans and bracelets on their ankles, a hippie peace movement, – has been swallowed up and neutralised by established society, the system, and thus converted into mainstream.

Today we get ripped designer jeans and bracelets adorn the ankles of many. This is a well established way of integration, because society feels uncomfortable and even challenged by any sub- or counter culture. It cannot tolerate it because it puts its own norms and culture into question. Marketing it and making a fashion out of it will destroy almost any counter culture and thus re-integrate it into mainstream society, unless it has a strong philosophical underpinning that can resist all such attempts.