But today graffiti artists are being positively encouraged to add their designs to Portsmouth’s city centre landscape as the council seeks to liven up drab vistas.
Street art has gone legit, with some of its top exponents being invited to use their talents to brighten hoardings surrounding key sites.
Following the rise and rise of mysterious graffiti artist Banksy, whose work now attracts headlines and sells for tens of thousands of pounds, other urban creative types have been busy transforming local eyesores with their colourful designs.
It all began last year when members of the Portsmouth Creative Movement set to work on previously dull hoardings surrounding the site of the now-demolished Pitt Street baths and gymnasium.
The public art project was set up by the city’s design and heritage committee because there was concern that this unattractive gateway area was being seen by many visitors to the city as they drove past.
To avoid them being left with a negative impression of Portsmouth, the city council agreed to put up £1,000 for materials and paint and grant permission for the hoardings to be turned into artworks.
It was such a success that last week street artists from across the south descended on the city to transform more hoardings surrounding the empty former Zurich Insurance building in Stanhope Road.
Now another city centre site has been transformed into a public gallery - and the hunt is on for other hoardings and walls in Portsmouth that would benefit from a multi-coloured makeover.
The art project is the brainchild of an advisory group headed by Councillor Cheryl Buggy, design and heritage champion for the council. Southsea creative agency We Are Pseudonym and another Southsea company, Fark Industries, have also been involved in bringing top street artists to Portsmouth.
Cheryl says: ‘The whole idea is to take some areas that look a bit sad and let artists use them as their canvas. In the latest project, some of the art produced is really stunning.’
Cheryl adds: ‘What’s brilliant about this is that artists have been happy to give up their time and come to Portsmouth free-of-charge just for the chance to paint one section of a hoarding.
‘Pictures of their work have been put on the internet and what started as an idea to make a part of Portsmouth look more attractive has grown into something seen around the world.’
Cheryl acknowledges there has been some criticism of the project, but defends the decision to give it council backing.
‘If you look at some of these pictures, they’re art. They’re totally different from the initials and logos or ‘tags’ that some graffiti artists use to make statements. They’re beautiful and people would be happy to have them hanging on the wall at home.’
She adds: ‘If you go and see some of the designs, I don’t think you’d call them graffiti. If you watch people as they go past, they smile and to me that’s a great thing. I know I would certainly rather look at a picture than a drab hoarding.’
Cheryl would like some of the artwork to be used to inspire children. She explains: ‘In just a few months the hoardings will come down. But it would be nice to think that they could be kept and given to local inner city schools as an example of what can be achieved.
‘This is a very cool art form and we know that colour and pictures can have a huge emotional impact.’
She says there is now a waiting list of artists who would like to come to the city and produce more public work.
‘If we could combine that with some workshops for children, that would be fantastic.’
Claire Sambrook, a senior lecturer in creative technologies at the University of Portsmouth and a member of the city’s design and heritage committee, loves the hoardings.
She says: ‘Good street art is very eye-catching and attractive and people love to see it. Some of these artists have their own followings.
‘I’m very impressed by what I’ve seen. I think the quality of this project has made it such a success.’
Claire adds: ‘I think we’ll get a lot of recognition as a city and it’s great to know that we can attract artists of this calibre. It shows that we are a cultural city.’
Carl Downer, of We Are Pseudonym, says of the Stanhope Road project: ‘It’s been a great success. With street art, it’s about putting your work out there so people can engage with it. It is very difficult to find locations, but hoardings are a natural platform and this is such a key location in the city.’
He adds: ‘They might be called graffiti artists, but this is definitely an art form. I’ve watched them and it’s an awesome skill.’