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Big Issue vendors: The best of Britain

From Heathrow to national exhibitions, Big Issue vendors are symbols of a positive Britain. Robert Elms, Boris Johnson and more explain why

The Big Issue is everywhere. We would say that, of course. We’ve long held that over the last 25 years The Big Issue has grown to become a vital part of British life.

But now our identity is becoming an international brand – a key element of Britishness to greet and reassure those at home and away. It begins at Heathrow Airport. Every week, 1.5 million passengers fly into Britain via one of the busiest airports in the world. Now, one of the first faces they’ll see is that of a smiling Big Issue vendor.

Floriana Stanciu is our new international poster girl. She joins astronauts, Red Arrows pilots and TFL Tube drivers as part of Heathrow’s new ‘Welcome’ poster campaign.

Heathrow Airport poster

Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye said it was an honour to welcome Floriana as part of the “line-up of iconic personalities the United Kingdom has to offer”.

Floriana is, understandably, very pleased.

“I am very proud to feature in the pictures at Heathrow,” she said. “This is a nice way to feel good about the journey I have taken and the hard work needed to get to where I am today.” Floriana was homeless for two years but has picked herself up through selling this very magazine.

A few miles east of Heathrow, at Central St Martins, visitors come face to face with a life-size photograph of the ever-popular Broadcasting House vendor, George Anderson (pictured top). He was chosen as a figurehead for Historic England’s new I Am London exhibition. The project is a celebration of the diversity of people who call the capital home, each captured in a place that is important to them.

George has become part of the fixtures and fittings here at Broadcasting House

George – who also works as a Big Issue ‘franchisee’, distributing magazines to and supporting vendors in and around Liverpool Street – picked the Regent Street junction where All Souls Church meets the BBC HQ and Langham Hotel.

“It’s fair to say that George has become part of the fixtures and fittings here at Broadcasting House,” said BBC Radio London presenter Robert Elms. “We all see George every day, rain or shine, always with a smile on his face.”

In fact, it’s not the first time The Big Issue has been formally given the nod as a key part of London. Not so long ago, then mayor Boris Johnson paid tribute.

“Visitors to London will see that The Big Issue is as much a part of the fabric of our great city’s streetscape as black cabs and red telephone boxes,” he said on the eve of the London Olympics. “They will see the spirit of enterprise and community that Big Issue vendors bring to streets across London, and learn first-hand what brilliant ambassadors for the city they are.”

Bristol vendor Jeff mural

And it’s not just in London. Across the M4, a band of Bristol vendors are currently the subject of striking artworks (below) – created by local artists Fetch and Jon D’oh – for the city’s Upfest, Europe’s largest street art festival. Nearby, illustrator James Wilson chose to include Bristol vendor Jeff Knight in a giant mural he created to represent everything that’s great about the city, from Wallace and Gromit to the famous Balloon Fiesta.

“The mural represents the landmarks and characters of Bristol,” explained Wilson, 31. “I wanted to include Jeff as he’s super positive, always greeting people with a smile and a hello, and everyone knows him in Bristol.”

Bristol vendors mural

Across the border in Scotland, meanwhile, celebrated artist and author Alasdair Gray chose to include a Big Issue seller in his iconic mural created for Glasgow’s Hillhead Subway station (pictured below) – while in Edinburgh, artist Karen Bates painted a portrait featuring 49 of the city’s vendors.

Increasingly, correspondence from readers is full of celebrations of vendors as symbols of positivity in their community – and we have noticed a distinct increase in these letters of late. We’ve also felt a post-Brexit sales spike, when Big Issue readers actively sought to support the most vulnerable in society.

By endorsing The Big Issue’s values, a brand is showing a sense of compassion

So why, in these times of uncertainty and fractured thinking, are big businesses, grassroots campaigns and the great British public turning to The Big Issue and our vendors?

A generosity of spirit and welcoming attitude is key believes Ian Burrell, media commentator for the i newspaper and The Drum. He thinks the new post-Brexit reality is playing a part.

“For tourist organisations, music festivals and any other brand which depends on attracting visitors from far afield, the idea that the UK might be less welcoming to outsiders is potentially damaging and needs to be countered with effective marketing,” he told us.

“It’s telling that three cities which backed Remain – London, Bristol and Glasgow – are associated with campaigns featuring The Big Issue.

“By endorsing The Big Issue’s values, a brand is showing a sense of compassion and sending a signal of openness and generosity, whether that’s coming from an airport brand, a music festival or a bank.”

And it only feels like the start. As The Big Issue approaches our 25th anniversary the sense that the brand – and most importantly our vendors – make up a vital part of a new, progressive Britishness continues to grow.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

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