Of all the things that have come to define the new millennium, perhaps none capture the zeitgeist better than the mainstream embracement of “the street.” What “the street” means is a great many things to different people, but as hip hop shifted from shelling genre mixtapes with much underground chatter into a dominant industry in its own right, and the fashion world shifted its lens from the catwalk to the sidewalk, there seemed to be an emerging statement being made: that anyone, anywhere, can achieve prominence, that culture is dictated by the people, that the conversation surrounding the nature of art had changed.
Nowhere was this shift more apparent than in the rise of street art. Its name can change depending on the conversation but the link between the terminology and the general ethos of street art never seems to waver. The idea is that, perhaps for the first time in history, art culture had started to trickle out of galleries and elite circles, and has suddenly become available for the people again. In those early stages of street art’s emergence writ countercultural and monocultural at once, the medium stood in quiet, revolutionary opposition.
We’d seen both ends of this spectrum explored independently. Jean-Michel Basquiat had become a postmodern art darling after using the notorious downtown tag SAMO; and we saw Curtis Kulig’s “Love Me” tag end up on everything from mugs, to t-shirts, to beanies and every item in between. This new breed of street artist, however, wasn’t interested in assimilating its style into traditional artistic landscapes. With a similar multicultural bend as other big historical art movements, street art finds its roots everywhere from France to England to stateside metropolises.
Of this new class of artistic provocateurs, two developed their voices and their sensibilities most recognizably during the early stages of street art’s immersion into the mainstream: Shepard Fairey and Banksy. The former’s aesthetic would come to define a momentous election; the latter’s identity remains ever elusive. While on polar opposite ends of the spectrum both in terms of style and sensibility, the two nevertheless have come to stand as the figureheads of the movement of artistic savants.
The way street art has crafted a revised dialogue around the nature of artistic expression, and that most basic question that has plagued postmodern intellectuals – “What is art?” – has gone a long way in developing a more democratized culture. Street art is a self-proclaimed act of rebellion against the actual institution of art, much as art once seemed to be exclusively a rebellion against the culture that surrounded it.
The vagaries of street art’s beginnings mirror the larger discourse surrounding the form, where the discussion about street art’s legitimacy often trumps the actual art itself. This general confusion surrounding where street art fits in the broader narrative of the art world seems to be central to its very thesis. In that sense, artists most often lumped into the category found themselves to be the projection of the culture’s more postmodern desires, self-referential and self-assured at once.
What street art “is” exactly is what even those with the most cursory understanding of the medium know it to be—visual art created in and on public spaces, often unsanctioned, always provocative. The provocations themselves differ largely depending on the artist and climate; the term is often blamed for a simplification of the work being done. Yet it captures the most important motif that binds all the work: the use of space. The deconstruction of the museum as a curatorial space has, since the turn of the 21st century, turned every inch of the world’s most well established metropolises into a blank canvas. The most legendary figures of the movement—Shepard Ferry and Banksy—are contributors to more than just a paradigm shift in the conversation surrounding art; they’re vital to changing the notion of the museum or gallery space as context. Instead of allowing an institution to help define art, and place it in a specific conversation with the space it inhabits, street art places its focus on art in conversation with the world at large. By breaking the fourth wall, the movement has become something not only intrinsic to contemporary popular culture, but rather a progressive element of how we view public space and the tangible role of the city.
So what makes street art something aside from a fad, a momentary hiccup in a culture ruled more and more by those who can afford to participate in it? What makes it iconic, largely, is that its most forward-thinking figures don’t seem to be taking their work too seriously. This wryness with which street art has managed to function is a testament to its time and place—one in which wariness of all things pretentious has left a crater-sized gap between the art world and the public at large. For most, the end of the public fascination with the intelligentsia gave way to a general disconnect between creative industry and culture itself, making the realm of “the art scene” increasingly insular, catering to a wealthy elite more interested in proximity to than a relationship with the art itself.
Banksy’s work in particular has found a lurid fascination with the highbrow/lowbrow threshold. His evolution in form, from freehand graffiti to his now signature use of stenciling, crafts a photorealism that requires very little in the way of interpretive analysis. This accessibility is what makes the themes of his works—anti-capitalist, anti-war, and generally anti-establishment—most potent. Their effectiveness works thanks to Banksy adopting the sort of sardonic wit and sharp directness of twentieth-century marketing. By fusing wordplay and imagery much the same way commercial enterprises do in the act of a sale, Banksy fuses the sensibility of commercial culture with the subversion inherent in street art, and through it creates, intentional or not, a very telling link between commodity culture and the contemporary art world.
Yet in much the same way that Banksy is able to comment on art as commodity through rebellion, Shepard Fairey comments on the notion of art as rebellion largely through commodity. This distinction captures the cyclical way in which street art manages to speak to itself and about itself. “The real message behind most of my work is ‘question everything,’” Fairey has been quoted as saying. The excitement over street art’s gradual immersion into the conversation surrounding art and culture was notable and remains important because of the very fact that it has continued to challenge our preconception of what it is that separates the casual observer, the religious museum attendee, and the collector.
Street art’s rise in the mainstream American consciousness spiked after 9/11, which was no coincidence. The medium’s preoccupation with rebellion was fused in the spirit of its form. It is still largely illegal, heavily combatted by authorities, and often the result of numerous public statements decrying it an eyesore on an otherwise gorgeous city landscape—the latter being a phrase most mayors must use. Yet, with Banksy’s work—and Fairey’s as well, though its ties to American politics would go on to be strengthened a little deeper into the new millennium—there was a very distinct post-ennui cynicism in place that felt largely to be the voice of the American public during the Bush administration.
His work during the first half of the 2000s was his most official and prolific: 2002 brought Existencilism, his Los Angeles debut held at 33 1/3 Gallery in Silver Lake, followed by a warehouse installation and exhibition titled Turf War that steadily heightened his popularity. However it was the 2006 show, Barley Legal, that is to be credited for the American mainstream’s embracement of Banksy. Around the same time, England and America’s tenuous relations were tested with the Iraq war, a controversial unifying of opposing ideologies that prompted an international ripple effect.
Of course, this could be seen as an overly political context to apply to what many could read as a definitively non-political spectrum of art. Street art’s very appeal is that it prompts more conversation than it actually participates in, and this sense of chronological contextualizing and its postmodern appeal are fully realized; Banksy and Fairey’s works are brash and confrontational in what they say about politics and life during wartime just as much as they are apathetic to any thesis of the sort. In a sense, street art’s growing reputation as an increasingly legitimate soapbox is something that Fairey has attempted to combat time and time again. His most immediately recognizable work is, for many, the Obey Giant, a manipulated photo of wrestler Andre the Giant from a supermarket tabloid that Fairey crafted into a sticker campaign. When placed all over a cityscape, the imagery manages to get at that quest for meaning and pattern recognition, yet largely isn’t meant to get at anything. Fairey himself has stated, “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.” This is a hilariously vital statement from the notoriously caustic street artist, key because, because it manages to subvert the assumed intention of an art form that is already subverting the assumed intention of art.
Eventually Fairey would be the aesthetic face of skate brand and conglomerate Obey, and Banksy would go on to not only become a euphemism for street art itself, but the basis for a hoard of new graduates from the street art school of subversion, all while remaining completely anonymous. This anonymity in effect was part and parcel of his very iconic and mythic status as an artist. Many would go on to emulate his style, copying everything from the sensibility of the aesthetic to his references (a mix of commercial art figures, like Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald, combined with political imagery, like the Gaza wall or the naked child running from the atomic bomb).
Nowhere was this adoption more evident than in the rise of Mr. Brainwash, a Los Angeles-based street art figure with ties to the street art underground of France and England (his cousin is street artist Invader, who uses discarded Rubik’s Cube squares to create tactile mosaics of Pac-man ghosts on walls and street corners). He was also tasked with, and interested in, doing a documentary about street art in the early days of its popularity. Through his cousin, Mr. Brainwash (aka Thierry Guetta) met Fairey and even the elusive Banksy, filming them as they traveled the globe, tagging every flat service in eye-shot with some of their most memorable pieces. They ventured stateside, to Guetta’s current residence of Los Angeles, attempting to place an art installation in Disneyland.
Allegedly at Banksy and Fairey’s own push, Guetta decided to pursue street art himself, having become an unwitting student through the mere act of documenting. The result is in and of itself a parable for the pains of commercial art: Guetta began tagging the greater Los Angeles area using both stencil (as learned from Banksy) and stickers (a tip adopted from Fairey), with the phrase “Life is Beautiful” becoming his signature. Guetta himself has no hand in the making of his artwork; he employs a team of graphic designers to carry out his concepts, which use many of Banksy’s trademark elements, most notably the use of alteration and fusion of recognizable copyrighted photos with elements of colorful pop art. In the years since Guetta went from documentarian to artist, many in the street art community have come to speak out against Guetta for stealing trademarked ideas and general artistic sensibilities from other members of the community.
The pushback against Guetta stands as a curious irony, considering many street artists are left fighting for their intellectual property while operating in an artistic movement meant largely to democratize the notion of image and creation. Still, Guetta’s hype—largely self- manifested, though successfully—has made him a key player, and as Banksy himself has stated, it’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly one can fail in an anti-establishment artistic movement. “Terry kind of broke the rules,” Banksy said in the 2010 documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. “But then again street art isn’t supposed to have any rules.” Even without actually having a hand in the making of any of the pieces, and considering the rather reductive nature of his work (large-scale paintings of the Beatles with KISS make-up; Andy Warhol super-imposed with his own Marilyn Monroe pop-art portrait; Campbell’s soup spray cans), Mr. Brainwash’s debut show Life Is Beautiful was an overwhelming success; his work sold for as large as five figures, celebrity attendees like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were spotted making the rounds. The fervor was palpable, the hype deafening, and all this for an artist who has become monumental because he convinced the general public that he already was.
Many in the art world speculate that Mr. Brainwash is, in fact, an elaborate ruse—a hoax crafted by Banksy and Shepard Fairey to con the art elite, as a comment on the quick and easy commercialization of art itself, and the public’s ongoing eagerness to eat it all up. Regardless of whether Guetta/Brainwash is real or a performance art piece, there is no denying that he is a product of Banksy and Shepard Fairey—a perfect embodiment of street art’s legendary ascension in such a short span of time.
In the years since street art evolved from the fringe of the mainstream, Fairey’s work has been featured everywhere from the Smithsonian, to the Victoria Albert Museum in London, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he has come to be considered one of the most widely influential figures of street art. His image of Senator Barack Obama, with the phrase “hope” framing the bottom, and saturated into deep red and blue tones, became one of the most instantly recognizable images in 21st century politics, and a cornerstone of Obama’s presidential campaign.
Banksy has continued to make highly successful works of art, which have sold for upwards of $160,000. Journalist Max Foster coined the momentum surrounding street art’s popularity as “The Banksy Effect.” Just this past year, Banksy participated in a month-long artistic residency in New York City, titled Better Out Than In, wherein each day he would create and place a work of art in a different New York location, ranging from mural to sculpture to media installation. The residency received widespread attention, most notably the pop-up art stand in Central Park that sold original authentic Banksy works for $60 without anyone’s knowledge (the pieces have gone on to be worth upwards of a reported $31,000).
Street art finds its value in some strange nexus between pop art, graffiti, and Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic soundbite that “the medium is the message.” Fairey has spoken at length about his work being particularly devoid of statement, meant instead to be seen and soaked in. Banksy’s work shuns that sort of analytic apathy, as his work proves to always have a vague meaning secondary to its visual subversions. Call it commoditized or co-opted; either way, street art has entered the mainstream lexicon and made icons out of its innovators. And most fascinatingly, Banksy, Fairey, and the hoards of other legendary artists to come out of the movement remain both art world darlings and fringe figures. Fairey faced a lawsuit for unlawful copyright infringement for his Obama “hope” poster. The art elite has praised Banksy, yet when asked about his month-long residency in New York, Mayor Bloomberg likened him to a vandal: “It’s not my definition of art.”
The most important element of the movement’s legendary status is its very intangibility. Street art captures the ephemerality of the culture’s current state—an elongated phase of semi-permanence that presents product with no actual root in the world. In this context, street art manages to push beyond our conventional understanding and decade-spanning obsession with art as object by asking us to consider a work that only exists within the moment. Nothing speaks to our time better than the notion that a beloved work of art, sold at six-figures to the highest bidder, documented by historians and museums alike, could, one morning, simply be painted over, removed by a shop owner or ignored by a passerby, labeled vandalism, covered by a different spray-painted tag entirely, could seemingly never have existed at all.
Article by Rod Bastanmehr for The Untitled Magazine ‘Legendary” Issue 7