THE BLOG

Street Art As A Tool For Change

14/03/2017 11:33 GMT | Updated 14/03/2017 11:33 GMT

Street art, and those who create it - those who dare, dream, fight, question and challenge, whether it be for rebellion or for necessity, for the past and for the future, for no reason and for vital ones, for themselves and for a greater good... in my mind encapsulates all that is historically significant about this medium.

Street art began in a place of rebellion, and speaks of spiritual survival. It was often the only tool of the poverty stricken, the disenfranchised, to communicate their stories, their sense of place. When you have nothing, being able to "claim" a wall, marks your sense of ownership of your place, your town. It's a mark to claim humanness, and a marker for the future.

The street has long been a place to advocate and express personal, social and political opinions. From the historic role it has played as a meeting point for revolution, in the last few decades the street has become the place, the medium and the message.

Street art's birth in a cultural art historical context developed from the rise of graffiti in Philadelphia in 1968 - then New York soon after.

This development represented a major shift in how art movements come into being, in as much as its motivating imperative was disaffection, poverty and urban blight, inner city youths going beyond the deprivation of their day-to-day lives, by reimagining themselves as larger-than-life and almost super heroic visual alter egos.

With pen names such as BLADE, DAZE and CRASH, these artists painted their names on the side of subway trains in 10ft high letters, spreading news of their nocturnal adventures and creations across the whole city.   

Around the same time in New York, artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat pushed the boundaries of what graffiti was and took it into galleries.

In Paris, even from the early 1960s, street art diverted from graffiti and addressed the use of techniques and more universal political issues.

Artists such as Gerard Zlotykamien spray painted silhouettes of human figures in the ruins of Les Halles, a green market area that was demolished to make room for a modern shopping centre. When Ernest Pignon-Ernest placed wheat pastes in the same neighborhood, he was creating a technique that still resonates in the methods used by street artists today.

Whereas graffiti in Philadelphia and New York tended to be a personal marking of space, a tag, a writing of a name or gang to claim a neighborhood, early French street art developed techniques and a more political message. It was the combination of both of these that grew together to form the modern global street art movement that we know today.

Graffiti was the template, the means, the method.

Street art adopted all of this and pushed the boundaries of what outside art can be, going beyond anything achieved during the Golden Age of graffiti's early evolution.

Few can ignore Rone's 20-storey murals splashed across cities globally, and JR's 3D photo-sculptures at this year's Olympic Games in Rio or Banksy's works selling for thousands of pounds.

I believe that the Street Art Movement has gone beyond all art movements to date. Stylistically, politically and socially it has inspired, challenged and changed people's lives positively across the world.

In terms of style, street artists utilise their day to day environment as a canvas like no other movement before. Any surface becomes a canvas. Street artists go beyond the confines of the expected, or art school training, to create works on any background - from walls to railings, from wood to metal, from buildings to vehicles.

The mural is not a new invention, far from it, from Michaelango to the murals of Diego Rivera. But the nature and versatility with which street artists use any medium in, on and around the street to communicate and create is unprecedented.

Politically, with the street as their medium they can voice their thoughts instantly, changing rhetoric and opinion through their direct communication to the people. Street art work can become influential very quickly - Shepherd Fairey's iconic Hope image was created in one day and very soon after was adopted by pro Obama supporters and reproduced widely.

Socially, street artists work is now being used as a proactive tool for change, transforming areas across the globe.

In Miami the Goldman family have almost singlehandedly gentrified one of the most dangerous areas of the city. With a specific and good hearted program of embracing and encouraging street art in Wynwood Walls, the area has been transformed, and is now both an international tourist attraction and affluent neighborhood in its own right.

Similar schemes, by developers, individuals and social initiatives, have sprung up in other parts of the world. In England, from London's Shoreditch to Swansea, street art and artistic communities are actively encouraged, creating a sense of dynamism and relevance.

A really positive example of art being used as a tool for change is when the artist JR undertook a series of installations in Rio, creating artworks on and in the favelas. These significantly changed the communities in which they happened, enhancing the mood of the neighborhood and encouraging a sense of pride in previously disenfranchised residents. JR calls the streets "the biggest art gallery in the world". I'd personally add that it's also one of the most exciting.

One of the reasons that this movement has had such a global impact is the internet.

The internet has both grown the street art market and in turn, the street art market, has, because of the internet, decentralized control of the global art market. It enables artists and individuals to directly promote and trade their own work.

Artists are taking control of their work and in the last decade have changed the art market fundamentally. Traditionally an artist would need to establish a reputation, present to a dealer and become attached exclusively to a gallery. Then, once the artist was fully established, their work would be sold through auction.

This traditional route to market has been dramatically altered by the advent of street art and the champions in that field who use social online platforms and websites to share and promote their work directly to the public, making the traditional routes to market superfluous. The internet has become their tool to directly communicate with their buyers and the world at large.

Fundamentally, the internet's ability to provide instant live information from the artists to a diverse far reaching audience has ensured that street art has gone beyond the usual boundaries of the art market.

The street as a medium has also ensured that street art has a far reaching appeal, enabling a generation to appreciate and engage with art who normally wouldn't have been inspired to go to a gallery.

The work itself is approachable, appeals to all ages and through the very nature of the content of street art, you don't need a formal art education to understand it. Street artists have ensured that art is accessible to all, whether you choose to engage with it or not.

People see a work, research on internet, find where to buy and purchase painting and prints works by these artists. These portable works are now defined by the art market as urban contemporary. Whether that is directly from an artist, or a gallery, a dealer or an auction house, from an art market's perspective, street art has opened up a whole new community of buyers. This audience previously has not been part of the art market equation, and their inclusion, and buying power, have propelled the street art market into a multimillion pound industry.

One of the main reasons why this art has been so accessible and popular is the artist's ability to relate to the here and now - to live in the moment and to express a personal, a social and a political rhetoric. A rhetoric that is immediately understood, a collective consciousness to which we can all relate.

The streets as a canvas gives the artist the ability to directly communicate and comment, expressing opinions, thoughts and aspirations. For instance, Banksy's Mobile lovers and all of his work in fact pass comment on our modern society and its ironies.

Mobile Lovers in particular had a double impact, one, the message of the work itself, and two, the location in which it was created.

In this work the artist is pointing out that modern technology (specifically smart phones, in this instance) and social media, hold us all in a state of constant detachment, of not being 'quite there', and not paying attention to the person/s in whose company we are physically present.

Banksy's Mobile Lovers, whilst seemingly in an intimate embrace, are more interested in their phones than one another. The original location of the painting (like all Banksy's street pieces) was crucial to its impact, situated as it was in a dark doorway at the end of a dead- end street, where no one goes after dark. The use of glow-in-the-dark spray paint to illuminate the subjects' faces (a first for the artist) added weight to the idea that this piece is intended to be only 'half seen', at night and in the shadows.

It is quite clear that Banksy created this work with the clear intention of assisting the boys club as he would of be aware of their financial predicament through the appeal earlier in the year and it is even possible that he may of attended the club when he lived in Bristol.

I was approached by Broad Plain to handle the sale after Banksy acknowledged authenticity and the right of the boy's club to sell the work. I subsequently sold Mobile Lovers to a private collector for £403,000 with proceeds going to the Boy's Club, ensuring their future. Without Banksy's intervention, this club would have surely closed. This is a direct and powerful example of street art (and Banksy) changing lives.

Previously described as vandalism or criminal activity, street art has seen a noticeable softening in the attitude of the judicial system towards it with councils protecting works of art as a cultural attraction for tourists.

There is a paradox here. In the UK, some councils are punishing those who 'graffiti' areas whilst others are simultaneously promoting areas where they have been 'graffitied'.

For instance, the city of Bristol, which is considered the birthplace of modern British street art, has been at the forefront of the paradox.

Bristol, for a number of possible reasons - it's size, geography, multicultural population was one of the first - if not the first - city in the UK to embrace the seminal hiphop culture from New York. With the burgeoning counterculture scene encompassing not just music, but art, fashion and creativity, Bristol quickly became hugely important in the street art scene.

John Nation has been a key figure in Bristol's underground art and music scene for over three decades and is one of the main instigators in the development of street art in the UK. Known as the "Graf father" his support in the 1980s of young people at the city's now legendary Barton Youth Club, paved the way for the early wave of influential street artists such as Inkie, FLX, 3D, Cheo, Nick Walker and later, Banksy.

The other day I was chatting to John about the difference between graffiti and street art and how they are being viewed by the artists, communities and the law. He mentioned that there has been a huge upsurge in tagging in Bristol in recent years, and to combat this apparently the Bristol police, in partnership with Bristol City Council, have set up Operation Block to put a stop to this problem which as they see it has got out of control.

On the other hand, the same council are now protecting works by Banksy, Inkie and other street artists as cultural heritage and are actively encouraging street art, as they can see both the intrinsic commercial value and the value that this work offers the city by attracting tourists. The irony is that artists such as Inkie, in the 1980's were prosecuted under 'operation anderson' are now encouraged in their work.

This highlights that graffiti art and street art are being viewed differently, the former unacceptable and later, acceptable.

On discussing this matter the Bristol Police say;-

"the police do not want to determine exactly what is street art and where it is painted, they just want to eradicate illegal graffiti in Bristol".

To date, there is no legal distinction between the two, subsequently prosecutions vary massively or not at all, if deemed aesthetically pleasing. At the moment, the Bristol Council are apparently looking at transforming a working policy in defining exactly what is street art and where it is acceptable for street art to be.

Graffiti art and street art are forcing the law to re-evaluate what is right and wrong and thereby challenging the institutional confines of law.

However, it is rare these days that street art is created without permission. Certainly that it was produced previously without sanction gave the artists a rebellious 'edge' but those who are really achieving huge acclaim now are working largely within the confines of the law. Combine this with those actively encouraged to create art in specific neighborhoods, to aid development, and it's clear that what we are seeing now is really a mural movement, that carries on very much in the tradition of Mexican Muralism, in as much as they are being commissioned and utilized as a form of municipal improvement and large-scale public artworks, gentrifying areas.

This is a natural evolution of a separate movement on from street art, a sanctioned, paid-for, decriminalized version of its antecedents.

To contextualize this within an art historical framework as 'post street art' as it is largely created within the confines of law - unlike its predecessor 'street art' which was born from graffiti culture and created works illegally on the street.

But ultimately, to expect that this art movement exists within the confines of labels is to misunderstand what sets it apart from all other art movements.

Street art was born from graffiti and the drive for freedom of expression. There is no singular prescribed aesthetic code, or language. It is one of the broadest, and most free of art forms.

In conclusion, street art is a movement that is going beyond, it is evolving continuously and few movements before this can boast so many living artists reaching such high acclaim. It has impacted artists, the art market, democratized the art buyer market, made art accessible and approachable to all.

The evolution of this to a Street Art Movement where so many use their art for good, for political comment, and to envision a better future, beyond the commercial, and even the aesthetic, in my opinion proves that street art has changed generations like no other art movement to date and it is the most multi-faceted and prolific movement in the history of art.