Progression of Art
Untitled (Tag on Pole)
This work serves as an early example of tagging, the type of graffiti writing in which the writer scrawls his/her pseudonym (also known as their "tag") using spray paint or marker, as quickly as possible in as many locations as possible, with the goal of "getting up", or gaining credibility and fame for proliferating one's name around the city. An artist's tag is a pseudonym, which protects both the individual's identity and anonymity, while simultaneously providing the writer an opportunity to develop a new identity or persona (much like a digital avatar). In fact, TAKI 183 is often credited as being the first tagger (although some argue that CORNBREAD of Philadelphia was the first). As journalist Norman Mailer paraphrased the words of graffiti artist CAY 161, "the name is the faith of graffiti." More than anything else, graffiti writers convey their identity and their existence by painting their tag in public spaces. Although considered more as vandalism than art, tagging proliferated the idea that one could become known by demonstrating their presence in public spaces, thus providing the raw foundation for artists to evolve out from within.
Permanent Marker - New York City
Untitled (New York Subway Graffiti)
The text in this "piece" (the common term for a work of graffiti art) reads "TRAP DEZ DAZE" (the tags/pseudonyms of the artists), although the style and placement of the letters may make it difficult to discern for viewers not familiar with this style of lettering. The text uses several bright colors, and employs outlining and shading to give the impression of three-dimensionality. This piece, like much New York graffiti of the 1980s, was completed on the side of a subway train. This choice of location would have garnered greater prestige for the artists, as writing on subway cars put them at very high risk of apprehension by the authorities, and thus considered more daring. Writing on subway cars was also a sure way to rapidly increase one's fame, as the artwork would then travel around the city's subway system, being seen by a far greater number of people than would a stationary piece on a wall.
This piece is a typical example of "wildstyle" graffiti, which includes complex, interlocking or overlapping letters, and sometimes cartoon-like characters and other images, all painted in bright colors. Photojournalist Martha Cooper noted in 1982 that "inaccessibility reinforces that sense of having a secret society inaccessible to outsiders [...] a writer will therefore often make a piece deliberately hard to read." As well, graffiti writers frequently attempt to create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality in wildstyle works. These types of pieces garner higher levels of respect for writers as opposed to "throwups" (simpler pieces using maximum two or three colors to create two-dimensional bubble text) or "tags", because wildstyle work involves more artistic prowess and takes longer to complete, thus putting the writer at a higher risk for run-ins with police.
Spray paint - New York City
This work, created by spray-painting onto a wall over a pre-cut stencil, depicts a couple in the midst of dancing. As we can see, the use of the stencil allowed the artist to create a striking, sharp image with clean, crisp lines, using only black spray paint over a white surface.
In 1971, Blek le Rat took a trip to the United States, where he was amazed by the graffiti he saw all over the city centers. When he returned to Paris, he began to try his own hand at this form of expression. Seeing Fascist stencils in Italy during his youth, as well as political paintings in French Algeria, left a lasting impression on him, and in 1981 he decided to start making his own stencil works around Paris, beginning with small rats. Like Bristol's Banksy, Blek le Rat sees the rat as an ideal symbol for the graffiti artist, as both operate under cover of darkness to evade capture and eradication. Blek le Rat explains, "I began to spray some small rats in the streets of Paris because rats are the only wild animals living in cities, and only rats will survive when the human race disappears and dies out." He then moved on to larger stencil projects, becoming the first known artist to work with stencils to create pictures rather than just text. He explains the benefits of working with stencils, saying, "There are no accidents with stencils. Images created this way are clean and beautiful. You prepare it in your studio and then you can reproduce it indefinitely. I'm not good enough to paint freehand. Stencil is a technique well suited to the streets because it's fast. You don't have to deal with the worry of the police catching you."
Spray paint - Frasso Telesino, Italy
This mural in the historic city of Pisa in Tuscany is filled with graffiti artist Keith Haring's signature motifs including his generic "radiant" figures and many other illuminated forms. It is universally recognized as the artist's unmistakable cartoonish Pop style. The work is a good example of the way some renegade street artists were able to move from their unsanctioned urban canvases into a credible art forum. Haring's notoriety in the public consciousness catapulted him to the type of fame that motivated a city to commission his unique style for their own public building.
Haring first gained attention with his subway art that was created using white chalk on black, unused advertisement backboards in the underground stations that were his preferred painting "laboratory." The radiant baby became his most popular symbol, first used as his identifying tag before taking a life of its own as his preferred character. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carried strong messages of life and unity. He often used lines of energy to emphasize kinetic movement, vitality, and euphoric spirit.
By 1982, Haring had established friendships with fellow emerging street artists Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He also became close friends with Andy Warhol. His work grew more politically active during the era of AIDS and his popular "Silence Equals Death" imagery became a key branding visual for New York's HIV activist group ACT UP. He created more than 50 public works between 1982 and 1989 in dozens of cities around the world.
In April 1986, Pop Shop was opened in Soho and made Haring's work readily accessible to purchase at reasonable prices. When asked about the commercialism of his work, Haring said: "I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price. My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art."
Mural - Pisa, Italy
In 1998, American street artist Shepard Fairey, who spawned from the Southern California skateboarding culture, created a graphic sticker campaign inspired by wrestling icon Andre the Giant while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. The stickers, written with the words Obey Giant, popped up all over the urban landscapes where Fairey lived and traveled, becoming the artist's visual, public experiment with phenomenology. Inspired by German philosopher Martin Heidegger's description of phenomenology as "the process of letting things manifest themselves," Fairey was attempting to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes, but obscured; things so taken for granted that they become muted by abstract observation. Thus, the famous wrestler's face became a familiar motif on the streets, its repetition causing notice while remaining meaningless, until it eventually became just another familiar piece of the urban landscape, unquestioned or analyzed.
Fairey became widely known during the 2008 presidential election for his Barack Obama HOPE poster. He is one of the most influential street artists who have crossed into the gallery zone as he is included in collections at The Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City among others.
Hip Hop Rat
This graffiti piece features a black and white stenciled rat. Banksy often uses the image of the rat as a personalized symbol representing himself, as he, like his graffiti artist predecessor Blek le Rat, felt an affinity with this city-dwelling creature that is active at night in order to evade apprehension and eradication. He says, "If you feel dirty, insignificant or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex 50 times a day."
Since the 1990s, Banksy has rapidly risen to international fame, arguably becoming one of, if not the most well-known contemporary street artists, despite maintaining anonymity by keeping his true identity a secret. His works have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Much of his work (especially in his earlier days) used stencils, allowing him to execute pieces in a matter of seconds and remain undetected by authorities. Since the early 2000s, he has also executed other types of unsanctioned interventions, including sculptures and performative actions. Most of his work aims to offer political and social criticism. Soldiers and police officers, as well as popular cultural icons (like Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse) recur in many of his pieces. He marked the end of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference by painting four murals on global warming. One included the phrase, "I don't believe in global warming" submerged in water. In 2005 he traveled to the Israel-Palestine West Bank barrier wall and executed nine murals on the wall (including a dove with a bulletproof vest and a heart-shaped target over its chest, a child beneath a ladder stretching to the top of the wall, and the silhouette of a young girl being lifted upwards by a bunch of balloons).
Banksy has also held various notable exhibitions, such as his 2006 Barely Legal show in a Los Angeles warehouse, which featured a live Indian elephant painted with the same red and gold floral pattern as the wallpaper that was pasted up in the section of the warehouse where the elephant was displayed. This created controversy, as animal rights activists protested the elephant's involvement. However, the show was immensely popular, with several A-list Hollywood celebrities in attendance. Another one of Banksy's exhibitions, Banksy vs. Bristol Museum (2009) featured Banksy's own take on famous historical paintings, as well as animatronics, sculptures, and installations.
Spray paint - London
Untitled (Guantanamo Prisoner at Disneyland)
In September of 2006, Banksy snuck a life-size inflatable doll dressed as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner into the Disneyland theme park in California, and installed it within the confines of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. The work remained in place for over an hour before park officials noticed it, shut down the ride, and removed the doll. A spokeswoman for Banksy said the work was intended to highlight the situation in which terror suspects find themselves in at the controversial detention center in Cuba. The artist hoped that by confronting carefree park-goers with what appeared to be an actual Guantanamo Bay prisoner in "the happiest place on earth," he might shock them into thinking more seriously about the implications of the war on terror. This work serves as a prime example of how sculptural works by street artists are particularly useful in orchestrating jarring experiences that reflect the political or social climate.
Banksy has carried out a number of other such performative illegal interventions. In 2004, he produced 100,000 fake British £10 notes, replacing the picture of the Queen's head with that of Diana, Princess of Wales and changing the text "Bank of England" to "Banksy of England." He tossed these into a crowd at the Notting Hill Carnival that same year, which some people then attempted to spend in local shops. In March 2005, he surreptitiously hung various modified artworks of his own (such as a Warhol-esque painting of a discount soup can) in New York City's Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and Brooklyn Museum. In August/September of 2006, he placed approximately 500 fake copies of Paris Hilton's debut CD, Paris, in 48 record stores around the UK, modified with his own cover art (photoshopped to show Hilton topless). Other pictures in the album insert featured Paris with her chihuahua Tinkerbell's head replacing her own, and one of her stepping out of a luxury car, edited to include a group of homeless people, with the caption "90% of success is just showing up." Music tracks were given titles such as "Why Am I Famous?" "What Have I Done?" and "What Am I For?" The public purchased several copies of the CD before stores were able to remove them. The purchased copies went on to be sold for much more on online auction websites.
Inflatable doll, orange jumpsuit, black hood, and handcuffs - Disneyland, California
Art Less Pollution
This work, which took seventeen nights to complete, serves as an example of "reverse" graffiti, in that the artist did not actually apply any material to the surface of the wall where he was working, but rather, created images of over 3,500 human skulls in a space measuring almost 1000 feet long, by merely wiping away the heavy layer of soot that had accumulated on the wall of this transportation tunnel from vehicle exhaust pipes. Here, the repeated skull image, combined with the method of image creation, conveys the idea that the pollution of urban centers is a deadly problem affecting countless people. Orion says that, "I wanted to bring a catacomb from the near future to the present, to show people that the tragedy of pollution is happening right now."
Reverse graffiti poses a unique problem for law enforcement officers, who are generally conditioned to understand Street Art as a form of vandalism. However, in the case of reverse graffiti works such as this, the artist has done little more than clean a portion of a public surface. Orion explains, "There is no crime in cleaning. The crime here is against the environment, it is a crime against life." Authorities in Sao Paulo ultimately decided that there was nothing they could charge Orion with, and the episode even prompted city officials to order the monthly cleaning of every transportation tunnel in the city.
Scraped-off soot - Max Feffer Tunnel, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Liquidated Chanel Logo
French street artist Aguirre Schwarz, better known by his tag "ZEVS" (pronounced as "Zeus") creates what he calls "Visual Violations," taking spray paint to public advertisements in his Liquidated Logos series. This series involves the application of water-based paint, which drips down heavily from well-known corporate logos (such as the luxury design house Chanel and the fast food restaurant McDonald's). He first created works illegally in public spaces, "liquidating" logos on billboards, storefronts, and city walls, and later adapted them for his gallery shows. Cultural critic and curator Carlo McCormick has referred to ZEVS as the "most subversive" of all contemporary French street artists. In fact, Zevs was arrested in Hong Kong in 2009 after spraying this liquidated Chanel logo on the side of a Giorgio Armani shop.
Indeed, throughout the history of Street Art, artists have commonly targeted public advertisements and corporate space as a rebellion against the consumerism and commercialization that pervades contemporary society. These artists have adopted a confrontational attitude toward marketing, asking: If advertisers are permitted to visually pollute purportedly "public" places, why can't citizens be a part of that dialogue? As cultural critic and curator Carlo McCormick writes, "One of the most salient features of graffiti is its approximation of branding. At its most basic level, the tag mimics the ideographic compression, repetition, and saturation that we would expect of corporate logos and marketing campaigns." Banksy argues that, "To some people breaking into property and painting it might seem a little inconsiderate, but in reality the 30 square centimetres of your brain are trespassed upon every day by teams of marketing experts. Graffiti is a perfectly proportionate response to being sold unattainable goals by a society obsessed with status and infamy. Graffiti is the sight of an unregulated free market getting the kind of art it deserves."
In recent years, ZEVS has been recreating his Liquidated Logos on canvas and exhibiting them in galleries, such as at his 2011 solo show Liquidated Version at the De Buck Gallery in Chelsea, New York City. While the formal qualities and compositions of his paintings remain identical to one another, their subversive power is diminished when relocated in the rarified environment of a gallery or museum. The Liquidated Logos, when seen in the street, explicitly and directly confront corporate capitalism. Bold graffiti imagery in public spaces surprises viewers through visual appropriation of recognizable motifs, and these familiar yet perverted slogans register as protest and vandalism. Meanwhile, the same imagery in a gallery space lacks the agitation, hostility, and contradiction, which according to art historian Claire Bishop, "can be crucial to any work's artistic impact."
Paint - Hong Kong
This wheat paste poster work, installed on the wall and window of a shop front, depicts three young boys wearing baggy pants, sweaters, and sneakers. The two older boys look out at the viewer, one of them with his mouth partly opened, as if addressing passers-by and implicating them in the work.
SWOON (née Caledonia Curry) is a female street artist who was born in New London, Connecticut, raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, and now resides in New York City. She began creating Street Art in 1999, spending several days in her studio preparing wheat paste posters made of recycled newspaper, and then transporting the finished works to urban public spaces where she pasted them onto walls. She, like many other street artists, favors this method as it allows her to execute detailed works while spending minimal time at the intended location. She has explained that Street Art was important to her as it allowed her to have an impact on the urban landscape, rather than disappearing into obscurity by creating commercial art that would remain hidden inside a gallery or private collection.
SWOON's wheat paste works frequently depict people, including her friends, family members, and other individuals she has seen in the locations where she executes her works. Culture critic and curator Carlo McCormick writes of SWOON's figures that, "when you pass a figure by an artist like SWOON, the effect has the familiarity of an old neighbor you have not seen for a long while." He explains that a great deal of public art and Street Art is based on the desire to remember and commemorate common people and events, as evidenced by the phenomenon of memorial graffiti carried out in Latino communities in the United States and the UK, and in the 2003 Ghost Bike movement in the United States, where white bicycles were placed at the sites of road accidents where cyclists were killed. In her own way, SWOON leaves traces of people she knows, allowing their spirits to live on in the community even though they may have gone, or grown older and changed.
Recycled newspaper, paint, and wheat paste - St. Louis, Missouri