Graf­fiti Artists: From Street Walls to Gallery Walls


Most peo­ple see graf­fiti as van­dal­ism, lead­ing some­times to delin­quency, and at best dirty­ing streets and build­ings, un­der­valu­ing neigh­bour­hoods and dam­ag­ing peo­ple’s prop­er­ties. Also, some think that graf­fiti art can only be painted on walls and can­not be hung in gal­leries. How­ever, graf­fiti, or street paint­ing has slowly be­come an art form, shown in gal­leries and mu­se­ums and some­times bought at astro­nom­i­cal sums. In New York City in the 1970s, many graf­fiti painters con­sid­ered them­selves fullfledged artists and wanted per­ma­nence for their work, so be­gan cre­at­ing on can­vas in their stu­dios. This art, of­ten scorned, has be­come one of the big­gest and most lively artis­tic move­ments around. Its cre­ators have no scru­ples, are orig­i­nal, cre­ative and dar­ing.

Tra­di­tion­ally, graf­fiti artists come from marginalised back­grounds, self-taught mi­nor­ity im­mi­grants, who use spray cans to ex­press their griev­ances, and im­pose them­selves as an un­ruly un­der­class.

In the be­gin­ning, graf­fiti painters just painted their names. Then the writ­ing be­came big­ger and the let­ters were filled with car­i­ca­tures and scenes from ev­ery­day life, in­spired from so­cial and po­lit­i­cal events.

Paint­ing with spray bombs should not be un­der­es­ti­mated, as bombs are not easy to ma­nip­u­late and need a lot of prac­tice. The art is pre­cise and metic­u­lous, and most artists own what they re­fer to as their ‘black book’ that they use for prac­tic­ing. They some­times work as a group, and an in­formed per­son can dif­fer­en­ti­ate the writer from the one who draws or the colourist.

Art crit­ics started recog­nis­ing some good art on the walls of build­ings and many artists suc­ceeded in cross­ing from street scrib­bling and work­ing in stealth, to achiev­ing le­git­i­macy, be­com­ing com­mer­cially vi­able, and re­spected.

The most in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised graf­fiti artists are Jean-michel Basquiat and Keith Har­ing who were dis­cov­ered, ex­hib­ited and bought by col­lec­tors and mu­se­ums. But there are oth­ers who were favoured by the pub­lic and who have been bought for enor­mous sums. We shall in­tro­duce a few of them.

Banksy is the mys­te­ri­ous artist, who shies away from pub­lic­ity and keeps his iden­tity hid­den. Yet, af­ter much sleuthing, he was iden­ti­fied as born in 1974, in Bris­tol, England, but no pho­tos of him are avail­able. His street work is recog­nis­able be­cause he cre­ated a spe­cial sten­cilling tech­nique when he found out that he was not fast enough to evade the

po­lice, so he cut out his sten­cils at home. By 2000 he had fol­low­ers who would search the streets for new works of his. To hide his iden­tity, the few in­ter­views he makes are by phone and he con­fines sales to close friends. One of his many pranks is to go incog­nito to mu­se­ums and place one of his works on their walls; the ‘Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art’ in N.Y. (MOMA) added the work to its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. He is satir­i­cal, ex­pos­ing po­lit­i­cal and so­cial prob­lems, like his in­stal­la­tion of a truck full of shriek­ing, stuffed an­i­mals taken for slaugh­ter­ing, protest­ing fac­tory farm­ing.

Ram­mel­lzee’s graf­fiti is based on his com­pli­cated the­ory ‘Gothic Fu­tur­ism’ where he wanted to de­con­struct the English lan­guage and lib­er­ate the let­ters from mod­ern al­pha­bet­i­cal stan­dard­i­s­a­tion. He was one of the founders of Hip Hop mu­sic, which is still pop­u­lar. He died in 2010, age 49.

ASH is a French­man who now lives in Copenhagen. He started work­ing on Parisian walls in the early 1980s and in 1989 the French fash­ion de­signer Agnes B. in­vited him and other graf­fiti artists to show their work at the ‘Gal­lerie du Jour’, a first for him. Now he works on con­trasts be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral life, and on youth’s quest for iden­tity in sub­cul­tures.

Bando, a French­man born in 1965, was in­tro­duced to graf­fiti on a trip to New York. Back in Paris he founded the ‘Bomb Squad 2’; he in­vited Bri­tish and Amer­i­can graf­fiti painters to come to Paris, and many stayed on, find­ing the French more tol­er­ant of their work than New York­ers. In the 1990s, he turned to mu­sic pro­duc­tion and cre­ated the la­bel ‘Soul Fire Records’, but he still pro­duces in­ter­est­ing graf­fiti. Bando is con­sid­ered the god­fa­ther of graf­fiti in France; He wrote on the walls of Paris: “Graf­fiti is not van­dal­ism but beau­ti­ful crime”.

Other fa­mous graf­fiti artists who ex­pose in gal­leries are BO 130, an Ital­ian artist whose work is dis­tin­guish­able by what looks like lay­ers of city grime; Blade is Amer­i­can who spe­cialises in bub­bles, clouds and geo­met­ric shapes. He was the first to make 3-di­men­tional con­tours of his name. New York born Crash’s paint­ings have a comic script feel; he was bought by the Mu­seum of Mod­ern art in N.Y. Quik, born in Queens, New York has very colour­ful and vi­brant paint­ings that are haunted by ghostly fig­ures, re­flect­ing his own com­plex per­son­al­ity.

Be­tween 1970 and 1985, The New York Tran­sit Author­i­ties spent be­tween $100 and $150 mil­lion on clean­ing walls and trains, a rea­son for artists to face le­gal ac­tion. Now some ci­ties cre­ate spe­cial ar­eas for artists to paint on walls in peace.







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