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.