Wonder Walls

The rise and rise of graffiti art

Amazing how fashionable it’s become to be a vandal these days. If you are graffiti artist Banksy, your stencil sprayed on the side of a London building gets a preservation order and nets valuation at US$500,000. If you’re Shepard Fairey, your Barack Obama “Hope” poster becomes design legend, your Obey line of clothing an instant success, and you get commissioned by the likes of Pepsi, Time magazine, The Black Eyed Peas and Led Zeppelin. Oh, and your work hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

If you’re like street artists Inkie, Faile, Paul Insect or Adam Neat, you can expect Brad Pitt or Kevin Spacey to snap up your work for enough hard cash to keep you and your great-grandchildren in spray cans for the rest of your lives.

Graffiti art is certainly having its day and is being taken very seriously indeed. It doesn’t matter whether you regard Banksy’s US$2 million sale of a graffiti-sprayed maid sweeping dust under a dot background as inspired and worth every cent, or you think the buyer was a sucker sold on art’s version of the emperor’s new clothes. Uncomissioned street art is big and it’s here to stay.


Owning the Streets

The contemporary version of spray-paint graffiti is believed to have started in 1960s Philadelphia before spreading rapidly across the States. By the 1970s, graffiti was so ubiquitous that cities such as New York were taking a zero-tolerance approach, removing aerosol the minute it appeared.

How things have changed. By 2008, New York City council had completed a project to restore Lower Manhattan graffiti works by Fab 5 Freddy, Futura 2000, Nesto, and the best-known street artists of all, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. That same year, London’s prestigious Tate Modern opened what it described as the world’s first major public display of graffiti and street art.

In 2010—the year British Prime Minister David Cameron presented President Obama with a graffiti piece by EINE as an official gift—I visited Miami for the first time, where super entrepreneur Tony Goldman had just unveiled his Wynwood Walls project.

Giant concrete spaces now featured work by the likes of Fairey and Os Gemeos, and the spray was still wet on a spooky Hulk baby by Ron English. At the time, this was a frighteningly depressed area of the city but six years later, waves of hipness now emanate from these walls and the district is packed with bars, restaurants, artists’ studios and the celebrated gallery collections of Margulies, de la Cruz and Rubell.

When I last spoke to Johnny Wong, a curator at Miami’s Peter Tunney Gallery, he said, “I think this must be the only place in the world where you can put graffiti on the walls and the prices of property actually go up.”

Not anymore. Every hip neighborhood in the world has curated graffiti walls. Graffiti tours are organised from Buenos Aires and Bogotá to London; graffiti from the Berlin Wall is revered as social history, and in Norway, the NuArt street art festival attracts tens of thousands every year. Then, of course, there is the money. Remember those street artists from the ’70s and ’80s? Today, they are as valued as sought-after Renaissance masters. Just this year, Untitled by Basquiat sold for US$57.3 million while Haring’s The Last Rainforest achieved US$5.6 million at auction.

The 21st century’s answer to Haring is the anonymous British artist Banksy. With an estimated worth of US$30 million, his work attracts media attention no matter what he does. He has placed dummies dressed in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits in Disneyland, painted masked men throwing flowers on a West Bank wall and sprayed images of Steve Jobs carrying a sack entitled The Son Of A Migrant From Syria in refugee camps. The stencil artist is, depending on your opinion, either a vandal with a limited selection of jokes or the ultimate urban commentator.

The latter view is one shared by a herd of celebrities. Christina Aguilera, Keanu Reeves and Jude Law are all Banksy collectors. As the divorce between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt continues to dominate the media at press time, art commentators are obsessing over how their extensive art collection—particularly their haul of Banksys—would be spilt.

The ownership of Banksy’s work always makes headlines. Controversy has raged over the demolition, or “theft”, of entire public walls featuring his stencils. In 2006, a farmer sold his barn because it boasted a Banksy, and in London’s Camden district, a Banksy had to be protected with Perspex casing.

When cleaners removed a Banksy from a rail station in London, it prompted outcry. After the incident, a spokesman for Transport for London said: “Our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners, not professional art critics.” Which cuts beautifully to the heart of the graffiti debate: Is it art?

Art Or Lark?

“Everyone loves a rebel,” says Gareth Williams, senior art specialist at Bonham auction house. “Banksy’s work is more accessible than some conceptual art. He has a political edge and a wry sense of humour that appeals to a new generation of collectors.”

Art critic Matthew Collings, meanwhile, believes that the work of Banksy is made valuable by what he describes as “market consensus”. He sees the celebration of his work as paying tribute to false idols. “What are you really buying when you buy a Banksy? A status symbol? Does owning it makes you modern and clever? Or stupid? It’s a fine line.”

Banksy himself has said: “Graffiti has a hard enough life as it is, before you add hedge-fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace.” When Sotheby’s achieved record sales for his work, he posted an image of the auction on his site with the caption, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

In the stunning documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, produced by the art provocateur, Banksy lends his support to amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta. The film shows how, in the course just a few weeks, Guetta rebrands himself as Mr Brainwash and hosts a Los Angeles show of his own “work” cobbled together by sub-contracted student artists. The show is a million-dollar success.

Was this a damning commentary on the shallowness of the art world? Another Banksy joke? Or simply a reflection of our love of urban edge? It’s impossible to say. And so the debate about graffiti being art shows no signs of slowing down.

Let’s not forget that for every Shepard Fairey, there are thousands of people whose spray-painted tags generate billions in graffiti removal bills every year. Cities such as Toronto may have a Graffiti Management Plan that removes “graffiti vandalism” and allows “commissioned graffiti art”, but there are still millions of residents outside the limits of “curated walls” who feel threatened by spray-paint across their homes.

Graffiti art is clearly in the eye of the beholder. In the UK recently, eight members of London’s self-styled DPM crew were sentenced to a total of 11 years in jail for causing graffiti damage amounting to a million pounds. In the US, artist Casey Nocket was banned from all national parks in the States and given 200 hours of community service for painting images on rocks and caves in Death Valley and Colorado National Monument among other national parks. Nocket was tracked down by social media and then tormented online to such an extent that she said she feared for her life. But will her work ultimately end up in a gallery?

It will be interesting to see where the graffiti movement goes next, but there is no doubt that the next generation of artists will be appearing on a wall near you soon. Interestingly, one alternative is being touted as “reverse graffiti”, where artists scratch out images from the grime built up on urban walls such as city tunnels. Clearly, these works are not as invasive as spray paint and don’t require expensive cleaning, but such works don’t have the same frisson as the outlawed paintings of the aerosol generation.

When it’s all said and done, the tradition of graffiti is unlikely to die out any time soon. From Lord Byron scratching his name on a column at Attica’s Temple and Michelangelo tagging Nero’s Golden House, to prehistoric man outlining mammoths on his cave walls, the roots of graffiti are scribbled across the walls of history. Give anyone an opportunity to scrawl something they shouldn’t, somewhere they shouldn’t, and they will take it.


By Andy Round






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