Graffiti might seem like a modern invention, popping up in city alleyways, underpasses, and subway stations. But its origins go way back. Picture the ancient Egyptians crafting intricate hieroglyphs or early Christians scratching messages into the walls of Roman catacombs. Public spaces have always served as a canvas for the human desire to express, communicate, and challenge the status quo.
Fast forward to the hustle and bustle of New York City in the 1960s and 70s, where modern graffiti took shape. Here, graffiti artists like TAKI 183 and Cornbread began to make a name for themselves – and their communities. They tagged subway cars and city walls with their names, turning the metropolis into a massive, open-air art gallery. All urban rebels in their own right, these were young people communicating their artistry through skill, style, and DIY culture, influencing the burgeoning graffiti scene. Artists like Futura, still creating art and forging huge brand partnerships, were molded by this period in the history of the culture, growing up in and being influenced by the street art of the time.
One particularly notable aspect of graffiti is its prevalence during times of conflict. When tensions rise, walls become a battleground for ideas and dissent. In times of political unrest, uprisings, or social movements, graffiti proliferates as individuals and communities seek to express their frustrations, demands, and aspirations. It becomes a visual language of resistance and unity, conveying messages of hope, protest, and resilience. The Berlin Wall stands as a powerful symbol of this phenomenon. During its existence, artists from around the world flocked to the wall, transforming it into a living, breathing canvas. The art that adorned the Berlin Wall served as a testament to the human spirit, showcasing the power of creativity in the face of adversity.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, also emerged from the vibrant street art scene of the 1970s and 80s. Basquiat began his artistic journey as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym SAMO. His distinctive style and poetic messages caught the attention of the art world, propelling him into the realm of contemporary art. Basquiat’s fusion of street art, Neo-Expressionism, and relevant cultural references of the day created a powerful visual language that resonated with audiences worldwide. What began on as ideas, materials, and flat walls would end up resulting in canvas works that as recently as last year are selling for prices exceeding $85,000,000.
In the 1990s, a new wave of street artists emerged, bringing a fresh perspective to the scene. Many of them were featured in the iconic documentary Beautiful Losers, which was released in 2008. Artists like Geoff McFetridge, Ed Templeton, Shepard Fairey, Margaret Kilgallen, and Futura, pushed the boundaries of graffiti, merging it with elements of skate culture, punk rock, and DIY aesthetics. Their vibrant and thought-provoking artworks transformed derelict buildings, walls, and even everyday objects into profound statements, reclaiming public spaces and challenging societal norms.
The new millennium saw street art becoming a prominent platform for societal critique. Banksy, an elusive British artist, became a household name with his thought-provoking, often controversial, stencil-based works. His style, heavily influenced by the ‘stencil’ approach of French artist Blek le Rat, allowed for sharp commentary on war, consumerism, and authority. His satirical and rebellious approach, combined with his anonymity, brought street art into a global focus, making it a significant cultural force to reckon with. King Robbo was active at the time as well and the beef he and Banksy got into was covered in a graffiti documentary aired on the BBC in 2011.
In the same era, Alec Monopoly, known for his satirical depictions of the Monopoly man, used his artwork to comment on wealth, capitalism, and the global financial crisis. His iconic character, painted on walls across the world, became a symbol of the economic turmoil and societal frustration of the time.
Artists like Blu, OSGEMEOS, and Invader gained prominence for their large-scale murals, immersive installations, and distinctive styles. Their works transcended traditional graffiti, blending fine art techniques with the raw energy of the streets. The rise of the internet and social media platforms also played a crucial role in exposing street art to a wider audience, allowing artists to share their creations with the world instantly.
Today, the influence of street art extends far beyond the alleyways and buildings it adorns. It has reshaped the very landscape of art appreciation, public expression, and community identity. Chop ‘Em Down Films regularly shares video coverage of installations that cover entire high-rise buildings. The artists featured there, and others like Tristan Eaton, Detour303, Cryptik, Lady Aiko, Liss, Casey Kawaguchi and Johny Carlos are just a few of the many innovative minds shaping the future of the form.
While there is a lot of information here, it merely scratches the surface of this dynamic and ever-evolving art form. In future articles, we will delve deeper into the life, work, and impact of different artists and movements. We will explore the techniques, inspirations, and philosophies behind their art, shedding light on the diverse voices that shape the world of street art. Consider this piece as a primer, an invitation to embark on a fascinating journey through the captivating world of street art, where creativity, expression, and social commentary converge.