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Last edited 08 Feb 2024
Street art and buildings
Street art as a term in connection with the urban environment probably started to appear around the 1980's; it might also be referred to as guerrilla art or post-graffiti art. Today, it is commonly associated with larger stencil art murals but also includes smaller interventions in the urban fabric in a variety of media.
It is often associated with art that is not commissioned, permitted, or legal, but is installed quickly or under the cover of darkness by anonymous artists wanting to make an impression on their urban environment. It can be political, reflect social commentary, be egotistical, or just fun with the intention of brightening up the urban fabric. It represents socially creative engagement with the built environment.
The reference to street art as post-graffiti art refers to the early graffiti writers or taggers working in the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and other cities in the 1960s. They would write their pseudonym followed by a number indicating where they were from. Other types of street intervention or urban expression, generally not legally permitted, were flyers, often with political or social commentary, such as those by Brian Barnes.
It was later in the 1970s and 1980s that graffiti tags started to become larger, more elaborate, and more graphical, often on subway trains, tunnels, alleyways, and buildings - and with increasing artistic merit. Some of the well-known graffiti artists were George Lee Quiñones or Zoro, Andrew Witten, better known as Zephyr, Lonny Wood Phase 2, Blade, sometimes called the King of Graffiti, and Richard Mirando or SEEN, also called the Godfather of Graffiti.
Postings, or posters, have long been part of the urban fabric, posted with an adhesive of flour and water onto ready-made stickers as ad hoc advertising campaigns. There is a difference, blurred perhaps, in postings that might be considered street art and other postings that often adorn the fabric of the urban environment, the differences perhaps being coordination, intention, coherence, and possibly recognition.
One modern street artist known for extremely large-scale photographic-based murals using photocopy paper and glue is the artist JR. He creates postings of photographs, often on a large scale, and often of the residents of the area in which he posts. These are simple installations using photocopy paper and paste, but technically more complex as they increase in scale. Some projects cover large areas, creating murals on the facades of buildings, the top of trains, or on all the buildings of a small hillside community with images of that community.
At the other end of the scale, using primarily stickers and other mediums, is the artist Clet Abraham. His focus is on traffic signs, reshaping them to create humorous interpretations in bright primary colours. His work is based on criticising the strictness of signage and giving signs a more human dimension. He is an Italian artist who lives and works in Florence, where he has his own studio. His work can now be seen on the streets of European capitals such as Paris, Rome, London, Turin, Milan, or Barcelona.
While mosaics have been used as part of buildings for many years, most interventions are planned, commissioned, and accepted. As a hard-wearing medium, they are common features of iconic buildings, such as the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria, which features a monumental mosaic. The story of mosaic street art is rarer, but in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the relationship between pixelated graphics in modern computing and mosaics was brought together in street interventions by the artist known as Invader. An anonymous French street artist known for ceramic tile mosaics modelled on 8-bit video arcade games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man,and Super Mario Bros. The artist works incognito largely at night, or with his image and voice pixelated; he says his parents know him as a tiler. He has had solo exhibitions at art galleries in Paris, Osaka, Melbourne, Los Angeles, New York City, London, Rome, and Lyon. He has made reference to high-art works in his mosaics, such as the Rubik Mona Lisa.
Paintings are possibly the most traditional form of street art, from fresco on fresh lime plaster to surface painting, these types of intervention also described as murals should be included in the term street art, even if many are carried out with permission. Examples of external frescos, perhaps more akin to building adornment than to street art can be found in the Lüftlmalerei (or airy painting in literal English) of Southern Germany and Austria from around the 1700's.
In France the city of Lyon considered ‘the capital of painted walls’, boasting numerous examples of what has become a fundamental part of the city’s town planning and urban communication. The specific characteristics of its various districts and neighbourhoods use wall painted murals to express and celebrate identities, often with the use of visual trickery or Trompe l’oeil. The work originated in the cooperative group of muralists who established themselves in the Lyon metropolitan region in 1978. CitéCréation as they are called have created over 650 mostly large-scale fresco murals in cities across Europe, the Americas, and the middle and far east.
Other forms of street art paintings or murals are those with messages of protest. One example, known as the Nuclear Dawn mural was a protest against war created during the cold war and escalating international tensions, when the possibility of nuclear fallout felt increasingly real. The large scale mural painting is sited on the wall of a Victorian-era building in Brixton, South London. It was painted in 1981 by Brian Barnes with the help of Dale McCrea and twenty other residents of the Carlton Mansions which at the time was a thriving co-operative housing community. It was initially funded by the Arts Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Greater London Arts Association, and a £2,000 grant from Lambeth Council's Inner CityPartnership Fund. In 2017 it was defaced with tags and graffiti. The artwork was restored in 2021 as part of a redevelopment scheme and remains a core element to the built fabric of the community in this area of London.
The 1980s is a period when street art might be historically referred to as post-graffiti. This street graffiti had, in effect, started to morph into street art, and the artists were increasingly recognised as such, with many also having studied art and preferring the street to (or as a route to) the gallery. Richard Art Hambleton, being one of the earliest to create street image depictions, had started to paint simple black shadowy figures on walls across cities. The duo known as Samo, made up of Jean-Michael Basquiat (later associated with pop artist Andy Warhol) and Al Diaz, were writing enigmatic epigrams with raw graphic markings, and Lenny McGurr, better known as Futura or Futura 2000, had begun to introduce a certain level of abstraction into graffiti pieces. Kenny Scharf was creating purely cartoon-influenced graphic murals.
Finally, an influential short-lived figure with an equally animated, simple style was Keith Haring, who created brightly coloured figures throughout New York in the early 1980s. Significantly, some, but not all, of these artists were also studying art at the time, and all used graffiti as a route to recognition. Many of them, such as Basquiat, Mirando, Haring, and others, transitioned to the gallery art scene, connecting to figures such as Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement.
In 1984, one particular piece of graffiti in a similar simple animation genre was the first to be painted on one of the most infamous walls in the world at the time, the Berlin Wall. Over a number of years, the French artists Thierry Noir and Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet depicted the melancholia and sadness of the Berlin wall, which might be considered the first graffiti art piece to have been made directly on the wall. It remains on the wall to this day as part of the section showing the various pieces by different artists now retained as the East Side Gallery.
It was also around the 1970s that stencils started to reappear on buildings. The use of stencils dates back to World War II, when the American army would tag, mark, or personalise helmets, vehicles, and equipment, and in the field, mark buildings with skulls and symbols of fear as combat warnings.
In Italy and elsewhere, stencils were used by the public to show political dissent as well as by Mussolini to influence the citizens, stencil portraits of whom can still sometimes be seen on buildings. In London during the 1970s, stencil art and political messaging were embraced by the punk movement, in particular by the British band Crass, with ‘Fight War Not Wars’ and ‘Stuff Your Sexist Shit' stencilled on walls and the Tom Robinson Band including a band logo stencil in their album.
The early faded stencilled depictions of Mussolini on the walls of the Venetian city of Padua were said to have influenced one street artist who is referred to today as the father of stencil graffiti, Xavier Prou. Better known as Blek le Rat, a French street artist who often used the rat as his motif worked primarily in Paris in the mid-1980s. His most infamous piece, because he was arrested in the act, but also famous because of its content as a reference to high art, was perhaps Madonna and Child, a homage to the original of the same name by Caravagio.
The influence of Blek le Rat is cited and can clearly be seen in the work of Bristol artist Banksy. His first large-scale piece was The Mild Mild West, painted in 1997 to cover advertising for a former solicitor's office on Stokes Croft in Bristol. It depicts a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police officers. The change in perception of the works of Banksy is probably best described in three pieces. The first depicts a young child painting a message on the wall of a building used by the Royal Mail with CCTV cameras opposite; this was painted over by Westminster Council in 2008. The fate of the second painting on a council office building in Bristol went to a public vote organised by the council; the result was that 98% voted in favour of keeping the work, so it was retained. The final example is of a star being removed from the European flag (after Brexit), which was on a now demolished building where the contractors intend to restore the work from the building material. (Images courtesy of a CC licence in order by Oxyman, Adrian Pingstone, and Jay Galvin.)
Graffiti, or guerrilla knitting, yarnstorming,or woolly art, principally uses handmade yarn to adorn street furniture from bollards to bikes and trees to trellices. The artist or artist group creates a pre-prepared item using knitting or crochet, and then takes it to a public place, and installs it where it stays until it is removed. It might be considered the friendlier face of street art. It is important as a representation of creativity, personalisation, and joint ownership of the urban fabric, making it more cosy. It is, so far, not a form of street art that has transitioned from the street to galleries.
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