What is Street Art? 

Street Art is essentially any visual art created in a public location. However traditionally Street Art is usually illegally done and unsanctioned by any authority (which is why the artist will sometimes attempt to conceal part or all of their identity); and motivated by the artists’s need to communicate a message to the greater public. Graffiti and street artists often travel to countries around the world to spread their message, which is universal as street art has evolved from text-based graffiti and ‘tagging’ roots into imaged based designs (though, often these images are accompanied by text, especially in artists like Banksy’s case). The artist usually has a social or political message they want to express and are unable to on such a large scale otherwise. Stik, for example often expresses social injustices in regards to housing and underprivileged areas.

People often draw connotations with Street Art and children drawing on a wall – though the adult or person in charge of the wall may not want it, it does not necessarily mean the drawing is not good or does not enhance the wall, In the 1980s Thierry Noir was reportedly the first man to paint the Berlin wall to “make something of it”. Appreciation for the unauthorized drawings has increased dramatically in recent years, and usually the artists don’t make any money for their public works of art, as Blek Le Rat says: “It’s a present we give for free.”

The style for street artists is entirely universal; from Stencil based designs with the likes of Blek le Rat and Banksy to freehand, murals, to wheatpaste for postering like the Guerrilla Girls and JR’s photos, graffiti, mosaics like French artist Invader’s 8-Bit creations, Polish artist NeSpoon decorates Warsaw with beautifully intricate patters in multiple forms; through to large scale paintings and to street installations – there are it seems no constraints for Street Art.

Street Art has, over the years, found a way into the heart of contemporary art, and art market; reflecting many peoples belief that it is one of, if not the most important movement in art, as anyone and everyone all over the world is free to express themselves in public, no city is free of graffiti these days.

The Origins of Street Art

Street Art, in the loosest of terms, can be traced back to the Stone Age, when Neanderthals painted symbols, animals and portraits on the walls of their caves, in a base human desire to communicate, if nothing else, the story of daily life to others. In it’s more traditional concept it comes from tagging and graffiti, the grandfather of this movement is believed to be a man from Austria named Joseph Kyselak who tagged his way round Vienna after a bet with his friends; the Emperor Frances I summoned Kyselek and asked him to stop – only to find Kyselek’s name and the date carved in to his desk after he left. A similar occurrence during World War II was “Kilroy was here” – which was tagged, usually accompanied by a drawing of a cartoon figure with a big nose peering over a wall. It started appearing everywhere American servicemen were stationed, and often where they were not supposed to be – such as the VIP bathroom at the Postdamn Conference, where the drawing of Kilroy caused Stalin to panic. The servicemen were more than likely, mimicking the gangs of New York in the 1920s and 1930s that tagged box cars and trains rather than Kyselek.

Street Art as we now know it, really began to emerge in New York in the 1970s with artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat who were not only the first popular street artists, but also, with the aid of contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, the first to take the step from Street Art to art gallery, which is now a frequent occurrence – sometimes without the permission of the artist.

The 1980s saw a real emergence for street art in Britain and Europe, in Britain where a combined influence of punk culture and Malcolm McLaren with the Rock Steady Crew. The likes of Inkie and Banksy began to emerge, with a plethora of other taggers and graffiti artists joining in reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and across Europe many artists were inspired by turning political propaganda on its head, which had often used stencils to communicate the party’s message, such as Mussolini, who’s stenciled propaganda inspired Blek le Rat’s style, who emerged in Paris in the 1980s. However before the more anarchic street art in Britain and Europe in the 1980s were the colourful murals of flowers and the famous of Walter Kershaw in the 1970s, dotted around Lancashire mill towns.

Street Art has, over the past decade or so, become increasingly popular and coveted, with an exhibition in 2008 at Tate Modern, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Street artists works sell in to the millions, murals have been sold “with a building attached”, festivals are held in Norway, Melbourne, Cape Town, New York – Banksy has even put on his own underground street art festival ‘Cans’ and created the “bemusement park” Dismaland.

As Street Art itself evolves into more abstract forms with performance, video and installations being incorporated, as UK street artist, Rough, says: “There are so many places it can go because there are no rules, it was an art form created by kids … it’s still embryonic, in an early stage of it’s life. But I think maybe digital installations with lasers and lights.”

Street Art In Precarious Places

As the main point of street art is to communicate a message en masse, you want to place your artwork somewhere visible, and street artists regularly risk their lives to get their message across.

The West Bank is one of the world’s most dangerous areas, or as Banksy called the Isreali stretch the West Bank Barrier, where he has created a number of works, “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers”. On the Palestinian side of the barrier artists How and Nosm create works of art on the oppressive wall. Thierry Noir is cited as the first to paint the Berlin wall, in Afghanistan where women are allowed to do very little, female street artists like Shamsia Hassani and Malina Suliman prove with their murals they don’t need permission from anybody. JR has travelled to dangerous favelas in Rio de Janeiro, the Nairobu slum of Kibera, and Tunis during the aftermath of the revolution that preceded the Arab spring. In 2011 he travelled to North Korea under a tourist visa with the intention of creating works in the dictatorial country, but due to a constant presence of officials “the biggest stuff I could paste out there was a sticker”.

Graffiti art, isn’t constrained to artists in a traditional sense, two peace activists (Will Saunders and David Burgess) were fined $151,000 and sentenced to 9 months weekend detention for spraying ‘No War’ in regards to the impending Iraq War, on the roof of the Sydney Opera House in 2003. The act of “malicious damage” was actually eventually endorsed by the Opera House’s architect Jorn Utzon, and Greenpeace would replicate their act five years later in reaction to the activists’ treatment by officials.

Most Famous Street Artists

Nowadays Street Art can go well into the millions with Banksy holding the record for Space Girl and Bird (2000), which sold at Bonhams for $479,926. But as money has never been the order of the day for street artists we appreciate mostly on their notoriety and recognisably: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s childish scrawls (pictured) and SAMO tag; Blek le Rat with his stencils and infestations of rats, Keith Haring with his 2D silhouettes and patterns, JR’s enormous photos, Os Gemeos cartoon-ish freehands, Blu’s often-monochromatic and highly detailed murals, Futura 2000 who was one of New Yorks Street Art pioneers in the 1980s and painted the backgrounds for The Clash, Theiry Noir’s colourful offerings to the Berlin and many other walls, Mr Brainwash’s Pop Art-inspired works which sell well into the hundreds of thousands, and often to celebrity clientele, as do Stik’s specially created pieces; however like most others, his public street art and ‘Stik figures’ are not allowed to be sold. KAWS is another street artist from New York who has moved from the streets to the gallery’s, and also the sculpture parks, with his distorted Disney characters and bright graphic prints; and Shepard Fairey who’s graphic images and posters have become famous through his skate brand Obey and his poster design of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008.

> Read more: A Guide To Banksy