The style, reputation and admiration of street art today is certainly not what it was and has been, and is a medium that rapidly and vibrantly changes face and personality. Here we explore what brought it to where it is today.
Article by Maria S.
‘Street art’ as it is now known by the more liberal minded of us, has come a million miles from the cave paintings being uncovered from our ancient past. But was the motive of those ‘artists’ that dissimilar from that of our modern day?
While ‘graffiti’ shot to the peak of its fame with a notoriously bad reputation in the 1980s, the first incidences of names being etched into the wall were by Joseph Kyselak who lived in Vienna from 1799 to 1831. It arose from an informal bet with friends to get himself known by the Austro –Hungarian Empire in a matter of three years. He then proceeded to etch his name throughout the empire in the early 19th century, much like today’s ‘tagging’.
Image by leon_hart
Street art became driven by a purpose for one of the first times later in the 19th century when Australian Christian convert Arthur Malcom Stace sought to spread his faith throughout Sydney through the simple addition of the word “Eternity” to the city’s streets. Although this was not permanent in chalk, it was the beginning of what was to come for the nature of street art, and it would continue to be increasingly politically motivated during European revolutionary politics to follow.
It was during European revolution that propaganda became the driving force of street art from the mid-20th century onwards. The Second World War brought with it a rise in gang culture and “tagging” was officially born, lowering the reputation of the art form. Walking through the streets of Berlin or London during the war, illegibly written gang names or ‘tag’ names could be found sprawled all over walls, decorating the war with scribbles. But this era unsurprisingly brought with it a very political generation, a generation who strived for change and reform.
Emerging from this new drive within the people, graffiti moved from exclusively gang culture to encompassing popular culture too. It then became a relevant medium through which views could be expressed anonymously and without boundaries or rules. Memory of Marxist revolutionary leader Che Guevara was reproduced across walls through the 1960s, and became a symbol of change throughout the decade.
Artists began using stencils to aid the repetition of their art work, and the spontaneity it encompassed would become increasingly important in a time of vast controversially motivated pieces.
Image by tonx
“Underground street Art”
Despite the rapid rise in the culture, street art was still viewed as vandalism, and is actually still illegal in many countries to this day such as the USA and the Phillipines (although there are ‘legal walls’ in most cities). This reputation made it even more popular, as the rebellion of the 1980s approached and the music and arts scenes thrived. This combined with the rise in hip-hop culture, particularly in New York and London, launched the Western World into the biggest era of street art it had seen.
Gangs such as the first renowned graffiti crew Chrome Angelz devoted to street art took over the walls spreading their style, name, and opinions. By the late 1980s, it began to emerge as something of a problem for many, with 1987 seeing the British Transport Police take formal action, aiming to tackle the crews for good. The enormously growing crew members though, meant this was virtually impossible, and became a hopeless cause for the authorities. From previously being an art war between graffiti kings, these ‘gangs’ soon became violent, particularly in London, and big crew names like World Domination and Subway Saints in this underground world began to split.
It was around this time that Bristol’s scene exploded, with the likes of Massive Attack and Inkie, and famously anonymous Banksy in the 1990s. Robert Banks, known regularly as Banksy, has turned the street art scene into something of an admired art form.
The politically motivated and sometimes controversial work he discreetly produces is seldom referred to as graffiti any longer, and is far more positively received. Buildings across the globe lucky enough to have been inked by his work sell for millions. Replicas have been made, his work has been stolen (yes, from walls themselves) and the genre has been so widely accepted and embraced that his ‘street’ art has now taken itself to indoor canvases and even merchandise
Image by modernrockstar
Tagging is by all means still present today, but the more creative, imaginative, and all-round more appealing forms of “graffiti” seem to be the preferred style. They’re better received, and are nowadays literally handed wall space on a plate – sometimes whole streets! Creative cities such as Bristol and London now encourage inspiring pieces of art work to decorate bland streets and buildings with their colour and message, realising they have the potential to transform run-down areas and even subways, inspiring and challenging its people.
Street art or ‘graffiti’ can be a controversial topic, but is also undeniable hugely popular in urban areas. So is it art, or just ugly vandalism? Who are your favourite street artists past or present?
Maria S is fascinated by the many different ways the creative world continues to emerge around us, and can usually be found exploring and taking snaps of it all.
Featured image by: John Rabbit