Writing on the wall: The changing faces of street art

Street art by artist Dscreet brightens up south-east London. Pic: Paul

Street art by artist Dscreet brightens up south-east London. Pic: Paul

In May last year, some of the best street artists from around the world gathered for the Baroque the Streets Festival in Dulwich, each of them with the task of drawing on Dulwich’s domestic walls their own version of a classic painting. The paintings that were reinterpreted by the muralists are all held in Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Street art is a growing industry, turning what was once simply a free, whilst illegal, form of expression, into a lucrative business concept. Almost one year on from the festival, many of the artists involved consider the changes to their art.

Avant-gard in his field, Noir was the first artist to illegally paint mile upon mile of the Berlin Wall in 1984. His seemingly bright and innocent wall paintings are created as a reaction against the sadness of the environment. Those who see his murals as symbols of defiance are many. As of this week, his first solo exhibition will be held in Howard Griffin Gallery, in Shoreditch.

The street-art veteran has issued a manifesto towards the new generation who “refuse to live in a dark and grey city’’. “Street Art is a necessity in the city,” he says, “you have to create your own job inside a so-called ‘Niche Market.'”

Street art in London has always been popular among the public. But there is often a misconception about what constitutes graffiti as street art, and indeed the difference between the two. Dscreet, an up and coming London-based artist and one of Baroque the Streets Festival’s contributors, says: “The term ‘street art’ is a recent invention; ten years ago it was all called graffiti. Graffiti artists just hated each other (he is referring to the infamous rivalry between Banksy and Robbo, who kept writing over each other’s murals for years) while now they have a whole new lot to spit their bile at.”

“Lots of people have just discovered street art and think it’s a new movement. There were plenty of graffiti writers doing this stuff a long time ago, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with new styles, materials and placements.’’

Dscreet thinks graffiti is harder to commodify than street art.  He draws inspiration for his work from the past, creating letter-based murals as tributes to his favourite artists- including Lou Reed and Monty Python. ‘’Maybe I’m a plagiarist disguised as an artist, but I try to stylise it in my own way’’, he says. He mentions Futura, an American graffiti artist, as one of his biggest influences: “If you asked an art critic from the 60s before graffiti existed they would have called Futura’s work ‘Abstract Expressionism.'”

“I think both graffiti and street art can be really great and inspired or really lazy, derivative and bad,’’ he says. “Whatever the case, the East End has become a lot more colorful over the last few years.’’

Christiaan Nagel, who also took part in Baroque the Streets, seems to agree that there is often  a misconception that artists are exceptionally creative: “Just go and have a look at the most popular form of street art on the streets of London– stencilling! Stencilling started in 1981 with Blek Le Rat. And artists now sometimes only do stencils. I mean how creative is that?’’ Nagel says. He believes, however, that the ever-growing popularity of street art doesn’t change whether a piece of art has artistic integrity.

Nagel’s work is not easy to categorise. “I’m a full-time street artist and I’ve never even put a spray can to a wall’’, he says.

Spray cans, letters and characters are graffiti’s more traditional street art mediums. Instead, Nagel works with polyurethane to create his works. He finds London has always been open to modern ideas and acknowledges that the collective idea called ‘street art’ is very popular in the area. Street art, in his words “gives an alternative feel to a sometimes stale city.’’

Nagel is a sculptor, so he falls under the street art banner rather than graffiti. Unlike most street artists, however, his works are still mostly illegal or unsolicited, similar to the graffiti modus. His colourful polyurethane mushrooms, spread all over across London, have repeatedly been removed- and yet they keep growing back and multiplying.

“At this stage of the evolution of street art, there is more and more money and interest in it. The question is whether the artists are going to be creative enough to adjust to the changing and growing needs,” he says, adding: “But then again there is now a wealth of exceptional illustrators who paint on big-ass walls. That stuff to me is amazing and with that you need owners’ permission and big cherry picker lifts and loads of paint usually paid for by the commissioning party. I think that’s the future and that’s not illegal…’’

Keegan Webb, creator of The London Vandal blog, explains that London’s authorities are especially intolerable opposite illegal writing on public surfaces, with graffiti writers often facing harsh penalties for vandalism. There is also an increased risk to painting illegally nowadays, due to heightened security (train yards now are likely to include laser traps, infra-red equipped helicopters and forensic evidence collection).

But maybe we are not looking at the big picture here: the old cliché of the segregation between street art and graffiti is really close to being deciphered. Street art is a broad term which is rapidly evolving and changing. The new generation of street artists do not care so much about the adrenaline of illegal graffiti writing, or the rebellious character of street art: they have accepted that art is commercialised and continue to find new forms of expression and new painting techniques. To them ‘popular’ does not equal ‘weak’.

There is a massive group of serious graffiti writers who mourn the death of the exclusive and secretive scene, and are annoyed by the insistence of multinational brands to adopt graffiti in their advertising and branding’’, says Keegan. “It’s simple to see why they are upset, but there have also been benefits to graffiti’s new found adoration.”

“Now, there are more graffiti magazines and websites than ever, more tools for graffiti writers to use and more locations to paint in London.’’ He calls London a “melting pot” scene, with styles and influences from different times and places mashed up on the same walls.

East London– in particular Shoreditch and Dalston– is the main hub of both street art galleries and in the streets. But there seems to be change in the balanced forces. David Samuels is an expert on the subject, who started off by tagging walls as a teenager in Brighton while being chased by the police. Samuels got lucky, and he opened the country’s first Graffiti Art Gallery in 2003. By now he has managed to turn his love for graffiti and typography into a successful company. 

Webb comments, however, that graffiti is only now starting to appeal to a wider audience, making it possible for graffiti artists to use the skills they learnt on the streets: “The same teenagers that were painting their names 10-15 years ago now have kids and bills to pay. Why wouldn’t you use the main skill you have and try and make money out of it instead of working in a warehouse?’’ he says. “People are now starting to realise graffiti’s ‘cool’ element and its bonus to their business.’’

Nothing gets lost in the culture because of making money, according to Samuels- it only really expands the culture.

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