Let Us Spray
The word on the street is that graffiti art, far from having run out of puff, is having a new growth spurt, says Anthony Haden-Guest
YOU COULD CLAIM that the Saint, the debonair crime-fighter created by Leslie Charteris who let it be known he had been somewhere by scrawling a stick figure plus halo, was a godfather of graffiti. But the built landscape has always sprouted pictures and words.
Londoners of a certain age — OK, mine — will remember seeing ‘WE ARE THE WRITING ON YOUR WALL’ in block capitals on a Hyde Park Corner building, temporarily morphed into a squat. Then there was the Situationist International which sprinkled 1968 Paris with opaque slogans such as ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ (Under the paving stones, the beach).
Graffiti in our sense, though, like rock ’n’ roll, was born in the USA. Norman Mailer’s The Faith of Graffiti, published in 1973, focused attention on the graffiti writers of the South Bronx and made the cover of Esquire, headlined ‘The great art of the 70s’. A sly joke then, perhaps, but by the time the movie Wild Style was released ten years later graffiti had collectors and was getting into galleries and museum shows, while the Brit designer Stephen Sprouse put it on the catwalk. Meanwhile, its creators were being routinely arrested and fined. And still are.
Old-school graffiti was (and is) based on lettering and executed with spray cans, a borrowing from military technology. What gave the phenomenon a broader reach was the influx of individuals from fancier backgrounds — like art schools — who were also taking to public spaces but using them very differently.
Dan Witz painted birds, Christy Rupp painted rats, Charles Simonds left miniature buildings here and there (as on one of the stairwells of the Whitney in New York, where it remains), Richard Hambleton painted spectral shadowmen in dark places, Jenny Holzer put up sayings on strips of paper, Keith Haring made chalk drawings of barking dogs and radiant babies, and Samo made brilliant pieces using text and cartoony graphics.
These were street artists, not graffiti artists. Graffiti artists were and are the underclass kids who worked on the trains, risking arrest. They work with spraycans and concentrate on lettering their assumed names. Street artists are art-school kids making their reps in an overcrowded art world out on the street. They do things graffitisti find reprehensible, like using stencils (hello, Banksy) and actually paying for their art materials, rather than nicking them. And they do not risk arrest.
It’s telling that Taki 183, a Mailer protagonist, was gone before graffiti became a gallery phenomenon. Some graffiti writers of the Wild Style generation, like Futura, remain art-world presences. Most have gone pffft! But Haring was being seriously collected while he was still working with chalk on black paper in subway stations and soon had a gallery career. So did Holzer and Hambleton, at least until the hard drugs kicked in.
As for Jean-Michel Basquiat, he was one of the three creators of Samo. But his two co-authors, Al Diaz — who had a piece in Mailer’s book — and Shannon Dawson, have faded away, graffiti artists in the shadow of a superstar street artist. No wonder there is a rancorous divide between the two practices. It exploded in London when Robbo, an old-school spray-can virtuoso, found that his earliest extant piece had been obliterated by the younger Banksy, who works with stencils.
Street art, interventionist art — call it what you will — has become truly global. It’s on state-sanctioned walls in Beijing and in the Winzavod art district of Moscow, plus a graffitied website address. In February 2008 I attended what was described as the ‘World’s First Urban Art Auction’ at Bonhams, London. There’s a phone app on the market loaded with graffiti fonts in English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.
So it’s huge. But it’s conflicted. At one extreme there are vandals who just like to mess up stuff, and at the other are those who, like Mr Brainwash, see street art as a highway to a gallery deal or, better, sponsorships from vodka companies or fashion houses. There are old-school artists furious with the young ones because of their contracts with Nike and Target. And then there are the purists. Who can be the most ambitious of all.
Street artist Stik in front of his studio in Hoxton, carrying a canvas from his sell-out Belgravia show in 2012
I TRACKED DOWN on a street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He was wearing a paint-smeared hoodie and looking up at the roof of a venerable ladderworks, upon which was a yellow protuberance. On this you could see one of his figures, the project he was midway through making. Beside him stood a Connecticut collector of street art, Robert Perry, who proudly showed me two more of Stik’s figures, portraits of his wife and himself, reproduced in tattoos on his right forearm.
Stik is a Brit in his early thirties and he is doing OK. In October, a canvas fetched £6,000 at Christie’s, London. He has sold to Bono and executed a portrait commission for Brian May of Queen. So the war between street artists and the state is over? Not a bit of it. A few days earlier, a 25-year-old Frenchman had been deported for putting up his tag on two subway trains, and a small headline in the New York Post ran ‘Au revoir, graffiti punk’. Such outcomes remain a real possibility to all who make unauthorised work, Stik included.
This Bushwick gig, though, was legal, and was on a property belonging to a street art supporter, the owner of a neighbouring ironworks. I clambered up a metal ladder and joined the artist on the roof.
Stik was already a street artist when he hit Hackney aged twenty. ‘I owe a lot to that Eighties graffiti scene, for the widespread popularity of graffiti,’ he says. That’s all he owes. ‘Really my roots are in the Stone Age — the paleolithic, like the Lascaux caves. Beyond the New York subway heritage of graffiti, there is this kind of ancient art, like the white chalk man on the hills of Wiltshire or Somerset, or the Nazca lines in Peru that show the big creatures. People leaving them on their land. I think that’s incredibly powerful.’
He has now had four solo gallery shows but remains committed to the street. ‘I’ve never moved off the wall,’ he says. ‘I did a show last May — my show did very well. But I haven’t made any canvases since then. I really love painting on the street. I just did a project with the National Health Service where I’ve done a series of murals on doctors’ surgeries. Because the National Health Service is under threat. I’m doing that in support. I felt outside the system for so long that it’s a real pleasure to be able to support the parts of the system that I believe in.
‘I’ve just done my first piece in Berlin — it was on the side of the Lux Bar in Kreuzberg. I don’t usually do commercial establishments, but Kreuzberg has been the underground arts district since the Eighties and is under threat from gentrification.’
He believes in the power of street art, and that it is growing.
‘I believe publicly funded public art is taking a bit of a bashing from street art,’ he says. ‘Street artists do it quicker and better a lot of the time. Street art is taking the place of public art. A government spends a quarter of a million pounds funding and then weeks executing an artwork that nobody notices. It’s PC public art that nobody objects to, but nobody particularly likes. And somebody does a piece of street art overnight with twenty quid’s worth of spray paint, and it becomes the landmark.’
OR THERE’S FUMERO, who began writing graffiti as a 14-year-old in Jersey. ‘You did it where nobody looked at it,’ he says. ‘You did it on the back of a factory. You just did it to do it. To have it up, to be able to come back in the daytime and look at it. And definitely to have a photograph of it, because it will soon be gone.’
In 2007 Fumero, then in his mid-twenties, started hitting the Manhattan galleries, showing pictures of his pieces. ‘It was the wrong scene for me — I wasn’t getting anywhere. And then I fell off. I just went back to obscurity, doing what I do, saying, “I’ll come back another time.”’
Fumero had been looking at street art and began to work on a defining image of his own. It shows a family sitting at a table. ‘I changed to paint, paste and paper and stickers,’ he says. ‘So I started putting those up. And for years I didn’t let anybody know. Then I said to myself, “You know what? It’s time for me to go out. I’m really going to make a thrust and assault on the city.”
That was April 2010. That’s when I hit the right scene, I met the right people. I was giving my sticker out, people were like, “Oh! That’s you? I’ve seen that everywhere!” I had just used the vehicle of street art, and my past history and upbringing in graffiti to do it all, to bring it out to the public.’
Street art is already an alternate art world, but Fumero believes it’s just getting started. ‘I think it’s at the beginning,’ he says. ‘Just like Expressionism in the early Eighties, like Pop art was in the Sixties. Now street art, that’s the big art. And it’s only going to be more, every year. You know, MTV, when you want to hit commercial, what do you do? You stick in graff lettering to get people’s attention. It’s mainstream. This genre of art, it’s always fresh, it’s always new. Because street art is fine art on walls. There’s no difference.’
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