When it comes to stirring up controversy and generating a spot of artistic discussion, there's nothing that gets the tongues wagging and the tempers flying more than the art versus graffiti debate. Is graffiti actually art? Does it have any real artistic merit? Should it be displayed in legitimate art galleries?
It's a contentious issue and one that sparks heated and vociferous talk on both camps. In many ways, it's a case of the old school versus the new school – two separate lines of thought that seem destined never to agree.
But no matter. Like it or loathe it, there’s no denying that street art or graffiti IS art, making a visual social commentary on time, place, political systems, world affairs, and important global issues just as much as the old masters. It’s really a matter of the artistic representations of the culture and time – and now is the time of the graffiti artist.
Here are six of the most important and influential figures currently on the graffiti/street art scene.
Mark has made a name for himself through his street art sculptures and figures made from clear packing tape and placed in urban environments, primarily Washington D.C. and Rio de Janeiro. More recently, he’s cunningly dressed them up and placed them in positions to give the impression of real people, discreetly recording the reactions of the shocked and surprised public.
Frank Shepard Fairey
Fairey rose to fame with his ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ sticker campaign in 1989. He has since turned to professional graphic design, drawing considerable attention for his work on the ‘Hope’ poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. He’s had his work displayed in many prestigious art galleries, including the Smithsonian, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Victoria and Albert, as well as publishing several books on art.
This Paris-born artist’s journey into the world of art began with a happenstance finding of a camera on the Paris Metro when he was seventeen. His career as – as he puts it - a photograffeur was born, taking photos of regular people and blowing up the images into posters that he and his team put up. One of his most famous works is a canvas and 100ft high mural on the side of London’s Tate Modern of a man pointing a gun at the camera.
An Italian street artist from Bologna, Blu has gained notoriety from his massive wall paintings and stop motion animation pieces, often disturbing and surreal in tone. He’s painted walls in many European cities and American countries. He once visited the German city of Wuppertal and anonymously printed 6,000 magazines full of his drawings distributed for free; this was followed by several large-scale murals. Nowadays, much of his work is commissioned for art festivals.
Without doubt the most famous of contemporary street artists, Bristol’s favourite anarchic artistic son, Banksy’s main modus operandi focuses on an ironic, anti-establishment social commentary tinged with social realism.
Prolific, iconic, his art is snapped up for thousands by the rich and famous and had his work dismissed as vandalism by an enraged city council. He’s also been in a documentary, storyboarded an alternate version of The Simpson’s opening titles, has a book of his work, and took over the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery for twelve weeks to display 100 art works, attracting 300,000 enthusiastic visitors.
Identifiable from his signature icon of a black and white ball creature with wings, London’s D*Face has been, well, defacing walls, street lights, vehicles and other public surfaces since 2006. Sticker, graffiti, billboard manipulations and murals are his trademark mediums of choice. His work has gone global and can be found in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, New York and Barcelona.
These are just six street artists working their imaginative magic around the world – others such as Chor Boogie, Ron English and the more unappealingly monikered Phlegm, deserve equal mention. And the list goes on – a burgeoning phalanx of talented, creative, brilliant, perceptive, culturally-savvy and artistically astute pictorial social commentators, creating and developing this relatively new artistic movement and changing the shape of artistic history itself, with works that are important, unmistakable and vital.
What do you think of street art, and have you got any favourites yourself?
See our urban art and galleries for more inspiration.