“The object of art is to give life a shape” (William Shakespeare)
As you may have figured by now, I spend a fair amount of time in Shoreditch with my camera. Getting lost down the back streets of Brick Lane has meant that I have been able to witness the ever-morphing street art of the area over the last 6 months. Some call it “art” while others call it a “nuisance”. The police, however, call it criminal. The authorities of Tower Hamlets spend over £1million each year cleaning the walls of graffiti and sometimes even prosecute artists for using illegal wall space for their artistic expression. This may never actually deter them. Cleaning the walls simply gives artists a clean canvas, so whether we like it or not, graffiti is here to stay.
The origins of graffiti date back to the wall carvings of the prehistoric caveman. It was around before we could even write. In the 1950’s kids and street gangs started scratching their names on walls as a way of marking territory. This had grown into more elaborate name tagging during the 80’s that coincided with the new youth culture of rap, DJing and break-dancing. Tagging design became more 3-dimensional and creative and it is around this time that we see the emergence of street art as a social statement. In New York the 80’s saw the coming of street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, both of whom were dead by 1990. Both were able to successfully transfer their work from the street walls of Manhattan into galleries, museums, international biennials and, most importantly, auction houses. In London, 1981, Fab 5 Freddy brought Futura 2000 as part of the NYC Rap Tour where Futura is believed to have painted the first ever graffiti piece on the train tracks of Ladbroke Grove. In 1984 the iconic book “Subway Art” was first published and resulted in the London Underground trains being smothered in graffiti.
There are now rumoured to be well over 1,000 artists regularly working the streets of London, coming from all walks of life, battling with each other in a game of who can outwit who. Artists often have territorial wars and add to each other’s works in a war of words to see who will win on the social commentary stakes. Most assume a ‘nom de guerre’ to preserve their identity: Ronzo, Stik, Roa, Cityzen Kane, Space Invader, Blek Le Rat, Cept, Robbo, Inkfetish, Aiko, The Burning Candy Crew and of course the prominent Banksy.
Banksy is not simply just a graffiti artist but also a prolific painter and political activist whose work employs sardonic and subversive one-liners. With his irreverent sarcasm mainly aimed at authority and ‘the system’, he constantly challenges the viewer to think from outside the box. His style is a very distinctive stencil technique, taking influence from the Parisian Blek Le Rat. He has spawned other artists like Ron English and Shepard Fairey to use their work for social commentary. However, there is one who does not worship at the Banksy altar and he goes by the name of Robbo. During the Christmas of 2009, Banksy painted over a legendary piece of veteran graffitist Robbo’s work that had remained untouched for 25 years through a widely-acknowledged respect for the artist. Banksy added a stencil of a workman plastering over Robbo’s work as a commentary that Robbo was ‘past it’. Robbo retaliated by manipulating Banksy’s workman to make it look like he was painting the words “King Robbo” as a tribute. Banksy then added a poetic “Fuc” to the “King Robbo” tag. Robbo has been defacing Banksy’s pictures ever since: Charles Manson as a hitchhiker holding a sign saying “anywhere” was changed to “going nowhere” and signed Team Robbo; the Tesco bag flag being hoisted by 3 children was changed to say “HRH King Robbo”; the words “I don’t believe in global warming” disappearing beneath the water of the Regent’s Canal turned into “I don’t believe in war” with the additional “it’s too late for that sonny, team Robbo”. (to see images of the Banksy/Robbo argument please click on the “link”)
Many have dismissed this as purely a publicity stunt, but ironically I believe street art is all about publicity. Many artists use different mediums in order to stand out and gain notoriety. It’s not just about the spray can anymore: there’s stencil, stickers, etching, tiles, and all sorts of 3-dimensional forms out there. The public has really embraced it seeing how many attempts are made to literally remove whole sections of wall. Works by Banksy auction for £100,000 now where a few years ago would only go for £500. The street art scene has simply exploded. Every body seems to think they can get a piece of the action now. All you seem to have to do is create a cute character, plaster it over the walls for the next 6 months and then do a gallery show and cash in.
Subjectively speaking there are some of the most amazing pieces of art to see out there. You might hate it, you might love it, but the gallery is always open, always changing…and best of all it’s free.
Street art and graffiti tours are available by ‘Insider London’: your alternative guide to London
NEXT WEEK’S INSIGHT:
A tale of two Burlesque dancers