If you’ve ever sat on a train gazing out of the window as the dull streets flash by, you’ll have seen the tags, the graffiti, emblazoned on the bridges and walls. Whatever your personal opinion – creative artistic expression or mindless destructive vandalism – the chances are, like most of us, you’re fascinated by it. Without a doubt you’ll have wondered why? Why do they do it? What makes people want to reach these unreachable places just to write a word, name or moniker?
The gold standard: A whole car is still seen as the top piece to bag.
Image from “EgoWar” check out their awesome page HERE
Tag, you're it.
Modern graffiti can be traced back to the symbols left by hobos and railroad workers on the American railways in the early 19th century, carved with pocket knives into the walls of boxcars. The symbols were the written language of the illiterate itinerants, showing where to find food and shelter for example, but they were also a personal statement of the writer, declaring their hidden existence to the world. As the railways grew, so did the legends, as individuals left thousands of monikers, all vying to make their mark, as they travelled across the country.
By the 1970’s and 80’s pocket knives had been replaced by spray cans, the hobos replaced by disenchanted youth. But the intent was still there when, the lure of notoriety, the desire to express, to dominate, the need to state your truth.
“Blade” regarded as one of the true pioneers of the NYC scene painting over 5000 pieces in the late 70's early 80's. Read a brilliant interview HERE from the good good guys at Global Street Art
Tagging was the new language of symbols. In the Uk Guys like Ame72 and Ben Eine were running riot through major cities, leaving thousands of tags on every surface, one step ahead of the law (mostly), each trying to be the most ubiquitous, the most recognisable.
Hip-hop culture was taking off in the states and from the subways of New York and Philadelphia came a new artform, a riotous colourful explosion of wildstyle graffiti, entire trains plastered in colour from end to end.
Photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfont documented this emerging new culture in their iconic book ‘Subway Art’. This book found its way to Ben Eine and became his inspiration. ‘I was blown away by what I saw. I looked at these painting of trains in New York and I thought ‘I’m going do that’.’
I fought the law…
Local authorities were not so enamoured. In the early days, it was an ongoing battleground, with councils and transport police engaged in a war of paint with the writers and artists who stole out at night to alter and adorn public property with their tags and graffiti art. In many places it still is.
Given these constraints, ubiquity and notoriety are still two of the biggest goals for a street artist, and proliferation of a name is a fundamental intent of many writers and artists. For artwork to be noticed and recognised, not only within the graffiti community, but by the public at large remains a considerable prize.
It’s also why most artists go to great lengths to protect their identity. Operating under a pseudonym offers a level of protection from the law. Anonymity also lends their work a certain mystique, and so the legends grow. It is important to remember there are 100's of artists and taggers out there who never intend to make work for the public, other than what they can see on walls and trains, their eyes are 100% fixed in the streets with illegal pieces. They are not all "kids with cans' these guys have good jobs that may have nothing to do with art, you may not even know that you know them!
The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
Street art is often described as a subculture, operating at odds with accepted society norms. Many of the more renowned pieces, such as those by Banksy, Shepard Fairy, and certain pieces by our good friend Tabby, ask the viewer to challenge convention, by presenting a message that is irreverent and antiauthoritarian, often depicted in a witty and ironic way.
In regimes where free expression is repressed, such as in the Middle East, street art is a form of social consciousness, communicating unsanctioned political messages to the masses. In Palestine, artists such as Lushsux use the separation wall as a canvas to mock the political elite.
Lushsux piece featuring Netanyahu and Trump obviously offended quite a few and when we were there it had been painted over by some Jewish protestors.
A Troll or a fighter for justice? Either way the publicity and notoriety comes strong with pieces like this.
But then, others in the same situation, such as Ame72, deliberately choose to use their art as a positive medium for enhancing the everyday experience of those who come across it.
Street art on canvas
Keep this to yourself, but certain artists we represent continue to dabble in the dark side.. who knew! Painting in the wild, legal or otherwise, gives their work an edge, it’s like electricity that jolts rebellious creative hearts back to life.
But when those same artists work in the studio, producing stunning and original canvasses, or they work on select commissions, it’s with a different intent. The artwork is still from the same hand, but when you’re not looking over your shoulder, you have the luxury of time to craft the exact image that you want.
A piece on a brick wall may well be painted over next time you walk past, but a canvas should be treasured for a very long time. These pieces are signed with pride, they’re like a legacy. The artist knows that you will value his work, he appreciates your interest, and he intends to create something worthy of your gaze.
Liberty, equality, fraternity or…
So you see, street art is not just a bunch of guys messing about sticking two fingers to the man. There is always an intent.
It’s easy to underestimate the risks that many artists face when they choose to go out and paint in the wild; violence, arrest, fines, loss of liberty, or worse, as in the tragic case of the three writers killed by a freight train on tracks in south-west London last month.
Those three young men, Lover, Trip and Kbag, were well known on the scene and would have have known the dangers of walking the tracks, but they still took that risk, they were out at 5am in the morning, intent on reaching that one particular deadly spot to make their mark. RIP.
Tributes were sprayed worldwide by the community in the days following the tragic deaths of these three artists.
Despite all the risks, and because people from all backgrounds are driven to express themselves visually in illegal and often dangerous ways, many people consider street art to be art in its purest form. No filter and a perfect reflection of what is making people tick.
As Ben Eine says ‘If you’re prepared to jump over a fence, risk going to prison, to write your name on a train that no-one sees and everyone hates – either that’s pure art – or you’re an idiot!’
Cover Image taken from London Calling Blog, check it out it's got some great photos on!