On many surviving buildings in Pompeii, one can find colorful phrases like Suspirium puellam Celadus thraex and Virgula Tertio su: Indecens es, which roughly translate to “Celadus makes the girls moan,” and “Virgula to Teritus: you are a nasty boy.” These scribblings tell us that graffiti in its strictest sense has always been around, and moreover that the wall has historically been an outlet for a type of humor and subversion deemed unsuited for the paper or canvas. Throughout the centuries, graffiti has morphed into an art form in its own right, while maintaining the playful sense of dissidence of its early history.
In 2018, we stand at the brink of an absolute explosion of street art. The reasons for this are plentiful, but difficult to pinpoint. However, any attempt must surely include a discussion of Banksy- the anonymous street artist whose name elicits as much praise as it does eye rolls. Through his politically charged stencils, Banksy essentially purchased a spotlight and shined it squarely on the street. Artists like Mr. Brainwash and Shepard Fairey then procured an even brighter bulb to ensure our continued attention to the medium; Fairey’s Andre the Giant ‘OBEY’ sticker campaign is likely one of the most iconic and reproduced images of the 21st century (despite being conceived in the late ‘80s). And travel to seemingly any metropolis and you will likely find a pixelated mosaic by the celebrated French artist Space Invader.
These artists have been around for decades, and their list of predecessors is long and varied, but, with the art world being a marketplace, our commercial interest in them piqued when their works started to arrive on the auction block or at the gallerists door with increasing frequency and bearing higher price tags. In the first decade of the 2000s, Banksy achieved near universal veneration following several high profile sales: at Bonhams auction house, Space Girl and Bird fetched a remarkable $480,000 against its pre-sale estimate of $20,000-$30,000. The irony of the industry’s commercialisation of Banksy’s work (anti-commercial in method and message) was not lost on the artist; after a six-figure sale of his works at Sotheby’s, he uploaded the following to the homepage of his website:
Many street artists continue to emulate the style of Banksy, while others acknowledge Banksy in name but feel their only kinship is in their preferred medium. This latter group may instead align itself with forefathers like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, resulting in a unique mixture of styles that are equally suited for the public wall as they are for the canvas. Perhaps the most dominant trend as of late, however, is the translation of distinctly pop-art elements in a vaguely street art tone, resulting in the proliferation of works that superficially appear different from one another, but in reality are just one variation of the same idea. Alec Monopoly immediately comes to mind: inspired by pop art while utilizing the materials of a graffiti artist, he created a style unique at first to his own works, but has come to inspire endless reproductions by countless artists that one has to know Alec to recognize him as its popular originator.
The commercialisation of street art is enormously beneficial as it affords greater attention to non-traditional artists, but it also seems to encourage a ‘bandwagon’ effect wherein a method that has proved successful to one artist is viewed by others as the only method. Perhaps this attitude is a remnant from decades past, when artistic and financial worth were explicitly connected within the hands of the selected dominant few in the art world. The industry has undergone a great deal of decentralization, and while traditional players remain important barometers when gauging tastes and trends, they are no longer the blanket gold standard. The current prices paid for Basquiat at auction, for example, indicate the continued attention to and preference for art in the vein of graffiti, but they do not advocate the use of one singular style; nonetheless, artists continue to lift elements of his vocabulary without injecting any of their own. Artists in any style will always look to those whom they admire, yet street art seems particularly susceptible to being both absorbed and defined by this practice. Contrast that with Renato Hunto, James Reka, and Tavar Zawacki- three muralists who draw clear influence from Cubism, albeit through entirely different lenses resulting in three separate artistic languages. Ultimately, with the current market devotion to contemporary art, coupled with the sheer volume of alternative channels through which to buy and sell it, there is unprecedented artistic liberty, license, and opportunity for an endless variety of styles under the blanket of street art to co-exist and thrive.