New York City in the early 1970s was undergoing a period of social turmoil, involving the AIDS epidemic, gay rights movements and social restructuring. It was during these years that artists began experimenting with street art as a new form of their artistic expression. Graffiti art became a way for artists to share their ideas beyond the confines of high society and the academic art world. Hand in hand with the start of graffiti art came the idea of the anonymous artist, in fact many of them would either not sign their works at all or would use a pseudonym, which helped impose a stronger social and political message. Jean Michel Basquiat, for example, during the start of his career, repeatedly used the symbol of the crown and the abbreviation ‘SAMO’, meaning “same old” to sign his work.
The use of repeated imagery creates associations in the viewer’s minds that in turn connect the artworks to the artist. Also during this time, Keith Haring also turned to street art so that his art could be enjoyed by everyone, choosing to use the New York City subway stations as his canvases. He too played with recurring representative symbols, such as the radiant angel and the barking dog to shed light on the social issues of the time. The use of unorthodox canvases, such as bridges, street signs and building facades by the artists of the 70s paved the way for later urban artists and the creation of what Street Art as it is defined as today.
Today, the urban art movement has ventured into museums, auctions and blue-chip galleries, finding its place comfortably beside contemporary art and artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Banksy has continued the legacy of street art by also using his art to highlight social and political issues throughout the world. He remains anonymous to this day, allowing the artworks to speak for themselves. Some of Banksy’s most recognizable works include Girl With A Balloon, which depicts a girl reaching for a red heart balloon, that signifies a glimmer of hope in a desolate political landscape. Other, less politically charged, works include his rendition of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup, but replacing it with the UK version of the Tesco soup can.
Another reason Banksy has decided to keep his identity hidden is because it is the exact opposite of how most of artists and creators behave, especially in a time where almost everything is shared online and there is an large focus placed on the persona and the individual brand they have created. Banksy shares, “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in the public; they forget that invisibility is a superpower.”
Quite opposite to Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, who began his Urban art career after making a documentary on Banksy titled ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’, became more inspired by light-hearted pop culture references. Though, he too uses a ‘street name’ speaking to how susceptible society is to the brainwashing of ideas through repeated imagery. Mr. Brainwash’s works have a lighter quality to them, many revolving around his favorite quote “Life Is Beautiful.”
Today, there is an array of artists becoming best known for their urban style, each creating their own new set of symbols. Some of the most recognizable, available at Guy Hepner, include Alec Monopoly – known for his use of the monopoly man, and Invader who ‘invades’ street buildings with his tile characters.
While today’s artists appear very far removed from the earlier movement, the core idea of messages through common objects remains. For more information on today’s urban artists, as well as the pioneers of the 1970s, available at Guy Hepner please contact [email protected]