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Has Street Art Lost Its Edge?

Thursday 05 May 2011

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As it enters mainstream culture, street art’s connection with the street can become superficial. Naturally there are artists who remain underground. However, many have emerged blinking into the art world and have embraced a more commercial approach. While it is easy to condemn those who try (and often fail) to keep their feet in both the ‘street’ and ‘art’ camps, the boundaries of the medium are being pushed. As it explores new territory, street art is becoming much more than graffiti on a wall. Technology and new platforms have helped ease street art into mainstream culture; likewise they have helped to bridge the gap between ‘street’ and ‘art’.

When talking about street art and it’s acceptance in popular culture, at some point Banksy will creep into the conversation. Love him or hate him, Bristol’s wonder child has made big business out of what once would have been considered vandalism. Case in point, the kissing policemen on the Prince Albert pub in Brighton. In 2008, the picture was transferred onto canvas by an art restoration company, leaving a copy in its place. There are now plans to fly the original to America to be sold. Experts estimate it could reach £1m.

Banksy occupies a bizarre limbo between commercial and street art – walls and buildings still remain his medium of choice but operating alongside is a million-pound business.

Anarchy and auction houses are uneasy bedfellows. This is not to say all street artists plan to lash out at the system. Shepard Fairey created his iconic ‘Hope’ poster for Barak Obama’s presidential campaign. The first print Fairey produced had ‘Progress’ as its slogan. It was when he was contacted by the Obama campaign that “Hope” was produced, carrying the campaign’s seal of approval. Estimated profits from Fairey’s Obama-themed merchandise (posters, stickers etc.) are said to have been around $400,000. Fairey says he donated it all to the campaign.

The message of the ‘Hope’ poster is simple, making it a perfect advertisement.  Advertising a president may be a long way from the skater shoes one would normally associate with the street art aesthetic, but this is not an isolated example. More mundane brands are taking advantage of the style’s popularity to push their products. The most recent has been Credit Confidential new ad campaign. It was created by Stephens Francis Whitson, the creative agency behind those strangely enjoyable ‘More Than Freemen’ adverts.

The link between the animation and credit reports is that your credit history is similar to the trail of paint left. The ad campaign is said to have cost £5m.

You may be surprised to see an illegal practice being used to promote the prevention of identity theft. However, you are just as likely to marvel at the animation itself. Stop-motion graffiti by artists such as BLU are stunning films demonstrating great artist skill. They also lift graffiti from the wall, giving static images a narrative. It may not be raging against the machine but it gives street art its edge back.

It is not just stop-motion that transforming street art. Other artists are interpreting the genre in new ways, just as meaningful but this time taking the artwork back to the street. Visual artist Alexandre Orion creates stunning street art by rubbing away the grime & pollution of the city.

Street art may have come a long way from the humble spray can, but there is enough variety to keep both the auction houses and the anarchists happy.