Urban Art is as old as the streets themselves.
Over 2000 years ago in the ancient cities of Egypt, Rome and Greece, graffiti and street art were carved and scrawled onto the walls of market-places, public houses and brothels. They emerged in places of political disenchantment and social unrest. In their anonymity, they represented the word of the Everyman, of the voiceless many; today, those marks survive as important relics of past social consciousness.
Modern-day Urban Art has evolved a great deal since. Ancient graffiti was often direct and personal: a message from a jilted lover, curses placed on adulterous partners, or a smear against an unpopular statesman. By contrast, today’s urban artists make images and slogans that speak to a more general sense of disenfranchisement.
Their message is often international, condemning the state surveillance in modern democracies, for example, or railing against the perceived military aggression of the western world. In times past, messages were directed at the lying politician, the conniving merchant; today, the attack is against governments and corporations, and the reach of their images is global.
Despite this internationality, however, a key theme of Urban Art remains its sense of place. As the name would suggest, the heart of the genre is in cities and the streets, taking art away from its traditional contexts of galleries and museums and placing it in the wider public sphere. For artists working as activists for particular causes or as saboteurs undermining corporate advertisements, making art on city walls and buildings is a way of reaching a wider audience and of reclaiming urban spaces from governments and multinationals.
But there is also a sense in much Urban Art of merging art with our surroundings, of fusing together these images and the spaces we inhabit. Unlike canvases that can be shipped around the world, street art becomes part of the city it is made in; like the cave paintings of ancient man, it unites art and environment such that they become one.
The origins of contemporary Urban Art lie in the political and cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and early 1970s when modern graffiti culture first found its roots. Street Art in the following decades carried a distinctly political bent, and this undercurrent of subversion still runs strong in today’s Urban Artists.
Blek Le Rat, born Xavier Prou, was one of the earliest to take up the mantle and pioneered the use of life-size stencils to make his images. Making his first street paintings in 1981, he adopted the moniker of the rat – the only free animal in the city – and was soon spraying stencils across the streets of Paris with politically charged anti-establishment imagery.
With the rising notoriety of artists like Banksy in the last 10 years, Urban Art has since exploded into the mainstream art market and constitutes a large part of today’s popular culture. Currently, there are as many styles and socio-political or cultural motivations within Urban Art as there are artists working in the genre. Some, such as New York’s Swoon, are distinctly socially minded, while others, such as London’s D*Face, actively embrace and undermine aspects of the mainstream, collaborating with well-known companies and music artists or incorporating major cultural icons in their work.
With access to modern print ateliers, many of these artists have also been able to fund ongoing street projects through sales of their prints, simultaneously keeping the core principles of Urban Art alive and allowing prospective buyers to purchase works without the necessary removal of original pieces painted on city walls. With Urban Art occupying such a prominent space in the current public consciousness, these street artworks are seen increasingly as genuine works of art, rather than acts of vandalism, and garner significant critical attention.
‘Can You Smell Burning?’ – Candice Tripp
At the heart of all Urban Art, whatever its cultural or ethical flavour, is a desire to communicate with everyday people, a desire that harks back to those first messages crudely hacked into ancient stone walls and which has been perpetuated ever since.
Today’s Urban Artists create works that aim to engage with, confront, and subvert ideas in a way that ultimately promotes dialogue amongst the wider public – an objective worthy of any art genre.