Legend might be the most overused word in the art world today. It is so carelessly used that it almost lost its meaning. Anyone and everyone can be called a legend, with or without proper reason, so we tend to use it very cautiously. When we call the next ten street artists legends, it is an understatement and we use it only because of the lack of better word to describe their immense talent and impact they have on the world of art. They have produced such an amazing body of work and influenced so many artists, that we do not hesitate for a second to call them legends. Some of them are long gone from this world, others continue to create astonishing art and still have their greatest works yet to create, but it is certain - their influence on street art and art in general will last for centuries to come.
We start this list with the man who revolutionized the canons of American graffiti in the 1970s. Futura is an artist of abstract and rhythmical compositions, that brought him a cult following and international fame. He came a long way from humble beginnings of illegal painting on New York subway trains and city walls to become one of America's greatest and widely recognized graffiti artists, also successfully working as an illustrator, designer and photographer. Futura (also known as Futura 2000) made a significant leap in his carrier when he turned to working on canvas in the 1980s, and has been transcending the barriers between street, commercial and fine art ever since, always evolving and remaining fresh.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) shook the art scene with his art of primitivist and neo-expressionist style with such impact, that it still resonates throughout the art world. This self-taught artist first achieved notoriety in 1970's by writing enigmatic epigrams under the name SAMO around Manhattan, New York. After several years of struggle, during which he tried to make a living by selling sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets, in 1980 his work was featured in a group show that marked the starting point of his rise to fame that followed. Quickly gaining attention of both critics and art lovers, Basquiat started collaborating with Andy Warhol during the same year, which resulted in a show of their work. As he was getting more and more famous in the following years, personal and drug addiction problems started taking over him and led him to his premature death.
Another amazing talent and a truly extraordinary artist and philanthropist that left us too early is Keith Haring (1958-1990) whose engaged work has become widely recognized. He developed a love for drawing at a very early age and after high school enrolled in a commercial arts school. He dropped out of two years later after realizing that he had very little interest in commercial graphic art. Continuing to study and work on his own, he moved to New York in 1978 where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and became a member of a thriving alternative art community. Throughout his career Haring devoted much of his time to public works which often carried strong social and political messages. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 he died two years later. He spent those last two years actively working on providing funding and imagery to AIDS organizations through his Keith Haring Foundation.
One of the first graffiti and street artists to take his art to galleries, RISK is the most influential artist coming from Los Angeles, where he introduced painting on trains and overpasses and other highly elevated surfaces. RISK rose to fame very quickly and as he started getting more recognition, it brought him contracts in the movie and music video industry. He has painted sets for videos of such music icons as Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ice Cube. His instantly recognizable style is defined by cleanly executed lettering combined with architectural lines and graphic imagery, mostly, but not exclusively, in aerosol. After almost 30 year long career RISK is still involved in graffiti and a great supporter of emerging young artists through several art collectives and collaborations.
Rammellzee (1960-2010), an early graffiti writer, hip-hop pioneer and performance artist from New York first became known in graffiti circles in 1970's for hitting subway trains with his signature spiky lettering. Rammellzee was a notoriously elusive artist with an enigmatic presence, who was rarely photographed out of his elaborate costumes which became the mainstay of his career along with the paintings and sculptures. He cast himself as an urban philosopher of Gothic Futurism, his own theory of mystical power of letters. Even though we now know that he was mortal, he is proving to be a timeless talent, as the mind-boggling art that remained after him is going to puzzle generations of urban art lovers to come.
Donald Joseph DONDI White, another great we lost to AIDS, started writing graffiti in New York in the 1970's, plastering his name and many aliases on subway trains, gradually moving from simple tagging to creating more elaborate pieces of dynamic lettering and stick figures that brought him universal acclaim. In 1980's Dondi started working on canvas reiterating his signature marks from the streets. This stylistically innovative artist influenced generations of graffiti writers and pioneered many of the techniques and styles, still widely used by modern graffiti artists. Most famous work of Dondi was his three piece Children of the Grave, painted on three whole New York subway cars.
Jacques Villeglé (1926) is a French mixed-media artist and affichiste, widely known for his exploration of a new way of making collages from fragments of torn posters. This innovative technique consists of building posters in a way that several posters are layered on top of each other and then ripped revealing portions of the posters beneath and creating striking compositions, full of humor, eroticism and social and political criticism. Doing this Villeglé rearranges the messages aimed at the public, exposing uncomfortable realities of its hidden socio-economic and propagandistic agendas. Over the years he moved away from darkly abstractions of his early work towards more colorful work of increasingly sexual imagery.
Fernando Carlo Cope2 is a graffiti artist from Bronx, New York, who has been on the scene since the late 1970's, and today is internationally renowned for his bubble "throw-up" style and use of Bronx originated "wildstyle" approach to the graffiti art form. Considered to be one of the founding fathers of American graffiti, this longstanding bomber has achieved considerable mainstream success for his artwork, which can be found in reputable galleries across the globe. He has collaborated on many commercial projects alongside such names as Time magazine, Converse, Footlocker and Adidas. Cope2's studio paintings bring his raw energy into abstract masterpieces, with his trademark bubble letters and tags on canvases.
John Matos CRASH is another legend coming from Bronx, New York. When he was 13 years old he started following the older teens from his neighborhood and began spray painting full image art on trains, quickly gaining popularity. By the 1980's he had been exhibiting his art both in the US and abroad, and today is regarded as one of the graffiti art movement pioneers. His visualy iconic, explosive murals and canvases of amazing style filled with pop iconography show keen sense of design, impossible to top. Crash has partnered with many renowned companies including Tumi Luggage, SoBella, Absolut Vodka and Fender Musical Instruments, for which he painted guitar amps and famous "Crushocasters" guitars, played by such guitarists as Eric Clapton and John Myer.
We are going to wrap up this list with an artist extraordinaire and a forefather of street art we know today. Ernest Pignon-Ernest is a self-taught French Fluxus and Situationist artist, with background in architecture. He screen-prints his painted images on fragile paper and prints them on walls and telephone boxes, melting his characters into carefully chosen urban landscapes, creating intense, visually and emotionally striking artwork of profound complexity and full of emotions and violence. Location plays a major role in artwork of Ernest Pignon-Ernest as he tries to capture its essence and memories utilizing the history, surface and light of the place.
All images for illustrative purposes only