Here at Widewalls, we have recently been covering in a number of features, graffiti history and the emergence of the modern culture of urban and street art. From the humble beginnings in the 1960’s, through the hip-hop explosion that is so closely linked to the rise of graffiti in the 20th Century, exploring the theme of street art as vandalism and looking at how music and street art have forged close relationships. There is no doubt that graffiti hit the 21st century with somewhat of a bang, forcing all of us to take notice, whether we liked graffiti and street art or not. Before we continue on our graffiti history tour in the 21st century, have a browse at the recent articles that outline our graffiti history so far – 20th Century & the Rise of Graffiti, Street Art & Music: Who Likes What? and Food, Sleep, Sex & Revenge.
As graffiti hit the 21st century the scene seemed to explode, particularly with urban and street artists that had begun their graffiti journey back in the 1990’s. At the end of the 20th Century & the Rise of Graffiti article we mentioned two street artists, who changed the face of street art as we know it. The first was American Shepard Fairey who made his first moves as far back at 1989 with his Andre the Giant has a Possee sticker campaign that eventually evolved into the OBEY face that has become his trademark image. But it was during the 2000’s that his reputation grew, creating a series of iconic street images including the infamous Barack Obama HOPE image in 2008. Catch up with the 25th Anniversary of OBEY article to see the lasting legacy.
Over in the UK, Banksy was creating free hand graffiti in Bristol during the early 1990’s, part of the underground scene with street artists such as Nick Walker, Inkie and 3D. A turn to stencil art as graffiti hit the 21st century, saw a surge of interest and the rest, as they say, is history, the world going crazy over every Banksy move, highlighted in our recent news article, I Am Not Banksy: Arrest and Lawsuit.
One can’t discuss the history of graffiti in the 21st century without mentioning the infamous graffiti war between Banksy and the underground English street artist King Robbo. Active from 1985, King Robbo was a legend on the underground street art scene, his works regularly appearing all over London. In 2009 however, Banksy painted over an iconic piece of street art that resulted in both artists painting over the piece, followed by online arguments and many Banksy works being altered by Team Robbo. King Robbo died in 2014, after being in a coma for 3 years due to an accident, read more in The Death of Banksy’s Rival. The battle between the two giants of street art was captured in a TV documentary, Graffiti Wars, aired in 2011.
It is fair to say that there were street artists in the 20th century who successfully crossed the line from graffiti into the world of galleries, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat being obvious examples. But it wasn’t until graffiti hit the 21st century that it became acceptable for street artists to combine both street art and studio work, with a whole range of new galleries emerging who were prepared to concentrate their efforts on urban contemporary art. Not only did this offer opportunities to the new breed of street artists, but also to street artists that had been working since the 1980’s and 1990’s, such as Jef Aérosol , JonOne and Thierry Furger. It is a sure sign that graffiti and street art has finally been accepted by many as a true art form, when artists such as Poesia, Augustine Kofie, Tomek, Smash 137, Sickboy, along with newer street artists like My Dog Sighs, can present successful solo exhibitions around the world of their graffiti influenced artworks. Take a listen to the My Dog Sighs podcast interview.
With the history of graffiti in the 21st century, we also get what some may consider the ugly face of commercialism, with cries of ‘sell outs’ as graffiti and street art becomes embraced by the mainstream. While there has always been some crossover, many artists have designed for skateboarding companies for example; graffiti in the 21st century became a saleable commodity, with music icons having album covers designed by street artists, Justin Bieber going out and making graffiti and ending with the reality TV show, Street Art Throwdown, in which street artists battle it out for a cash prize, very crass but also a sign of how far street art has infiltrated the mainstream in the 21st century.
Luckily there are still artists like Sickboy who frown upon such crassness, going so far as to put his Caged Heart sculpture outside Tate Modern in 2008, in opposition to the corporate backing of a graffiti show the gallery were showing. Hear Sickboy chat about such issues in his Widewalls podcast interview. It should also be noted that in the early part of the 21st century a number of computer companies and video games were already incorporating graffiti and street art into their adverts and games, while a number of films captured the graffiti explosion, not least Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010), but also Bomb It (2008), RASH (2005)and Mutiny of Colours, about street art in Iran.
While the commercial aspects of street art do raise concerns over the viability of the street art created, the history of graffiti in the 21st century will be noted for the rise in street art festivals. The last few years have seen a surge in street art festivals popping up around the globe, offering street artists the chance to work legally & create amazing murals on a large scale for the public to enjoy. Again, it raises the question of corporate sponsorship and ownership of street art, but it has also seen many a drab urban area transformed into colourful and fascinating street galleries. The range of street art festivals is still growing, from POW! WOW! Hawaii, St+ART Delhi, Chennai in India, Public in Australia, Spectrum in New Zealand to the all-female Femme Fierce in the UK. Check out the chronicles of LOOK! The Weird about his exploits at the Chennai Street Art Festival.
The modern era of graffiti and street art has changed enormously since Cornbread started tagging his name back in the 1960’s. From simple tagging, to subway trains and graffiti writing, stencil art and to the massive street art murals we see today, it feels like graffiti and street art have become the new rock ‘n’ roll, everyone eager to have their slice. The rise of social media and the digital age has made it far easier to spread the word about artists and artworks and has enabled many to establish a foothold in the traditional world of the art gallery. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, the history of graffiti in the 21st century is still in its infancy, I think there are probably a great deal of people who are holding on and enjoying the fast paced ride that is graffiti in the 21st century. You may also enjoy reading Defining Street Art? & The History of Street Art.
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Images as credited individually.
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