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Superheroes in Urban Art

October 17, 2014
Ana Bambic Kostov is an art historian with passion for contemporary art.

Rarely is a cultural phenomenon so widely spread and so universally beloved as a superhero. This supernatural embodiment of all the qualities an average man might aspires to has proven itself more than seductive, so irresistible that it easily permeates our everyday, while people adoringly accept and praise it. One superhero may differ from another, but in essence they are all the soldiers fighting for the good, for what’s right, for our futures and our souls, sacrificing their own well being if necessary. Superheroes are representations of our ideal selves, allowing us to enjoy the harmless self-identification with their fictional personas, righting the wrongs of our societies. They are imaginary for a reason. But we’ll always believe in them.

Logick - Spiderman at Lille, France, 2013
Logick – Spiderman at Lille, France, 2013

The Superhero Identity

Comic culture blossomed in the second half of the 20th century, and it still flourishes today. Word is, we are to expect more superhero movies in the coming decade, but although it may seem their stories have depleted a bit, all the fans will line up for tickets no matter what. Devotion to superheroes is real and it comes with a history, market and art of its own. Now, the visual idea of a superhero is generally connected to characters of Marvel or DC comics, although superheroes make a larger group including many Anime personages.

Everybody can easily describe Superman, Batman, Spiderman and similar guardians of mankind. It’s always a masked vigilante, fighting for justice, usually in possession of involuntary magical or scientifically explicable superpowers. Just like their characters and strengths, visual identities of these champions are clearly determined by their creators, leaving little room for mistake. Their costumes are elaborate, imaginative creations, often in direct relation to their power or its source, colored in bright palette, always adorned with a distinctive emblem. Superman’s S or Batmans bat sign are epitomes of everything the heroes stand for, but simultaneously, they are excellent designer solutions with much artistic appeal.

Graffiti Life London - Batman and Bane
Graffiti Life London – Batman and Bane

Superheroes in Art

As the phenomenon derives from the visual world, and since comics are an art in itself, there’s very little surprise in the fact these archetypes of good made their way into the both highbrow and lowbrow art world. They were perhaps better accepted in the plane of street and urban art, but finding a superhero on canvas is not a rarity anymore. Recent exhibition dedicated to Superheroes at The Graffiti Life gallery is just a beginning of a demonstration of how much they permeate the creative realm. If we leave design aside (the discussion could be endless) and focus on urban art – we may come to a conclusion of just how much are superheroes present in the new contemporary movement.

Wolverine by Real Bros Crew
Wolverine by Real Bros Crew

SEEN and ERRO – Two Ideas of Heroism

The first artist who comes to mind when the superhero imagery is in question is definitely SEEN. This American artist set foundation of his artistic career in early 70s, when he was just 12 years old. Fascination with comic heroes and television cartoons influenced the creation of his iconography crucially, in that the painter made a vast oeuvre of predominantly cartoon and superhero inspired works. Everything is found within his work, from Wonderwoman to Hulk, from characteristic gestures to expressions of anger or pain. Usually placed in front of a graffiti backdrop, SEEN’s superheroes are frequently followed by comic onomatopoeia – the Boom! or Kapow! – demonstrating a pop artistic vision, much relatable to Roy Lichtenstein and his rendering of similar themes.

Another artist who freely incorporates superhero imagery into his work is Erró, the French-residing, Island born artist, whose visual satire consists of constant juxtaposition of emblems of contrasting cultures. Just as he placed Mao Tse Tung in Venice, he opposes superheroes to one another, making chaos conceptually and emotionally similar to the one we dwell in.

Superheroes of the Street

But it’s not only the fascination with the character that drives graffiti writers to pay homage to heroes. Self-identification must have something to do with it, as the illicit artists paint public areas without permission, delivering the message to the masses, similarly to their superhero subjects to a degree. A number of artists employs superhero iconography, from the acclaimed Greg Gossel who had a show at Vertical Gallery, CRASH, who exhibited last summer at Jonathan LeVine, or the New Zealand muralist Owen Dippie; to the ones who make amalgamations of pop culture icons, including superheroic segments such as Ben Frost, Speedy Graphito or the Israeli duo Broken Fingaz. Fintan MaGee dressed some of his carefree children up in superhero outfits, giving them a new air in which they are allowed to play and dream. Artists such as Greg Mike employ the said symbolism as a vessel to deliver sharp commentary on contemporary pop culture.

Jody - Batman
Jody – Batman

Seductive Villains

Talking about superheroes and not addressing the villains is simply not done. Joker, Skeletor, Magneto or Lex Luthor are the exact opposites of their benevolent counterparts, just as famous and as evil as Batman, Hi-Man, Professor Xavier or Superman are good. In this black and white world, it’s easy to relate to the good. Occasionally, the dual nature characters appear, such as Silver Surfer, which fluctuate on the universal moral scale, acting depending on the situation, working in concordance to his own rules. Depicting anti-heroes is just as legit as honoring heroes, where villain iconography may even be more challenging or interesting to the artist. In the end, without supervillains, superheroes wouldn’t exist.

Flow One  - Joker
Flow One – Joker

And Your Favorite Superhero is?

Knowing superheroes are older than us, they will outlive us as well, no one can deny the scale of impact comics have on postmodern visual and pop culture. Acting against the rotten strata of society, the proverbial incarnations of evil or just mentally damaged individuals gone astray, these protectors make a supreme critique of modern society, where one must remain anonymous in order to make a change, while men and women with identity usually represent fortuneless puppets, or hopeless romantics without enough merit. Superheroes are there to save everyone, even from themselves, if needed.

Most of their narratives are, just like urban art, closely related to city life, enabling the dynamic connection between the two notions. The appropriation of cartoon images came naturally, as these characters are meant to live in public already, awakening childhood dreams of the passers by, allowing serious art lovers to smile and return to the more juvenile, innocent phase, where everything is pre-arranged and clear. Gazing at some of these paintings or murals instigate some of the everlasting debates, like, Who is stronger – Superman or Batman?

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