The Street Artists Pathway to Fame

While graffiti has never been known to be as commercial as other forms of art, there are some individuals who have certainly been more successful than others with regards to making a career out of street art. Banksy, Keith Haring, and Cacao Rocks are just a few examples of street artists who started out as nothing more than graffiti taggers, yet eventually became lucky enough to have their works featured in galleries, sold in auctions, and receive worldwide exposure. Despite being drawn on the streets, some of the works created by these artists are undoubtedly “gallery-level” with regards to their artistic quality, as evident by the funds they fetch at auction or the mass attention they receive. The purpose of this collection is to examine some of the high quality pieces of street art created by well-known artists, the messages surrounding them, why they have become popular and how they compare to the non-gallery worthy street art commonly created by anonymous graffiti artists.

“Follow Your Dreams” By Banksy

Banksy is undoubtedly one of the most famous street artists in history. Known worldwide, Banksy has painted pieces on the walls of multiple countries, including the US and UK. He is famous for his socially conscious stencils, and often has his work chipped off of walls to be sold in auctions. Banksy himself has also authorized multiple gallery showings of his own work. In the image above, the first thing that jumps out is the immense detail of the man on the left. While he may be darkly shaded, every feature of him is clearly defined, from the spaces in-between his fingers to the curvatures of his ear. He is holding a brush, on which the individual bristles can be seen, and a bucket, which is also very detailed and life-like. From his position and appearance, the man is implied to be the worker who is responsible for putting up the “cancelled” poster over the message saying “follow your dreams.” This image appeared in a low-income area in Chinatown, Boston in 2010. The message implied is that one’s dreams have been cancelled, as if to say, you are not able to follow your dreams anymore. The US economy and overall atmosphere in 2010 was certainly not at its best, and the fact that this was painted in a low-income area serves to raise awareness from the opportunities that had been taken away from people living in this area and others like it. The piece is a commentary on the current social situation carrying the message that not all dreams are possible anymore, and one of the reasons it became so famous is likely due to the true message it carries. People look at this image and see truth to it, possibly even relating to it personally. This art connects with bystanders on a more personal and deeper level and this is one of the reasons Banksy has seen such success in street art when compared to a random nameless individual.

“Free South Africa” A poster design by Keith Haring that was seen posted on various streets during the apartheid movement.

Keith Haring is another well-known graffiti artist, who has had works make it into galleries and sell in auctions. Studying at the School of Visual Arts in 1980, he began drawing quick images with white chalk on black backgrounds. These images helped him develop his signature style of drawing human figures, which can be seen in most of his works. His work began to gain popularity and he opened up his first gallery show in 1982. With his increasing popularity, Haring decided to get involved in social and global change through street art. He designed a very famous “Free South Africa” poster, that in addition to being placed all around streets, thereby classifying it as a form of street art, was also printed on t-shirts, postcards, and other retail merchandise. The awareness of this poster helped raise awareness of the racial power struggle occurring in South Africa and helped lead to the ending of the apartheid. The poster features a large black figure, with a leash around its neck, proceeding to stomp on a smaller white figure holding the end of the leash. The irony to this image is that the black majority in South Africa, represented by the large black figure, was under the control and oppression of the white minority, represented by the smaller white figure holding the leash. The style of the figures drawn are done in a cartoonish manner, which was very popular in pop-culture at the time. Walt Disney’s characters and Andy Warhol were large influences on Haring’s famous work. His famous murals and designs in this cartoonish style are certainly gallery-level as this abstract form of art was very popular at the time and was the subject of many modern gallery collections, including a gallery of Haring’s own work. The clever image drew attention to the injustice of the apartheid in South Africa, which was a big divisive issue in society at the time. This artist’s work as pictured above features a very unselfish subject of attempting to draw attention to a global cause. The image features nothing to do with the artist himself, apart from a modest signature, and focuses more on the global cause of ending the apartheid, which is likely one of the reasons it attained such national fame and recognition. People who backed the cause unquestioningly backed the art raising awareness for the cause, which in turn increased the designs popularity and global recognition.

A mural by Cacao Rocks, sponsored and commissioned by the University of Michigan as an effort to spread the popularity of street art within the community.

Cacao Rocks is a street artist who started out by painting simple tags of his name around his native city of Athens, yet eventually matured to the be producer of gallery-level work. Born and raised in Athens, Cacao’s experiences in street art began when he was a teenager, where he was known for tagging his name in various public places around the city. He soon began to increase his quality of street art however, and began producing art that drew from inspirations he had seen in various art museums around Europe. He also drew a big influence from Greece’s economic, political, and social crises (Demetral). As a result of their cultural relevance, many of the pieces he painted reflecting Greece’s issues and history received mass attention and helped launch some of his works into galleries. The University of Michigan sponsored Cacao Rocks in October of this year to paint the two-part mural seen above, as part of the project involving three international street artists with the hopes “to engage the campus and greater community with international artists who offer a global perspective on the use of street art as powerful forms of expression and communication.” As this was a commissioned mural sponsored by the University itself, Cacao produces a piece of street art that is aesthetically pleasing and certainly gallery-quality. The piece on the left is a blur of shapes and colors, incorporating a church in the background along with a few columns and vases in the foreground, no doubt drawing from Greek architectural influences. The abstract shapes and bright v.s. dark color contrasts are similar to some popular forms of modern art that can be found in art museums such as the MOMA in New York City or the Tate in London. The piece overall is very stylistically similar to some pieces of art found in modern galleries, with a key difference being the canvas that these pieces are drawn on, many pieces in these professional galleries are drawn on actual canvas, whereas Cacao used a less conventional medium consisting of brick wall. The fact that its style is similar to that of some modern pieces of art could also be a primary reason as to why this piece was commissioned and met with positive review within the community. The art resembles the modern concept of art and is thus aesthetically pleasing, it doesn’t embrace any of the negative aspects of graffiti such as vandalism, which is why it receives much more fame and acclaim when compared to random graffiti tags.

Graffiti Alley in Ann Arbor

In contrast to the stylings of globally famous graffiti artists such as Banksy and Keith Haring, here is an example of a random compiling of various tags and messages written by various street artists. These pieces have a different message and purpose as the works of famous artists, and as a result have received much received much less fame. Most of the images on this wall are what are known as graffiti “tags,” which are a name or nickname that a street artist goes by, which they often paint over and over again in different locations to spread their moniker. The purpose of tagging has a much-less community oriented purpose and much greater personal-purpose for the artist, as it is a way to spread their name. Spreading a tag does not lead to supporting any global cause or social issue and thus tags often receive less fame and awareness within a community. People are less inclined to spread the graffiti within the community because it serves very little purpose other than the artists own needs. The wall is also covered in over 100 tags, often overlapping and covering one another up. This leads to the wall as a whole looking very sloppy and un-appealing, as it is very hard to recognize or point out an individual tag due to the incredible overlap. In stark contrast to some of the works by Banksy specifically, which have been controversially stripped off walls to be sold in galleries, these works of graffiti are often covered up or washed off of the wall which they occupy, as many feel they are a blemish on public works and cause a city or area to appear run-down.

Mural of Alan, drawn anonymously on a wall in Athens.

The final piece of this collection consists of small mural in tribute to the death of the refugee child known as Alan Kurdi. Alan’s body was found washed ashore after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, as he and his family were refugees seeking asylum from the crises in Syria, it was believed they were heading to Canada as their final destination. The picture of Alan’s washed up body spread around the world and immediately drew attention towards the refugee crisis. As a result, there were protests, fundraisers, and even the art community got involved in responding to the crises. Murals were commissioned to be drawn on public areas in tribute to this boy, and to raise awareness towards the Syrian turmoil and resulting refugees. These commissioned images became pretty popular, and picture of them can be found online and in articles. Why is it then, that this mural, drawn un-commissioned and anonymously, has received so little attention when compared to other works consisting of the same subject? The reason consists of a few factors. The first three pieces in this collection are each the primary subject of the canvas that they occupy. Banksy and Cacao’s murals were each painted on previously unoccupied walls, so they are the only thing to notice when looking at the wall, in other words, they stand out and grab the viewers’ attention. This mural of Alan was drawn on a small corner of a wall which is heavily covered in other forms of graffiti. Tags and phrases cover the wall space surrounding Alan, and as a result Alans bust begins to blend in with the messy graffiti around it. It does not immediately pop out to anyone who walks by in the same way that some of Banksy’s or Cacao’s murals do. This image lacks the same commanding effect that some of the other pieces in this collection have. Another reason for this piece of street arts lack of attention could be due to the anonymity of its creator. Banksy has worked a long time to establish his fame within the street art community, as a result, whenever he creates a new piece, the piece immediately receives attention, due to the following he already has. The anonymous artist who created this, clearly does not have a following within or beyond the street art community, as he has chosen to remain anonymous with his work, and as a result, his piece receives much less attention then pieces done by so-called “celebrities” within the street art community.

Not all street art is gallery-worthy, in the same sense that not all conventional art is gallery-worthy. The subject of the work, wall that its drawn on, and artist are all big factors influencing whether a piece of street art is considered good quality or not, and receives mass attention as a result. Many of the famous pieces of street art in recent history, both commissioned and un-commissioned have involved world issues or sought to draw attention to a global cause, and the works by Banksy and Haring in this collection attempted to do. They receive attention and fame due to the fact that they are selfless pieces and are used to raise awareness about issues such as a struggling economy or apartheid. They may technically be forms of vandalism, in the same way as tags are, but communities often don’t respond to these popular murals in the same way as they would respond to tags. Tags are typically immediately washed off or covered up by the building owner if their on private property. If they are in public, they usually linger longer but are still viewed as a blemish on whatever space they occupy. The un-commissioned works of artists like Banksy however aren’t necessarily washed off or covered up, in fact, many times these pieces are transplanted into galleries or sold at auction, sometimes controversially. While the artist of the piece certainly matters, as a famous artist is going to produce famous work, the selfless quality and global-issue or local-issue oriented aspect of graffiti can be a driving reason and the one of the deciding factors behind whether or not a piece of graffiti becomes receives attention and fame.

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