Street art is a label which has been applied to everything from public art happenings, to guerilla sculpture and yarn bombing, but there is little doubt it is most closely associated with the work of mural and graffiti artists. Utilising walls around urban spaces as their canvas, many graffiti artists progressed from decorative, complex, and highly colourful variations of their name, or tag, to take on board a range of cultural, social, political and environmental issues.
The very best, four of which are featured here, have had their work exhibited in the world’s leading art galleries and museums, and sold pieces at auction for millions of pounds; putting them amongst the most high profile contemporary and modern artists.
It’s hard to talk about street art without mentioning Banksy, who has accomplished retaining complete anonymity even as his work has continually made mainstream news headlines and sold for as much as $25m at auction.
Banksy works in a stencil-art style, a technique developed in graffiti enabling rapid application of detailed images in places they do not have permission to be; harking back to his early emergence as a conventional graffiti artist. His work is often darkly humourous, and covers a range of political and social commentary which is usually anti-establishment, anti-war, and anti-capitalist, ranging from critique of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, to Conservative Party handling of Coronavirus, the NHS, and other social issues.
His work has also included oil paintings, an Oscar nominated documentary film, and installations and happenings such as the Dismaland amusement park, mocking many of the UK’s disappointing public attractions, or the Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which looks out on one of the dividing walls between Palestinian and Israeli populations, and is full of artwork on the theme.
Often considered a Pop Artist, but just as important within Street Art, Keith Haring was one of the first artists to emerge into the mainstream from early 1980s graffiti culture. He was influenced further by the events around him in his subject matter, which often followed themes advocating for safe sex and AIDS awareness, the end of Apartheid, and awareness of the crack epidemic.
His highly distinctive style and important subject matter and message carried him into art world commissions and solo exhibitions, as well as philanthropic work creating murals for hospitals, schools, and day care centres. Tragically, he passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications, but is remembered today through his foundation, which educates on HIV and AIDS, and through a long list of tributes, accolades, and retrospective exhibitions.
A street artist and graphic designer from the US skateboard scene, Shepard Fairey entered into mainstream conscious with his iconic “Hope” poster design during Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential election campaign, though he had been well known in the street and contemporary art and design world for some time. His first breakthrough work was the “Obey Giant” sticker campaign in the late 1980s, carried out as a Street Art experiment whilst he was still at university.
After graduation he became a regular illustrator and designer for both corporate brands and a range of music artists, whilst developing his art career through exhibitions, projects with other street artists, often along political and anti-war themes, and his own clothing brand, Obey, which has grown into a major streetwear label. By the time of the Obama poster he was already holding solo exhibitions and was soon invited to exhibit at major art museums such as the ICA. He continues to create political and activist work through murals and street art campaigns.
Much like Keith Haring, Jen-Michel Basquiat emerged from the early hip-hop graffiti scene in New York as the artist SAMO, and gradually found his way into the East Village art and music crowd, where he began to connect with artists like Haring and Andy Warhol. He began exhibiting in art shows in the early 1980s, quickly catching attention of collectors and curators with themes of politics, race, and poverty, and became the youngest ever artist to participate in Documenta, and the Whitney Biennial, both at the age of 22.
His career moved at an incredible pace, taking him from poverty to riches in just a couple of years and fitting much of a lifelong career into just a decade, however he constantly struggled with emotional problems; depression, paranoia, and eventually reclusivity. He struggled with drug problems increasingly as his emotional state worsened, and it was as his work was going truly international, with shows across Europe and Asia, that he tragically died of an overdose at just 27. He was a prolific artist, producing over 2000 images in his short life, which today have sold for up to $93 million at auction.