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Outsider art

11 March 2009
Published in Culture
by Katy Fentress

clampedtoy2An image painted on a wall in London’s Portobello road, depicts a French painter standing by an easel, looking on with satisfaction at the results of his work. His gaze rests on some large, graffiti-style letters that spell out the word Banksy.

Although this may not be the most famous piece of work by the artist known only as Banksy, it probably is the one that best encompasses the tension surrounding people who choose to express themselves on the walls of our cities.

For the last few years there has been a lot of hype surrounding Banksy and some of his equally elusive contemporaries.  Today, items from their collections sell at major auction houses for up to six figure sums.

Graphic prints produced by a group of New Yorkers known as the Faile Collective, have price tags that sometimes hit the £50,000 mark, while Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt famously bought a Banksy piece for £1 million in October 2007.

Yet with all the media attention, it is easy to miss out on one glaring fact: writing on walls without proper authorisation is considered an act of vandalism and is thus an offence punishable by law.

In 2008, the Home Office declared that people found guilty of making graffiti could be issued with an antisocial behaviour order or be sentenced to up to 3 ½ years behind bars.

Sam McMillan, 38, is one of the managers at Lazarides, one of the few London art galleries that deal in works by Banksy and other artists of this kind. According to him, councils just can’t make up their minds what to do: “one minute we have Westminster city council saying that they are going to paint over Banksy’s work because it sends out the wrong message and the next we hear that Camden has moved to restore one of his stencils that have been painted over!”

The art history establishment has traditionally considered graffiti to be “more about text and symbolic imagery than about what we in the modern world would call art” says Dr Caroline Goodson, 36, a professor Birkbeck University.

Many of the people who do graffiti would probably agree. Being a writer (as graffiti artists call themselves) has traditionally been about juggling artistic talent with the buzz of actually getting a piece done.

elk-cans2-850-1“There’s no question about it,” says the British writer Elk  (who asked that his real name not be revealed): “I started writing my name on walls around the age of 11 and did it because I knew it was naughty”

At fifteen, Elk went on to paint his first train: “It was like stepping through the wardrobe and into another world. All of a sudden I felt like I had really crossed into the illegal and I just loved the buzz it gave me.”

Yet in order to paint trains, graffiti artists put themselves at incredible risk:  “I once got raided in a yard while I was painting a Circle line train,” recalls Elk. “There was nowhere to go. I was just about to finish my piece and all of a sudden they were coming from every direction.

“In a panic I climbed under a train and into the undercarriage but there was nothing to hold onto so I just pressed myself up like Spiderman and kind of hooked my buttock onto a lump of metal.

“After they’d left, I managed to climb out under the wheels but had to watch out because by now the electricity had come on and I risked electrocuting myself. It was the closest to death I’ve ever come, I’ve known people who have gone that way…”

Sam MacMillan, who has closely followed the careers of many of today’s street artists, feels that at a certain point the people who had started out doing graffiti began to look for different ways to express themselves: “Graffiti was the seed,” he says, “but as kids grew older they began to experiment with painting images and making sculptures and no longer wanted to just tag their names.” He feels that these artists maintained their sense of bravado and it is from this combination that the movement now known as Street Art was born.

Caroline Goodson, who last year organised a symposium on graffiti at Birkbeck University, recognises that there has been a shift in the way the academic establishment views graffiti and Street Art: “Artists took over previously overlooked media such as spray cans, markers and stencils. This is very much what happened during the Surrealist movement and the Arte Povera movement in Italy. At first, people didn’t get any credibility but as time went on, perceptions began to change”

Cans Festival is a Street Art event that took place under Waterloo Bridge in London at the beginning of May 2008. On the day the tunnel gallery opened to the public, thousands of people queued for hours for get a chance to see the artwork.

MacMillan feels that Cans Festival was a seminal moment for the movement: “The fact that someone could get National Rail, Eurostar, the police, the council and the mayor to endorse a whole street designated to spray can art, signifies a major shift in cultural perceptions.

“It would never have happened without someone like Banksy,” MacMillan comments. “It’s not like Redbull said ‘we’ll pay you two squillion if you let us do this thing.’ There was no money involved, it was just born out of belief and trust in a new movement.”

There remains however a fear that as street art becomes increasingly mainstream, it might lose some of the edginess that originally defined it. “Unlike a lot of other art forms, the temporariness of graffiti is really important,” says Goodson, adding: ” it’s ephemeral and reactive and that’s what makes it so fascinating yet so difficult to study”

Elk doesn’t see that the change has really affected writers. If anything he sees there is still a real lack of legal spaces for writers to go and paint.

“It’s a real tragedy that kids don’t have somewhere to go but at the same time,” Elk says, “even if there were such a space, there’s always going to be a disturbed angry young man that is going to go against it.”

MacMillan definitely does not feel street artists are losing their edge, if anything he believes that they’ve created a new one. “Look at what Banksy has been doing,” he points out, “he is passionate about so many different causes and gives almost all of his money to charity. What artist has ever done that?”

MacMillan goes on to describe the work of JR, 25, a Parisian Street Artist with a Tunisian and Eastern European background. He says that JR has managed to focus worldwide attention on forgotten places like the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the Slums of Nairobi.

One of JR’s techniques is to photograph the inhabitants of these places and then create huge billboard-size images that he plasters back onto their roofs. MacMillan stresses that: “JR doesn’t only bask in the publicity of his art. In every place he has worked he has gone back and invested in social projects.”

Elk maintains that graffiti is mainly the product of people who “come from broken homes and have disturbed backgrounds”.  If this is the case, then it makes sense that as these people grow up, they stop focussing on their teenage angst and start to direct the sensibility they have developed towards making art that deals with larger social issues.

The situation is not simple and it is understandable that the authorities have a hard time marking out boundaries between what is and is not acceptable. It does however seem that the law veers towards punishing youngsters solely intent on leaving their territorial markings but letting off the hook those same people once they are older and focus less on themselves and more on issues of substance and style.

“There is definitely a correlation between the drive of a big graffiti King and their home life.” concludes MacMillan, adding: “whether they should be punished for their greatness is a matter for debate.”