‘Part of what I do and want to do is bring art into everyday life’ — Kenny Scharf
Offered by Christie’s Education in New York, Street Art: From Basquiat to Banksy is a short online course exploring the migration of graffiti from the fringes of the art world to its epicentre
In May this year, more than 50 works by street artists including Basquiat, Banksy, Os Gêmeos, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf were brought together online and in Christie’s London galleries for the exhibition, Off the Wall: Basquiat to Banksy.
One of the works was Banksy’s Subject to Availability — an oil painting originally featured in the guerrilla exhibition, Banksy versus Bristol Museum (2009), in which the anonymous artist and activist secretly inserted more than 100 of his works into the gallery’s displays.
The work sold for £4.6 million, while in a separate sale at Christie’s in New York, Basquiat’s skull painting In This Case (1982) went for $93.1 million. (The highest figure for a Basquiat is still the $110.5 million paid in 2017 for another skull painting, Untitled, while the auction record for Banksy is £16.75 million, set last year for Game Changer, a tribute to health workers featuring a boy playing with a nurse doll in the guise of a superhero.)
The demand for both artists, in other words, shows no sign of waning: while Basquiat is one of the best-selling artists in the world, BanksyBanksy has been voted the most popular British artist of all time. Yet half a century ago, graffiti was still widely regarded as an illegal act of vandalism emanating from a subversive subculture with links to gangland crime. So what happened?
From 14 March to 11 April, Christie’s Education will address this question in the short online course, Street Art: From Basquiat to Banksy — an exploration of how graffiti evolved into street art and migrated from the New York City Subway and the street corners of the world’s major cities into galleries, museums and auction houses.
Leading the course of five one-hour lectures is Lizy Dastin, an LA-based lecturer and acclaimed facilitator of public art programmes, who is also the founder of Art and Seeking (a digital platform that bridges the gap between the mainstream art world and the unorthodox world of street art) and co-host of the popular ‘Art Attack’ podcast with Justin BUA.
From underground to overground
Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat was part of the first generation of graffiti artists to conquer the gallery world. Growing up against a backdrop of Pop Art, hip hop and the Wildstyle graffiti of the Bronx, he started spray-painting aphorisms on the buildings of Lower Manhattan and Subway trains with his high-school classmate Al Diaz, using the pseudonym SAMO© (‘shame ol’ shit’) as their shared tag.
After coming to the attention of The Village Voice in 1978, his work featured alongside that of Haring and Scharf in the multi-artist, multi-disciplinary Times Square Show in June 1980, when Jeffrey Deitch wrote in Art in America that ‘a patch of wall painted by SAMO©, the omnipresent graffiti sloganeer, was a knockout combination of de Kooning and Subway spraypaint scribbles.’
By the following February, Basquiat was showing under his own name in the landmark exhibition New York/New Wave show at MoMA, which explored the crossover between art and music and included contributions from Blondie, Haring, Scharf and Warhol. Street art was going mainstream and Basquiat’s work continued to be informed by it, while at the same time expressing other influences, from human anatomy to his Haitian-Puerto Rican background.
From museum to auction house
BanksyBanksy emerged 10 years later, in the early 1990s. Using stencils and spraypaint like the influential French graffiti artist Blek le Rat, he started ‘bombing’ the walls of Bristol with his irreverent works of cultural criticism, moving onto London, Brighton and other cities around the world.
His carefully guarded anonymity and Pink Panther-ish ability to stay one step ahead and constantly confound expectations are all part of his appeal: his maverick CV features an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop (2010); a pop-up ‘bemusement park’, Dismaland (2015); a dystopian hotel, The Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem, and — this year — A Great British Spraycation: 10 graffiti pieces dotted around the seaside towns of the East Anglian coast, including a hermit crab holding a ‘Luxury rentals only’ placard on a sea wall in Cromer.
Naturally, the artist is not blind to the irony that the establishment has embraced his anti-establishment art: his screenprint Morons (2006) ridicules the auction world, and in 2018, the artist’s Girl with Balloon (2002) famously shredded itself after selling for $1.4 million, creating a new artwork, Love in the Bin (2018), in the process. (It’s now up for sale again, and expected to fetch up to six times as much.)
From wall to canvas
Street art, by definition, belongs on the street, bringing colour and character, often on a dizzyingly large scale, to ugly intersections, derelict buildings and dilapidated walls — so becoming a creative and exhibition space that is available and accessible to everyone. (As Kenny Scharf said: ‘Part of what I do and want to do is bring art into everyday life. If you’re just walking in the street and you’re confronted by something that might change your day — it might inspire you.’)
Many works remain site-specific: Banksy won’t authentic works that have been removed from their original settings. Yet many artists also reproduce their murals in the form of screenprints. Banksy has been creating works for sale for more than 20 years, both to democratise his art and raise funds for charities and other organisations (NHS-related, in the case of Game Changer). And for every studio work by the French street artist Invader, there is a corresponding street ‘alias’ — a work executed in a public space.
Artists inspired by graffiti tend to use figures and techniques that make them instantly recognisable: think of the barking dogs and radiant babies of Keith Haring; the line-and-dot figures of Stik; the giant yellow figures of Brazilian towns Os Gêmeos; the pixellated mosaics of Invader.
This is true of female street artists, too: Paris-born Kashink challenges the ‘absurdity of gender representation’ with her colourful comedic images of fat, hairy four-eyed men — ‘badass yet sensitive gangsters’ as she calls them; South African-born Faith47 brings lyricism and spirituality to the harsh urban environment with her giant black-and-white images of wild animals and dreamy figures; and the burqa-clad figures of Shamsia Hassani give a voice to women in her native Afghanistan.
Adding to the appeal of these artists’ works, too, is a spontaneity and an exuberance, an irreverent or subversive humour, an urgent sense of political or social injustice, a shared sense of humanity. Basquiat foregrounded the injustices of black existence; Keith Haring promoted anti-drug messaging; Stik, who was homeless for a time, highlights the ‘persistence of the vulnerable’. In 2008, a poster, Hope, by the LA-based street artist Shepard Fairey, famously went viral as the face of the Obama campaign.
Street art during lockdown
With museums and galleries closed, it is unsurprising that street art gained yet more traction during lockdown, as artists flouted regulations to venture onto deserted streets and create works that applauded health workers, lampooned politicians and poked fun at behaviour. Authorities often turned a blind eye; and indeed, with the street art of neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch, Belleville and Brooklyn increasingly attracting tourists as well as brightening lives, companies and community groups are now even paying for it.