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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Urban or Street Art, a short incomplete history.

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Part 1: Highly political graffiti

Forty years of protean art made up of polemics, paradoxes, wide gaps, and gray areas. If street art is known to everyone today, its history remains obscure for most of the public.

Street art still suffers from a certain snobbery on the part of the artistic community, yet it is one of the most significant chapters in art history. This chapter, generously told here, presents the work of fifty creators who have made expression in public space an artistic practice. The route begins with Gérard Zlotykamien and Jacques Villeglé.

Considered like the godfathers of the genre, they prefigure a misunderstanding that has persisted for years: the history of street art could only be written by those who submit to the codes of history of art, speak its language and integrate its modes of display.

What then to do with those evolving outside of any artistic concern? The roots of this movement could be read from ancient Greece to the Arab Spring when words are invited on the walls and accompany popular uprisings. "The ancient support for inscriptions still serves as a thermometer of social life. As its temperature rises, the wall is covered with graffiti," said Brassaï. And when an original aesthetic arises from such a context, street art is in ambush. It is the case in Los Angeles where, from the 1950s, appeared cholo writing. These wild calligraphies, inspired by Gothic typography, were intended to delimit the territory of the Latino gangs and currently feed the work of artists like Retna or Chaz Bojorquez.

May 1968: in Paris, the Beaux-Arts serigraphy workshops show political slogans with singular graphics, which will mark the collective unconscious of the following generations. We could also cite the graffiti of the hobos, these vagabonds of North America communicating with each other by pictograms drawn in oil pastel. Or the pichaçãos of the favelas' children, who colonize the facades of the buildings of São Paulo with great strokes. All these vernacular languages, carefully stylized, constitute fertile ground for the emergence of street art. But because they most often escape any form of "artification", these practices and their authors rarely have a say.

Part 2: A new generation stands up

For the street art adventure to start, there was only one notion missing: play. In the exhibitions, the official story, therefore, begins with Philadelphia and New York. , when a handful of teenagers are taken to acute scriptural addiction. In America in the late 1960s, the children of concrete walk through the city, armed with markers and an aerosol canister. Cornbread, Taki 183, Julio 204, Barbara 62 become the new heroes of the youth then promised to drugs and gangs. For fun, for glory, whole legions of kids are caught up in the game. "Names had blossomed on all walls," wrote Norman Mailer in the first essay devoted to the phenomenon, in 1974 ( The Faith of Graffiti). A jungle of climbing egos had flourished after a series of psychic storms that had broken out over New York, like unwritten history. And the rain then blew in a storm. The press talks about graffiti; kids prefer to talk about writing . Writing practiced like a sport, the name as a religion.

But the litany is not enough for the disciples of the following generations. You have to stand out. Write more, write better, and, above all, invent an aesthetic. "Imposing your name is imposing your style," explains Phase 2, an actor from the start. Your signature is your identity. It's not about being better than another; it's about being unique. "So the writers are no longer content to write; they draw their name and represent themselves in capital letters. Street art was born, with the alphabet as a vector of creativity. Far from art schools, it is in the darkness of metro depots that street art forges its history. The masters are called Super Kool 223, Cliff 139, Tracy 168, Flint 707, Phase 2. Nourished by comics, advertising, psychedelic graphics, they digest mass culture and spit it out in a visual, flowery and colorful slang. Their lettering breaks down, dances, and clashes in a surge of shapes and colors. "Styles really changed during the 1970s," recalls Daze. The soft letters were followed by mechanical, wild letters. Each reinterpreted the innovations of the others in their way. "This artistic language, abstruse for ordinary people, is very orderly, structured in various schools, with its masters, its classicism and its avant-garde. In a virile body-to-body with the street, graffiti evolves according to strict, unspoken rules, without a manifesto or other teaching than that of observation and practice.

Blade, Dondi, Crash, and other Futura 2000 then transpose their painting onto the canvas and refine their language. These treasures, now unearthed in the "Street Generation (s)" exhibition, bear witness to a real artistic ambition. "For many, the work they carried out in the workshop is simultaneous with that which they deployed in the city, specifies Magda Danysz. Futura 2000, for example, began exploring abstraction on the side of metros while continuing its research on canvas. This allowed all these artists to develop further experiments and, very early, to present their work in the gallery.

So, while the municipality of New York ended up trying to curb what it considers to be a scourge, graffiti has entered the art world. Thanks to wide media coverage and a few smugglers, it spread to European capitals in the 1980s and spread to the four corners of the planet. As worthy heirs, the kids from the old continent continue to conquer the city, the quest for style. Globalized, graffiti is now an autonomous artistic movement.

Part 3: Worldwide explosion of Street Art

With the arrival of the new millennium, urban art comes out of hiding. It becomes trendy, bankable . Displayed in XXL on the facades of our cities, it attracts tourists ready to pay 20 euros to afford a "street art tour", collects more than 25 million hashtags on Instagram, invites itself to prestigious institutions such as the Villa Medici in Rome. Worse, or better said collectors, he won 1.23 million euros in an auction in London for a Banksy stencil. This Briton, an essential reference in the contemporary street art scene, embodies the genius and deviances of a movement combining creativity, business, and communication.

In a rush, the market is looking for stars, the pioneers, and other major figures of a current whose history has long been written in the shadows. And the temptation to "manufacture" quarries is all the easier since we sometimes witness a curious mixture of genres, as RCF1 reminds us: "Oddly, these people who call themselves experts often have a foothold in the market. And when they rewrite our history, whole sections are passed over in silence, for lack of knowledge or because it does not serve their interests. From the start, however, we took care to document our practices, we produced fanzines, magazines, books. The sources exist. It is still necessary to take the trouble to take an interest in it. But in this millennium 2.0, everything is going very fast, and what we do today will be obsolete tomorrow. Surfing on new modes of communication, the current generation is darkening and not turning around. The web - both a public space to conquer and a formidable propaganda tool - becomes the showcase of a globalized art. Immediately produced, the works are appreciated in situ as well as on the other side of the planet on the screen of a smartphone, touching an audience as vast as street art itself.

In essence, illegal, free and ephemeral, street art sometimes falls into harmless decoration when it finds itself subsidized by town halls, promoters, or galleries.

Virality responds to the multiplicity of fields of expression. Painting, collage, sculpture, installation, video, performance, as many practices revisited, reappropriated according to the course, and the sensitivity of each. Like Alexandre Bavard, 2016 winner of the Revelation young talents in the urban art competition, organized by the ADAGP (society of authors in graphic and plastic arts) and the Palais de Tokyo. Illustrating the gestures of graffiti through performance, his tag becomes the score of the choreographies he presents in the street or institutions.

Trade and dispute: Shepard Fairey sails between these two waters. From the art of propaganda to assumed merchandising, he displays his political ideas in favor of Obama and detractor from Trump. As for JR, he pays homage to the invisible by posting his giant photographs on national monuments as in the favelas. Banksy, again, is a master to denounce the excesses of our society. His latest coup: the opening of a luxurious arty hotel in the West Bank with a view of the separation wall. And the Spanish Escif is currently putting his art at the service of a reforestation program in southern Italy, through a crowdfunding campaign.

So many examples, here of engagement, there of compromise, who make a thousand faces of a movement in the image of our society: plural, contradictory, agitated, and elusive. As for its history, there are many chapters that have yet to be written. Time will sort it out. We are still in the era of the image and the oral; there are not enough theoretical writings. Researchers and academics to take up the subject. One thing is certain; the art world intelligentsia missed an episode. Some admit it; others still refuse to consider street art at its real value. But the tsunami has already happened. All the kids in the world know what we're talking about. Among them, future museum directors or art critics will continue to deepen the discourse.

Beaux Arts


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