No matter where you live, you’ve probably seen at least a few examples of street art – the art of people for whom the paper is just not enough. I like street art, but only if it’s done well. You know, some of them are nice, amazing even, but then there are some that just makes you sad. Today, I won’t be talking about kids who just got a paint spray bottle and think they are masters of the art, I’d rather study how it all started, and how it evolved into what we see today.
The earliest example of public self-expression was certainly the graffiti, this is where we’ll start from.
Where did it all start?
Well, probably somewhere in a cave of a prehistoric human. Some tired guy walks into his cave after a long day of hunting, leans on the wall with his dirty hand and voila! His handprint is on the wall now! Next thing you know, he got curious and started experimenting with it.
This is his masterpiece. It dates from 13, 000 – 9, 000 BCE. The artist got so far as creating a special tool for this task – a tube made of bone, which he used to blow paint (most likely, blood, ash, and juice of some fruits) at the stone wall while holding his hand against it. Quite masterful for a troglodyte, don’t you think?
Rome – Place Where Penis Art Was Born
Now we all know that sometimes while experimenting you can get really overexcited and as a result, we get…well…this.
Man’s desire to draw his genitals and pornography is not a recent phenomenon. This extraordinary piece of art is depicted on an ancient Roman wall, alongside with carved images of phalluses, faces and a person in the middle of a sexual act. This is why women say: ”Men never change”.
Rome is home to many fascinating things (the previous photo is a proof), and amongst them is Alexamenos Graffito. This graffiti was created around 200 AD and is the earliest known image of Jesus Christ. It should be noted that Christianity was roundly derided in Rome at that time, and Christians were believed to engage in a religious practice called Onolatry (donkey worship,) which would explain the depiction of Jesus Christ as a humanoid donkey. Obviously, the purpose of this graffiti was to insult some Christian named Alexamenos – Jesus is represented here with the body of a man and the head of a Donkey. This inscription is made on the wall of a boarding school for the Roman nobles’ messenger boys. It is clearly a drawing that one student scratched onto the wall to tease another student named Alexamenos. Perhaps Alexamenos expressed an affinity for Christianity and his peer took the opportunity to make fun of the boy by scribbling a cartoon of Alexamenos’ god.
The graffiti also includes a person with his left hand in the air as if he is praying to the crucified Jesus. The Greek inscription reads “Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. ϲεβετε” which means “Alexamenos worships his God.”
On the side note: this can not be considered as proof of the existence of Christ; it rather proves that Romans were familiar with the legend of Jesus Christ during the early third century.
Scribbles, or an early form of graffiti, were quite popular in the Roman Empire. In Pompeii, over 11000 scribbles can be found. Citizens used this method to advertise houses for rent, political campaigns, records of debts, even prostitutes would write their announcements on the walls.
Poems were also actively scribbled on the walls, but for sure, not as frequently as penises.
The Church and Graffiti
I won’t talk much about the middle ages simply because the whole graffiti and personal expression thing were shoved under the roofs of churches.
From beasts and demons to Latin and Hebrew prayers for the dead, the walls of medieval churches and cathedrals are covered with inscriptions and doodles. Even on the interior walls of one of the most popular churches in Georgia – Svetitskhoveli – you’ll find some interesting stuff (some of which you would not expect to be in a Georgian Orthodox cathedral).
So, yes, I’ll be skipping the middle ages and up to late 18th century, because religious muralism is a completely different topic and in between 15th-18th centuries nothing of significance in relation to street art has happened.
Kyselak – Grandfather of Modern Graffiti
This man is considered to be the first “tagger”. “Tagging” is actually one of the earliest forms of contemporary graffiti. So, who was this Kyselak? He was an Austrian civil servant, mountaineer and travel writer. Okay, but why on earth would he tag his name onto buildings and stuff? I’m positive that you’ve seen tags on buildings, rocks, and trees like “Eddy was here 2004”. People especially tend to do this while traveling but in Tbilisi, you will see masterpieces like this on the walls of communal hallways too. It’s a stupid thing to do, really, but people still do this and so did Kyselak in the 19th century.
While he was hiking around the Austrian Empire, he tagged his name EVERYWHERE. He became so popular that Emperor Francis I of Austria himself ordered him to stop this vandalism, Kyselak promised to comply, but as soon as he left the palace, his name and date were already engraved on the Emperor’s desk. From what we can deduct, that he never had any intentions of transforming his activity into art.
This is not a story just about graffiti. Although street art owes a huge part of its glory to this type of artistic expression – it is a fascinating art. Everything I told you until now was to show you that things like this don’t just spontaneously appear out of nowhere, without any prelude.
Some really unexpected things, too, have influenced street art along the way. However, street art owes European revolutionary politics for its rebellious character. The stencil came to aid to communicate propaganda.
If you’re familiar with Benito Mussolini and his fascist propaganda, then you might also know that he was the king of the stencil. These stencils share many of the basic features of contemporary street art. For example, their function was to communicate with masses on the streets and well, to freak them out a bit – bumping into Mussolini’s fat face on every corner was not really what someone would wish for. And this wasn’t just in Rome, Florence and Milan were exploding with Benito’s portraits too.
The idea of an image as an icon that’s reproduced over and over again, is one of the basic characteristics of street art since its origin. Also, one of the most important aspects of this fast production of icons is that it was done by anonymous people with no other intention than to support the cause. Society was not only the target of this propaganda but also the author of it.
Quite ironically, the stencil was also the weapon of choice for anti-fascist movements, like the White Rose Resistance Group in Germany and the May 1968 Student Movement in France.
Another clear example of the mix of sociopolitical ideas with art in public spaces was the Chicano mural movement in the 1960s. It’s was a weapon of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants to fight for their rights. They started to raise their voices, mostly muted at that time, in an effort to demand better representation in all levels of society.
This movement got great support from students. Thanks to them the information started to spread with high speed in the form of posters and murals. It was a way to show the identity and history of a forgotten part of society.
Black Pride movement, particularly in the demonstrations of pride made great use of this art form.
By 1960s every aspect of contemporary street art was already in place: tags, stencils, posters, murals. It was already obvious that it was going to be one of the biggest art revolutions of the late 20th century.
Artists Take the Charge
The first traces of public visual expression in the modern period didn’t have much artistic nature in them, they served a different cause, but most certainly helped develop what urban art is today. This is when things started to get artistic, this is when artists took the stage.
In the 1960s one of the pioneers of the urban art movement who left his studio for the streets was Gerard Zlotykamien. He might not be as well-known as others but he certainly is an important figure. He is best known for his drawings, black silhouettes, which he calls “éphéméres”, that evoke human shadows of the Hiroshima victims. A precursor of ephemeral art, his work can be seen all around the world, appearing mostly in places devoted to renovation or destruction. His simple but highly vivid line is instantly recognizable. If you don’t know the idea behind his works, they sure look like crap.
In 70s USA Charles Simonds emerged with his “Little People Dwellings”. In France, Ernest Pignon-Ernest started using the urban environment as a playground. His work consists of posters that mix ancient and modern elements to create emotion. Many other names can be mentioned, like Daniel Buren, but let’s just stop here.
The impact of this subversive culture was at its peak during the 70s and 80s, early graffiti writers really co-opted this philosophy. They started tagging their names (just like Kyselak), which means to use elaborate typography to encode their names, on the sides of building and subway cars. This was also the time when artists influenced by rap, hip-hop, punk and new wave countercultures took to the streets to communicate with members of their private groups.
Street art became a ground for experimenting with different kinds of methodologies, but it never lost its rebellious nature. Rap legend Fab 5 Freddy was intimately tied to the graffiti community through artists including Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Haring has become a household name in the history of street art, best known for his public art installations on subways in New York in the 1980s. His style was distinct – he was known for bold outlines, vivid colors and his signature “radiant baby” motif, influenced by the AIDS crisis.
Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career by spraying-painting enigmatic epigrams. Today, his pieces reside in the private collections of nearly every major institution and in the private collections of many prominent collectors. To be honest, his works look like scribbles for a six-year-old, but, hey, he’s a renowned artist.
Many artists started to use the street as a field ready to be explored and tested. The concept of the city as an art gallery was born and with it, a first wave of what we now call street artists were placing their work on the walls of cities all over the planet. One of them is a mysterious artist whose name is synonymous with street art in Britain. He goes by a pseudonym – Banksy (by the way, he completely transformed views of this art form with his documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop”).
Barry McGee is considered the be one of the most pivotal members of the movement. His work is inspired by the bold, cartoon-like forms, which he uses to draw attention to homeless people.
And not to leave women out of the picture – Margaret Kilgallen. She was a strong voice in the community and one of the few recognized female artists in the field. Her work showed a strong influence from folk art. Kilgallen rendered all her work by hand without preparatory drawings or masking tape in order to express the handmade quality of each piece. Her paintings showcase women engaging in a variety of everyday activities that include biking and surfing.
Street art and graffiti techniques continue to evolve. Many artists working today have achieved mainstream success, like American artist Shepard Fairey and French artist Invader. Fairey first gained international attention during the 2008 U.S. presidential election with his iconic “Hope” poster, which features then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
“Take it to the Streets”
It’s really difficult to set a time and a place for the birth of street or urban art. I would argue that its history is as old as humanity. The common idiom “to take to the streets” has been used for years to reflect a diplomatic arena for people to protest, riot or rebel.
This paragraph from theartstory.org perfectly describes the philosophy behind this movement: “The underlying impetus behind Street Art grew out of the belief that art should function in opposition to, and sometimes even outside of, the hegemonic system of laws, property, and ownership; be accessible, rather than hidden away inside galleries, museums, and private collections; and be democratic and empowering, in that all people (regardless of race, age, gender, economic status, etc.) should be able to create art and have it be seen by others.” So you see, revolutionary practices are deeply rooted in the concept of street art.