Wonder walls: the rise and rise of grafitti art

So, how would you feel if someone sprayed the side of your house with aerosol paint graffiti? Would you expect the local authorities to eventually clean it off or would you hope they would slam a protection order on it? If you lived in New York there is a chance that art would be protected and in the UK city of Bristol there would be a third option, your neighbours could vote on whether it could stay or be removed. Graffiti art, eh? What’s it all about then? Mindless vandalism ripping apart the fabric of society or high art worthy of artistic reverence and protection? Depends which side of the wall you’re on, but one thing is for sure graffiti art has never been bigger.

Story Andy Round

Take anonymous UK graffiti artist Banksy. He has been spraying walls for years and in his home town of Bristol the local council has become the first in Britain to allow a public vote on whether certain graffiti works should be removed or not. Images are posted on a website and people log on to say yah or nay.

The move follows a public debate in 2006 over whether a Banksy mural – featuring a man hanging out of a window – should be allowed to stay. The public said it should. “It was ludicrous to spend money scrubbing off a work people actually liked, it had become a tourist attraction,” said a council spokesman.

And Bristol’s not alone. New York City council recently began an incredible renovation of graffiti works by the likes of Futura 2000, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. The names might mean nothing, but their prices will. A work by Basquiat, whose tag was SAMO, sold for US$1.5 million in 2005 and two years ago a Haring work achieved US$2.8 million at Christie’s.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that a Haring work on a handball court on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was restored to its former fluorescent glory; a Haring mural discovered behind a cupboard of a West Broadway Triplex added US$100,000 to the price of the apartment and to mark the 50th anniversary of his birth a 25-metre Haring work ‘Gotham Scenic’ was recreated at a cost of US$30,000. Even more money was spent on a team of restoration experts who were called to ‘lift’ work by Basquiat and Futura 2000 from a warehouse wall and remount it on a wood panel for a museum in 2008.

What seems so deliciously ironic is that New York in the 1980s prided itself on removing any graffiti as quickly as possible as part of a zero tolerance approach to crime. Now the city’s fathers are restoring these works.

But of course, graffiti is a worldwide art form. And each city throws up its spray can super hero. In Melbourne, Rone’s highly detailed close ups of women’s faces dominate the alleys; in Sao Paulo, Speto and Nunca’s woodcuts march along freeways; Doma Collective cartoons cover Buenos Aires and in Paris the stencils of Blek le Rat are regarded as a national treasure.

Le Rat is a 57-year who was forced to hang up his aerosols after the city authorities bound him over to keep the peace and convicted him on numerous counts of vandalism. Not to worry, he still manages comfortably survive on commissions, posters of his work, gallery exhibitions and a series of books.

He’s not alone. There are plenty of graffiti artists like Le Rat making more than enough money to keep themselves and their families in spray cans. In the European capital of Brussels giant murals by a variety of artists brighten downtown parts of the city, in LA graffiti artist Norm takes commissions from hotels while in Toronto Erica Gosich Rose aka EGR has illustrated magazines, books and albums as well as selling her work direct galleries.

And this is all very well and good, but the most successful graffiti artist of all time has got to be Banksy. Nobody epitomises the divisive discussions on graffiti more. For many he is the ultimate urban commentator casting a wry eye on society and the nature of art. When his first ‘proper’ exhibition opened in Bristol last year, he was a sell out attracting more than 350,000 visitors.

Pre-credit crunch, the artist sold US$6 million worth of work at an LA show to the likes of Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera. His art has appeared on the cover of a Blur album and he has refused millions to do work for Nike, although he did complete a stencil for Greenpeace. His work is infantile or incisive depending on your view and features bombers throwing flowers, policemen hugging each other, rats with paint brushes, the queen as a chimp, Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Disneyland, the Mona Lisa with a smiley face or Andy Warhol painted on a cow.

The Times art critic Simon Franklin says: “What exactly are you buying when you buy a Banksy? A status symbol. A work that has no value as art. Does owning one make you modern or clever? Or stupid. It’s a fine line.” Urban art specialist Gareth Williams at Bonhams auction house disagrees. “Look, Banksy’s work is more accessible than conceptional art. He has a political edge and he’s funny, that appeals to a new generation of collectors.”

Not everyone’s a collector though. A seven-metre-high Banksy stencil in London showed a policeman filming a girl while she painted the words ‘One nation under CCTV’ was recently removed by local authorities who said, “If you condone this then what is the difference between this and other graffiti scrawled across the city?”

And that in a nutshell is the heart of the graffiti controversy. But one thing is certain, it will always be with us. Wherever there is a wall someone will be tempted to deface it, whether it’s the humorous work of Swoon and Blu on the giant West Bank partition or the popularist works of political agitation and comedy that covered the Berlin Wall. It’s human nature. Mankind has been tagging the walls of history since the days of hairy mammoth outlines and stick men in prehistoric caves. It shows no signs of slowing down now.

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