This week James Cartwright questions the relevance of street art as an underground art form and, more importantly, we want to hear what you think in the comment thread below…
Way way back in 1989 a young Shepard Fairey was showing a friend how to make stencils and inadvertently stumbled across an image that would go on to define the rest of his career – simultaneously changing the face of street art forever. The picture of wrestler Andre The Giant became an overnight sticker sensation on the American West Coast and subsequently worldwide, later rebranding to Obey; a name as ubiquitous as its Bristolian counterpart, Banksy.
Back then Obey was a very different beast to the one we know today, speaking out against rampant consumerism and a perceived Big Brother society. Stumbling across Shepard Fairey’s iconic stickers was an excitingly personal experience, letting you know that he’d been there in the flesh to communicate a message of hope.
What began as a rebellious cultural phenomenon has since become a commercial brand in its own right. In recent years Fairey has produced promotional posters for the Obama electoral campaign, revamped his clothing brand from grungy slogan hoodies and jeans to a chic fashion outlet, designed an anniversary logo for The Rolling Stones and is currently holding a large retrospective of his work at the Stolen Space gallery in London. Not bad for a guy who cut his teeth tagging walls and running from the police.
But as with all successful street artists the progression from propagandist wall-painter to commercial commodity is an uneasy one, for my money devaluing the poignant messages his work once seemed to convey and calling into question the relevance of street art as an artistic subculture. Do we really believe the rebellious slogans of a man working comfortably within the confines of an industry as financially biased as the art world?
Before the internet took over our lives, street art served as a free platform for artists to publicly communicate their ideas and ideals, but now this can be achieved with Tumblr. Street artists were the progressive creative voice of a subculture, but now Brad and Angelina come to stock up on art at their shows. Given this new relationship with the mainstream do we really feel that street art is relevant anymore? The artists themselves still claim to be revolutionaries and their rich patrons purchase their work to buy into that credibility, but the anti-authority messages are harder to swallow in the white walls of a gallery where there’s champagne on tap.