A rt or vandalism? Street Art’s controversial history has often centered on this touchstone debate. Long associated with gangs and crime, graffiti tipped into the realm of art during the 1970s and 1980s as artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Fab Five Freddy and Blek le Rat revolutionized guerrilla tagging of the urban environment with their distinctive visions. Below are some facts about the origins of Street Art and its lasting importance today.
1. Rooted in Romance: Street Art in the contemporary sense is traced to 1960s Philadelphia when enamored teenager Daryl "Cornbread" McCray began tagging “Cornbread loves Cynthia” on buildings and walls throughout the city in an attempt to woo the object of his affection. As his fame as a vandal grew to disproportionate heights, McCray engaged in a number of increasingly public stunts, going so far as to tag the Jackson 5’s plane while they were on tour in the city. In a few short years, Cornbread singlehandedly reframed graffiti as a mode of individual expression rather than a marker of gang affiliation.
2. Runaway Trains and Dizzying Heights: During the early 1970s, graffiti art exploded across New York City with artists showcasing their daring by tagging both prominent intersections and inaccessible locations from watertowers to bridges as well as the city’s many subway trains. Certain destinations became legendary. 5 Pointz, a cluster of factory buildings in Long Island City, Queens, became a well-known hotspot for graffiti murals until its demolition in 2013, while the lower Manhattan street corner of Houston Street and Bowery has been home to murals by giants of Street Art including Keith Haring, Os Gêmeos, Swoon, JR and most recently Banksy, whose “Free Zehra Doğan” mural appeared at the location on 15 March.
3. In Rhythm: Hip-hop culture and Street Art worlds emerged together and often overlapped with many artists crossing back and forth between the two. Artist Phase 2 perfected graffiti’s emblematic bubble lettering style in early 1970s while simultaneously rising to prominence in the South Bronx hip-hop scene. Fab Five Freddy similarly released hit songs while a member of the Brooklyn based graffiti crew the Fabulous 5 and also curating groundbreaking exhibitions of Basquiat, Haring and Rammellzee.
4. Art World Wingmen: Though graffiti artists were included in exhibitions in Lower Manhattan as early as the 1970s, these artists gained increased acceptance into the art world throughout the 1980s in part due to their friendships with contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and Kenny Scharf. Keith Haring, famous for his ‘radiant baby’ tag, had his first solo exhibition at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982, and while already famed in art circles Basquiat gained widespread public acclaim through a series of collaborations with his close friend Warhol.
5. Style Wars: Emerging in a world before the Internet and Instagram, Street Art grew its audience the old fashioned way — through a series of rambunctious and gritty documentary films. The most significant among these was the 1983 Style Wars, directed by Tony Silver and produced with Henry Chalfant. Originally aired on PBS, the film absorbed the captivating spirit of young street artists attempting to express themselves in a city that considered them criminals and became the benchmark for the numerous Street Art documentaries that followed, including Banksy’s 2010 Exit Through the Gift Shop.
6. Activist Art: Since World War II, when an American soldier’s tag “Kilroy was here” inadvertently became an anti-war emblem, Street Artists have often employed their unique public platform for progressive social campaigns. Keith Haring, who lost his life to AIDs at the age of 31 in 1990, promoted anti-drug messaging with his 1986 Harlem mural Crack Is Wack and was a leading voice in AIDS and safe-sex awareness. More recently in Shepard Fary’s 2008 poster Hope became the de-facto face of the Obama presidential campaign.
7. Next Generation: Over the decades, the reach of Street Art seems only to have grown with entire neighborhoods — Bushwick in Brooklyn, Shoreditch in London, Belleville in Paris — camouflaged by it. British-born Banksy, who was influenced by French street artist Blek le Rat, is now a household name, known as much for his distinctive imagery as for his closely guarded identity. As public attitudes, and even the laws, toward Street Art have become more accepting younger generations of street artists including Barry McGee, Brazilian twins Os Gêmeos and Swoon have garnered institutional acclaim with museum exhibitions devoted to their work.
Sotheby's auction of works by Banksy opens on 6 September.