Street Art: transforming the ordinary

OS GÊMEOS, ‘Electronic Eyes,’ 2011, sold for $100,000 at Phillips in May 2012. Photo courtesy of Phillips and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Transforming the mundane into the monumental, street artists create public art that not only turns ordinary buildings or streets into public art but can also raise social consciousness.

Street art, or “urban art,” has been defined as art made in public locations for the community to enjoy, usually on streets, buildings, freeways or highway dividers. While it has its roots in graffiti as many examples, particularly in the heady 1980s when this art genre started to take form, were unsanctioned, often created under cover of night, street art has grown over time to become a respectable form of artistic expression. It’s also become a worldwide phenomenon.

“I think the place which I was most amazed by was the Ukraine, in particular Kiev of course,” said Rafael Schacter, author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, in a 2013 interview with L.A. Taco. “The three artists we feature from there – Interesni Kazki, Homer (Sasha Kurmaz), and Vova Vorotniov – are three of my favorites in the entire book, all totally different from each other, but all amazingly interesting. The combination of the influence of ‘Western’ graffiti culture and the communist visual culture they all grew up with has created a quite unique aesthetic, something which just looks so totally new and fresh to my eye.”

The most famous name associated with street art is the English artist known as Banksy, whose career began in the mid-1990s in Bristol and who closely guards his identity to this day. “His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humor with graffiti executed in a distinctive stenciling technique. His works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world,” according to Wikipedia.

Banksy, ‘Kissing Coppers, Brighton,’ circa 2005, attained $480,000 at Fine Art Auctions Miami in a street art auction in February 2014. Photo courtesy of Fine Art Auctions Miami and LiveAuctioneers

Banksy helped street art go mainstream.

“The market was largely driven by Banksy who had achieved an incredible degree of success and some notoriety by operating on his own terms outside the traditional gallery system. His celebrated ‘Barely Legal’ show in LA in 2006 was attended by so many A-List Hollywood stars that the coverage put him on the global map and at the same time bought a much wider focus on to street art,” says Gareth Williams, head of Bonhams’ Contemporary Art department in New York.

An untitled spray paint and acrylic and marker pen on canvas from 2009 by Taki 183 (b 1954) realized $13,870 in a Bonhams London auction in April 2013. Photo © Bonhams

Banksy had this to say about street art. “Graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually the most honest art form available … The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit … Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal. A city where everybody could draw wherever they liked, where every street was awash with a million colors and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city like that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall-it’s wet,” (Banksy, Banksy Wall and Piece, London, 2007, p. 8 & 85).

Aside from Banksy, whose works are highly sought after by international collectors at auction, JR, KAWS, Os Gêmeos are major names in the field, as are West Coast U.S. pioneers Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, Williams added.

Barry McGee, street art installation, sold for $160,000 at Clars Auction Gallery in November 2017. Barry McGee (American, b. 1966) and Sandow Birk (American, b. 1962), ‘La Migra,’ 1995, oil on 60 metal panels, painting installation, overall: 134 in. x 102 in. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, are of course two of the first street artists and always worth collecting, said Wade Terwilliger, co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Fla. “We sometimes forget that they really legitimized street art … some names to watch for and add to your collection are Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Barry McGee, Mr Brainwash, Retna, Invader, Crash … As always, we recommend collecting artists you are attracted to as prices, especially with street art, can fluctuate and also know the provenance/who you are dealing with on expensive works.”

The artist who goes by the moniker of KAWS is also a leading street artist. Hailing from Jersey City, N.J., Brian Donnelly started graffiti on billboards and posters in the late 1980s. At New York City’s renowned School of Visual Arts, he married street art with commercial design. KAWS has since gone on to produce limited-edition toys and streetwear, to great acclaim.

In the work pictured below, KAWS’ work pays homage to Andy Warhol’s Pop stylings but the cartoonish and surrealistic look echo Peter Saul’s work. “The crossed out ‘X’ eyes, considered to be the artist’s signature, add emotion (or lack thereof) to the work. Utilizing his signature motif, KAWS is able to mutate and add feeling to the works. The humorous cartoon nature of the compositions is juxtaposed with the more sinister skull-shape heads. Whether intentional or not, the contradictory effect asks the viewer to seek out and answer question about life and death,” according to a Heritage Auctions catalog.

KAWS (b. 1974) untitled (four works), 1999, acrylic on canvas, sold for at $105,000 at Heritage Auctions in May 2016. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Os Gêmeos, which in Portuguese means “twins” is how identical twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo go by as artists. Born and raised in Sao Paulo, the brothers started out in the late 1990s as graffiti artists but have moved into painting, sculpture and installation, inspired by their Brazilian culture and heritage.

“While much of their imagery is derived from everyday scenes, a significant aspect originates in the imaginary land of Tritrez, a dream world created and experienced only by the brothers, where they have developed an innovative and sometimes surreal visual vocabulary,” according to an auction catalog by Phillips, which has sold several choice works by Os Gêmeos.

Tips for beginning collectors?

“Develop a feel for what you like. You can do this by getting to know artists’ works, preferably by viewing them in situ on our city’s streets where they are at their most raw and authentic,” Williams says. “Check out some of the books on the subject, a lot of street art vanishes pretty quickly so the photos are a lasting legacy of the works and give you a broader sense of how artists’ styles develop. Visit some galleries and invest in a few prints to hang at home and then when you have built up the confidence to make the leap spend a little more on an original artwork. I promise it will be a rewarding experience.”