Visual Arts

The hidden world of street art: Talent and territory wars

The Street Art London tour around Old Street, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green is filled with artistic goodness.
Michelle Stimler Morris reports. 

The other week in New York, one of Banksy’s antics included setting up a street vendor outside Central Park with his works, along with instructions to sell them as knock-off’s for $60 each. The vendor only sold three. The Daily Mail called this “a fantastic prank,” as they are actually worth thousands. But really, street art enthusiasts know that the point is more than that. It shows that the value of Banksy’s art is as much about perception as it is about the pieces themselves.

Street art being all about perception is something realised on the Street Art London tour.

So many workers hurry to work past Roa’s piece on the corner of Rivington and Great Eastern Street on the way to the office. But how many of them stop to look at the 10ft pointillistic monochrome mongoose and think that the Belgian artist is trying to point out how wildlife survives in an urban environment? Street art is a genre beleaguered by a problem of perception as it wasn’t accorded value by a gallery.

Passing the point: Roa’s black and white Mongoose on the corner of Rivington and Great Eastern Street.

Passing the point: Roa’s black and white Mongoose on the corner of Rivington and Great Eastern Street.

Although the tour around Shoreditch costs £15, it’s really is the feet that pay the price of the four and a half hour walk. But it’s worth every step. Anyone that thinks street art is just a matter of spray painted tags, is in for surprise as there is more craft than is assumed.

The tour starts off outside Old Street Station, and zig-zags through Shoreditch ending up in Bethnal Green. Led by Karim Samuels, a tall guy with sunkissed skin and a black rucksack splattered with specks of paint, the 15 people-strong group was largely comprised of wide-eyed middle class folk.

All preconceptions of street art are smashed when the tour guide leads the group to the pavement outside coffee house the Shoreditch Grind and points down at the pavement. The group bents down to squint at a vibrant little painting the size of a fifty piece coin.

Why waste? Ben Wilson's inventive chewing gum art piece intricately dated 27.07.2013

Why waste? One of Ben Wilson’s inventive chewing gum art pieces, intricately dated 27.07.2013

Ben Wilson, a 50 year-old creative eccentric from Muswell Hill has painted more than 10,000 pieces of discarded chewing gum across the UK and Europe. Wilson uses a small blow torch along with acrylic enamel before sealing it with a clear lacquer. His bright, simplistic style is reminiscent of David Hockney.

TECHNIQUE

Other mediums employed by street artists include paste-ups, stencils, mosaics, 3D installations and of course spray paint.  Street art is ruled by a class system. At the top of the spectrum are freehand spray-paint users. LA artist El Mac has mastered this in a unique way. He creates incredibly detailed photorealistic images. One on Hewett Street features a moustachioed cowboy in a hat with shadowed contours to give a 3D effect. He does this by putting his spray paints on ice which lowers the can pressure and allows him to have more control of the paint.

Yeehaw: El Mac's Cowboy on Hewett Street

Yeehaw: El Mac’s Cowboy on Hewett Street

Another master of the free-hand form is Phlegm, from Sheffield. He creates complex monochrome Tim-Burton like characters. Like Roa and El Mac, his style is so unique and meticulous that people can recognise it without a signature. Samuels points to the one on Rivington Street next to Roa’s mongoose saying: “It’s about three years old. That’s old in terms of street art years!”

These “purist” graffiti artists look down on pieces that are partly created off-site, because it doesn’t involve as much risk.

Then there are those who use spray paint with stencils. Banksy, the most famous example, prepares his stencils at home to speed up paint time and avoid getting caught. Either because Banksy sells his art commercially or because he uses stencils, he attracts a lot of “disrespect” from other artists.

This is evident in the Banksy piece we see in Bethnal Green. The Perspex covering it has been broken, and the piece partly painted over. Samuels tells the group that in other places where vandals couldn’t break the glass, they’ve poured paint behind it. It’s ironic that councils used to spend a lot of money covering up his works and now spend a lot maintaining them.

Broken codes and broken arts: The violated 2003 Banksy piece titled "Yellow Lines Flower Painter" on Pollard Street.

Broken codes and broken arts: The violated 2003 Banksy piece titled “Yellow Lines Flower Painter” on Pollard Street.

These vandals broke the unwritten codes of conduct in the street art world.

What's this? Mobstr's collaboration with Hackney Council on the King John Court bridge.

What’s this? Mobstr’s collaboration with Hackney Council on the King John Court bridge.

Risks include getting caught and arrested, as many have been, or whether the chosen spot will get painted over and how soon. The London-based street artist Mobstr, famous for his sarcastic typography, actually provoked Hackney Council to collaborate with him on a piece. Knowing that councils rarely colour match the paint to the wall to cover graffiti, one at a time Mobstr painted portions on the King John Court bridge, leading to it being painted over in the shape of a question mark.

“It’s an image war,” Samuels explains. “Between street artists, graffiti and councils.”

COMMISIONS

With all the background stories Samuels tells, there seem to be two types of artists that emerge. Some artists are graffiti mongering outlaws. Others start out like that, and then hone their craft in art school and go on to mark major cities around the world even with commissions. Roa and Ben Wilson, for example, fit the latter model.

The danger with commissioned pieces is that they allow commercialism to infiltrate this anti-establishment art form. Between points of interest on the tour, comes an ASOS advert disguised as a street art style paste-up, and an intricate freehand piece saying “Converse” in the corner.

The most progressive form of street art is undoubtedly explosive etching invented by Vhils AKA Alexandre Farto, who studied at Central St Martins. It involves planting explosives in a wall, before plastering it over, waiting for it to dry and then detonating. The portraits he produces with this technique have the effect of a rough 3D sketch. The one Samuel’s shows on Hewett Street, near El Mac’s piece, was carved with a hammer and chisel but is nonetheless as impressive.

The wall is coming at you: Vhils hand-chiseled work on Hewett street

The wall is coming at you: Vhils hand-chiseled work on Hewett street

Like life-sized pieces in museum exhibitions, seeing these works merely in photos doesn’t provoke that all-encompassing experience it should. This tour leads the curious down streets and alleys that they would have never gone down otherwise. With the bustling city noise and cold wind hitting the face, looking at art in the exact atmosphere in which it was created is the most intimate artistic experience possible.

What: Street Art Tour
Where: Starts off in Old Street area
Price: £15
Date: Every Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday
Further details: http://streetartlondon.co.uk/

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