From what some may call vandalism to showcasing their work on the world stage, the best street artists of our times have come a long way.
In 2020, British street artist Banksy’s Show Me The Monet – his take on Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lillies – fetched £7.5 million (HK$80,296,500) at an auction in London. The latest in a series of high-end auctions of works by the street artist, it was Banksy’s second-most expensive artwork ever sold.
And he is not the only street artist raking in the big bucks at auctions. French artist Invader’s Vienna – a mosaic of black and blue tiles – sold for €356,200 (approximately HK$3,262,827) at a 2019 auction in Paris.
A phenomenon that traces its origins to the 1960s US, street art is now one of the most notable forms of commentary on culture, society, religion, human rights and politics. We look at some of the best and most famous street artists of our times who have brought in their unique perspectives and styles.
No one has influenced the world of street art in recent times more than Banksy, whose real identity is unconfirmed. He began working in the underground art and music scene in Bristol in the early 1990s. It was only around 2000 that he began spray painting stencilled images — now recognised as his signature style. Within a decade, his graffiti art has appeared in many cities across the globe, including London, Paris and New York.
His art is popular primarily because of the political themes and commentary on social issues. One of his murals, painted at Rue Victor Cousin in Paris, is interpreted as his criticism of the French establishment. It shows a man offering a bone to a dog — whose one leg appears to be cut off — with one hand and a saw in the other.
Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, Palestine, attempts to draw attention to the hard life enforced on the people in West Bank and boasts of “the worst view in the world.” Opened in 2017, the hotel faces a section of the controversial concrete wall that Israel built to hem in West Bank. He designed the rooms along with Palestinian artist Sami Musa and Canadian artist Dominique Pétrin. There is a Banksy mural in one of the rooms which shows an Israeli security official and a Palestinian protester pillow fighting.
His most expensive artwork is Devolved Parliament, a painting showcasing UK’s House of Commons taken over by chimpanzees, which sold for £9.9 million (approximately HK$105,987,396) at a London auction in 2019. He is also known as the director of 2010’s Exit Through the Gift Shop — a film about a French emigré’s obsession with street art. His influence on art is so immense that an AI bot, GANksy, programmed to create works similar to his was launched in 2020. It created over 250 original art pieces and was able to sell a number of them.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey is an American activist, illustrator and street artist popularly known in political circles as the designer of the red, white and blue Hope poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 US presidential campaign. In 1989, while he was in design school, he created André the Giant Has a Posse — stickers of the renowned professional wrestler known as André the Giant — which he pasted around New York City. This idea eventually led to Obey Giant, a pop-culture symbol seen on t-shirts and posters and launched his career as a street artist.
Fairey’s work is based on themes around anti-war, human rights and the environment. In 2017 he launched We the People series featuring posters of Muslims, African Americans, Native Americans and Latin Americans to showcase cultural diversity and oppose the xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump. His clothing line, Obey, is an influential name in the world of fashion depicting socially- and politically-charged propaganda on the outfits. In 2018, luxury watchmaker Hublot launched a limited-edition timepiece in association with Fairey. Available in two colours — red and blue — only 100 pieces were made. They came in patterned Texalium and a carbon fibre case with Fairey’s Star Gear logo on the dial.
His works are featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
One of the first women to have made a mark in New York’s subway graffiti culture, Lady Pink was born as Sandra Fabara in Ecuador in 1964 and moved to the US at the age of seven with her mother and sisters. They took residence in Queens, New York City. Her rise as an artist began in 1979 when she started painting subway trains in the city. By 1985 she had established herself firmly beside some of the biggest names in the then male-dominated street art universe.
Pink then shifted to collaborations with prominent artists, organisations and institutions. She was one of the female artists who painted a mural comprising portraits of women human rights activists in history during the When Women Pursue Justice mural collaboration held in 2005 in New York. In 2018, she was invited by Gävle municipality in Sweden to paint a Unity Tree mural that addressed the city’s immigrant issue.
Besides her artworks, Pink became a cult figure in the hip-hop subculture with her starring role in the 1982 American film Wild Style. She has been featured in the collections of Groningen Museum of Holland and MET in New York City among others.
Considered by many as the first modern graffiti artist, Cornbread was born Darryl Alexander McCray in Philadelphia. In the late 1960s, when he was still in his teens, McCray began “tagging” — a practice by graffiti artists of leaving their name spray-painted on walls. He started using Cornbread, a name he got while incarcerated in a youth detention centre. Soon his moniker started appearing all over the city — on benches, police cars and even the aircraft used by pop band Jackson 5 — triggering a sort of revolution with the emergence of many other new graffiti artists. The wave then reached New York City, where it eventually evolved into a movement and reached other parts of the world.
McCray’s most memorable act was in 1971, at the age of 17, when he spray-painted “Cornbread Lives” on an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo in response to a news report claiming he was dead. Though he was caught red-handed at the time, now there is no record of the incident with the police or the zoo.
McCray later became a part of The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and has been a public speaker and a youth advocate since.
The French artist who took his pseudonym from the video game Space Invaders is unlike others — he uses tiles instead of paint for his creations. Invader’s works are mosaics inspired by the 8-bit video games from the 1970s and 80s, including his signature alien from Space Invaders. He began his career in Paris in the 1990s and has since taken his “invasions” — a term he uses for his act of mounting mosaics incognito like a hacker of space — in over 70 cities, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York. His QR code mosaics made from black-and-white tiles can be decoded with smartphones to read “This is an invasion.”
He finds unique ways to highlight his art — past instances saw him sending his creation Space1 up in a weather balloon, another called Space2 to the International Space Station and tagging Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater reef sculptures. In 2014, he crafted a mosaic of the 1970s American cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey — a kung fu expert dog — in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley neighbourhood. It was taken down by the authorities leading to protests by his fans and art enthusiasts. In 2015, a recreation of this artwork titled Alias HK_58 was auctioned for US$258,000.
Invader masks his identity during interviews, though some reports claim that his real name is Franck Slama. He is known to have attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and identifies Thierry Guetta, the street artist who goes by the name of Mr Brainwash, as his cousin. Invader has also created a style he dubs Rubikcubism by creating two- and three-dimensional works out of Rubik’s Cubes.
Identical twins Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo work under the name Os Gemeos, which is Portuguese for “the twins”. The brothers from São Paulo are credited with implanting New York’s street art culture in their country with a Brazilian touch. Starting as hip-hop artists, Os Gemeos took to street art in the late 1980s. They combined North and South American influences to create their unique murals of people with yellow faces, which is now universally identified as their trademark. The colour is inspired by the brothers’ dreams and doesn’t refer to any specific race in the diverse Brazilian population.
The themes mostly focus on the country’s folklore, history and politics. From São Paulo’s subway trains to alleyways in Mumbai, murals by Os Gemeos have been seen around the world. In 2013, the brothers collaborated with Louis Vuitton for an all-over print graphic scarf. An inspiration to other South American street artists, the Pandolfo brothers also have a studio practice creating sculptures and paintings. They have held numerous solo and group shows in countries like Cuba, the US, Italy, Spain, England and Japan.
The anonymous artist who uses JR as his signature emerged on the graffiti scene as a tagger in Paris in the late 1990s. After finding a camera during one of his projects, he began documenting his works and then pasted printouts across the city. This gave birth to his unique style, which metamorphosed into huge black-and-white photographic murals that signify unity.
Some of his most important projects includes Women are Heroes, which pays tribute to victims of crime, rape, war and political or religious fanaticism with huge photos of faces and eyes of women pasted on a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He pasted the faces of Israelis and Palestinians on the opposite sides of the Israel-Palestine Separation Barrier for his project Face 2 Face. In 2017, he set up a unique installation Migrants, picnic across the border featuring one eye drawn on a table for Tecate in Mexico and the other on a tarp for Tecate, US, appearing as a dining table that people could eat off. This followed his 2012 installation Kikito (pictured, 2nd) of a toddler peering over the border walls from Mexico which ended up making headlines.
A winner of the 2011 TED Prize, JR was included in Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2018. The same year, he collaborated with the magazine on its November 5 cover story and created a mural featuring videos and photos of 245 people affected by gun violence in America. JR also co-directed the 2017 documentary Faces Places — filmed in rural France — with renowned auteur Agnès Varda. It won the L’Œil d’or (also known as Golden Eye) award at Cannes that year.
Held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City from October 4-18, 2019, JR: Chronicles was his first major exhibition in North America. His exhibition at Galleria Continua in Italy’s San Gimignano, titled Omelia Contadina, will be on till May 2, 2021. It is a short film made with Italian director Alice Rohrwacher and critiques monoculture that is replacing traditional agriculture.
DALeast is the pseudonym of a Chinese-born artist whose works can be found in almost every continent. A native of Wuhan, he was one of the founders of the city’s artist collective known as Chirp. A dropout of the Institute of Fine Arts in Wuhan, DALeast was active in China’s street art scene from 2004 to 2010 before he moved to South Africa.
Residing in Cape Town, he began drawing murals, some of which are hundreds of feet long, inspired by the African landscape and Chinese spiritual thought. The murals mostly depict animals, made of layered lines which appear to be three dimensional. In 2018, he moved to Berlin and now spends six months of each year travelling. The cities where his street art can be seen include Miami, New York and London.
(Main image: Banksy; Featured image: Os Gemeos)