The Rise of Street Art
In recent decades street art—including graffiti, murals, sidewalk sculpture, and guerrilla printmaking and stencil work—has won the approval of the mainstream institutions it set out to defy. Museums pay top dollar for works by street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey, an irony at the heart of the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. This map surveys the scene as well as its progenitors, New York artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The Oscar-nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop centers on the perplexing figure of French expat Thierry Guetta, who for a decade followed notorious street artists to make a documentary. His cousin, who goes by the handle Space Invader, introduced Guetta to the graffiti movement’s superstars. Of all the guerrilla artists Guetta filmed, Banksy was the hardest to track down. Banksy had become infamous for his fearless stunts—spray painting his funny, politically charged stencils in public places, even on parked cop cars.
Because their work is typically painted over within days of being created, taggers embraced the idea of a documentary. The only problem: There was no documentary. Guetta had amassed hours of footage for no specific purpose, so Banksy reversed their roles and made the film himself. Meanwhile, Guetta adopted a pseudonym—Mr. Brainwash, or MBW—and then organized a massive exhibition of his own work, to immediate success. Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop focuses on the irony of this instant commercial acceptance. In the film Banksy and fellow street artist Shepard Fairey stop short of accusing MBW of plagiarism, but both suggest his success was built on the backs of artists who’d spent years perfecting their craft.
The first time Thierry Guetta’s camera catches Shepard Fairey in Exit Through the Gift Shop, he is on the floor of a Kinko’s on L.A.’s Vine Street, printing an enormous poster of pro wrestler Andre the Giant. The intimidating black-and-white image has become known as the “Obey Giant” (the word OBEY appears beneath Andre’s face). Later, under cover of night, Fairey wheat pastes it onto the side of a building. Guetta followed Fairey under the pretense of filming a documentary, a ruse that also brought him into contact with mysterious stencil artist and political activist Banksy. When Guetta suddenly claimed to be a street artist and found instant success, Banksy licensed Guetta’s footage and assembled Exit Through the Gift Shop. The documentary focuses on Guetta, rather than more prominent and influential artists, as a way to comment on commercialism in the subversive genre of street art.
Fairey was one of the first artists Guetta was able to film working (Fairey claims Guetta made a great lookout). He has since become an international phenomenon via his design firm, his books about printmaking, the OBEY clothing line and his “Hope” poster, which became an icon of the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Curious about who Banksy really is? So is the rest of the world. For years artists exploiting public spaces have adopted pseudonyms. Graffiti is illegal, after all. In Banksy’s case, however, his satirical art and stirring social statements have only added to the mystery. The facts are these: He is from Bristol, England. He—in disguise, of course—mounted his own painting on a museum wall after a security guard left the room. He dressed up a chimpanzee to resemble Queen Elizabeth. He tagged the West Bank security wall separating Israelis and Palestinians. And he hung an effigy of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner at Disneyland.
No stranger to controversy himself, Shepard Fairey was famously sued by the Associated Press for his red-and-blue “Hope” poster, which he designed in support of President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Fairey argued that his appropriation of the AP photo was protected under U.S. Copyright Act guidelines of fair use, claiming he had significantly transformed the image by adding his own commentary. Despite a letter of thanks from then candidate Obama, Fairey was eventually fined, sentenced to 300 hours of community service and placed on probation for two years. The poster hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Shepard Fairey built a bull industry out of his grassroots street art. As a student at Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1990s, Fairey slyly affixed his soon-to-be-ubiquitous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stickers to public walls and stop signs. The monochrome stencil of the pro wrestler’s recognizable, imposing face grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Fairey cemented his impact on the urban landscape in 2001, when he launched a popular national clothing line, OBEY, which incorporates variations on those same guerrilla stickers he made in art school.
Fairey was not the first street artist to make his work a brand. Keith Haring—who, like Fairey, blended street art and social activism—opened his store, Pop Shop, in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan in 1986. A friend of such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Madonna, Haring became a fixture of the 1980s New York art scene, and his brightly colored, bold yet simple visual style influenced many artists in the following decades. When asked about commercializing his work, Haring said he wanted his art to be accessible not only to collectors but also to “kids from the Bronx.”
Like many graffiti artists, Keith Haring cut his teeth by tagging in the subways. He developed a number of signature characters, such as the Radiant Baby, a crawling infant surrounded by radiating lines. Haring wanted to explore themes of community and unity, so he painted colorful, cartoon-like figures with simple outlines that lend them a universal quality. Haring’s artwork confronts social issues, ranging from the crack cocaine epidemic to safe sex, head-on. His iconic figures, often embracing and joining hands, have appeared in numerous settings—on MTV and Sesame Street, in reproductions, as monuments, on T-shirts—both during his life and since his 1990 death from AIDS. His 1986 Crack Is Wack mural, painted in a Harlem handball court, still stands.
The biopic Basquiat follows Haring’s contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) as he spray-paints his “SAMO©” poems on buildings and befriends Andy Warhol (David Bowie). Directed by yet another contemporary painter, Julian Schnabel, Basquiat depicts the artist’s rise to stardom and the pitfalls that led to his 1988 drug overdose. Like Haring, Basquiat was “discovered” after leaving a trail of his art on NYC streets. Both artists lived to see their graffiti-inspired work on museum walls.
Comedian Steve Martin is quite the Renaissance man, having made a name for himself as a writer, an art collector and an accomplished banjo player. His 2010 novel, An Object of Beauty, highlights Martin’s passion for fine art, though his reputation as a connoisseur is no secret. In a segment on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report in 2010, host Stephen Colbert asks Martin to estimate the value of a painting depicting, of course, Colbert himself. As part of the gag, Colbert keeps bringing in high-profile artists to comment on and alter the portrait in order to increase its commercial value. Among those artists is Shepard Fairey, one of the nation’s most recognizable and successful street artists. Fairey uses stencils and a can of spray paint to embellish Colbert’s smirking likeness, demonstrating how street artists actually work: In order to run away from the authorities, one needs materials that are easily folded and carried. Fairey ends his portion of the segment by tagging the painting with his trademark slogan, “OBEY”—an imperative, he adds, that underscores Colbert’s “quasi-fascist” tendencies.