Street Art As A Tool For Change

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Lion Man

The human urge to create art is perhaps one of the key defining characteristics that sets us apart from other animals. Interestingly, one of the oldest art objects found is the part human, part animal Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stade from 38,000 BCE.

Possibly the ‘oldest work of art ever’ is 42,000-year-old paintings of seals found in Spanish cave. It seems that as soon as humans could we have been leaving markings for others to see, expressing ourselves and creating unique novelty in the universe.

The dawning of agriculture was a massive transition – nomadic, tribal groups started to settle and societies formed with different roles – farmers, teachers, priests… and artists. As these societies grew more complex and stratified, art became increasingly associated with wealthy patrons.

Historically powerful forces and organisations have shaped the evolution of art. For example, in Europe in the middle ages huge bodies of artwork were of a religious theme and communicated quite rigid messages and ideas.

Blake’s Newton

The western Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century saw a shift to more rational and scientific interpretations of the universe such as William Blake’s portrayal of Isaac Newton as a divine geometer. Following this the Romantic movement got more emotional and by the 19th century myriad artistic movements flourished from impressionism to Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism.

Today, contemporary work can challenge our very notion of what art is. Tracey Emin and  Damien Hirst have become famous and very rich putting unexpected things (such as Tracy’s bed) into galleries and thriving on the scandal and shock caused.

As mainstream art has evolved and changed often according to the whim of patrons and collectors the artistic impulses of regular citizens has been carved onto walls and sprayed over buildings. Street art is by its nature democratic, political and revolutionary. Anybody can do it and anyone can see it. If you want to get started – check out Molotow graffiti supplies.

Blek le Rat

Modern street art is considered to have begun in the 1980s with graffiti in New York and on the Berlin Wall as notable examples. Blek le Rat was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and has been described as the “Father of stencil graffiti.” He is known to have been a huge influence on perhaps the world’s most famous street artist – Banksy, who said: “every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.”

Banksy’s work at the Calais refugee camp

Banksy started his career working freehand in Bristol in the early 1990s but has gone on to have a huge global impact. He has now had a series of massively successful gallery exhibitions and his work can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. He has never diluted his powerful political messages of  anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism and anti-authoritarianism. Recent works like Dismal Land and The Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem have connected with massive global audiences.  

There is increasingly a crossover between street art and more commercial work. For example, Shepard Fairey became famous for his guerrilla “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” (…OBEY…) sticker campaign. This has become highly collectable art and transmogrified into the iconic Obama Hope posters.

Today, there is a new wave of ecologically aware street artists who are getting wildlife inspired art up onto cityscapes to remind us of the war being waged against the natural world. Chief amongst these is Louis Masai Michel who is on tour painting endangered species on walls.

However the art market responds it is impossible to cage street art. It is by its nature a tool for change and now more than ever is influencing the way people think around the world.

Louis Masai Michel working in London

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