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On streets of nearly every major metropolitan city in the world, signs of art and rebellion can be found. More than mere graffiti, street art aims to express an idea, create something beautiful and thought provoking, and quite possibly make a change.
Text: Chau Tu
Photos: Courtesy of Banksy
Country: England

’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a detective. When I was younger I read Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes, and when I got older I always tried to figure out the ending to a mystery before anyone else.

And this is probably partly why I’ve become an enthusiast for street art: the non-advertorial paintings, illustrations and markings that pop up unexpectedly on walls of urban areas. The art – small and big, mischievous and innocent – can appear anywhere, anytime, and I love thinking of it as a game where I’m supposed to figure out whodunit, what is it, and why. And as with most artists – and maybe even more so with street artists – the results are often intriguing and more in-depth than one would first imagine.

Before I go on, I need to clarify something. First off, many people commonly confuse street art with graffiti, easily interchanging the two terms. And although the two do have similar roots in radicalism and scrawling on walls, there are distinct differences.

Graffiti can be most simply defined as writing words (usually one’s own name or nickname) on a forbidden surface, often using spray paint. It can also be known as tagging, because it usually signifies a sort of claim of territory. The graffiti movement boomed especially in New York City during the 1970s, in a period of restlessness when the subway system went into debt and left many of its trains unridden and unwatched. Crews of taggers formed to “bomb” subway trains and cover the exteriors and interiors with spray paint and words as a sign of rebellion. It led to a furthering of crime within the city at that time, and it is likely from this point that graffiti became associated with gangs. Today there is generally no purpose to graffiti other than to tag one’s own territory in a deed of outright rebellion.

Street art, too, is an act of outright rebellion, but the markings usually go beyond one’s own name. Street art, like any other art, is indefinable in the sense of form – it’s commonly spray-painted but could also use just normal paint, posters, or even plaster and tile like the indistinguishable work of Space Invader. It may be a picture or words. It could be simply enhancing something that’s already there, similar to doodling a moustache on one’s face. And the motives vary too, from simply expressing one’s self or trying to be politically and socially aware. But I think what separates street art from graffiti or any sort of tagging is that it’s an expression that aims to be a striking and notable in some way.

The best example of a street artist – the absolute major superstar of the genre – is Banksy. He’s become an emblem of the scene, thanks to his anonymity contrasting with his bold, eye-catching works. Banksy is believed to have come from Bristol, England, judging from the first appearances of his works, which were spray-painted stencils of people (notably a series on the contrasts of little girls and soldiers) and rats. Many included snide remarks about society, making fun of politicians worldwide and social class systems. Some were compelling simply for playing games with your eyes, like a stencil of a maid lifting up the curtain of the wall to expose the brick behind it, or a stencil of a woman and man peeking out a painted window, while a naked man clung to the windowsill just out of sight. The works were uniquely subversive even for the street art scene, and always done expertly and cleverly. Banksy’s fame quickly grew and brought him all over the world.

He left his mark everywhere, venturing even to the West Bank in the Middle East for a significant piece depicting an oasis on the Separation Barrier. And soon, Banksy’s pranks were going beyond the spray paint and stencils. In 2003, a disguised man walked into the Tate Britain gallery in London, perused the exhibits, and then proceeded to place one of his own paintings on the wall. The painting depicted a pleasant rural scene with police tape stenciled across it. It came with a card attached that read: “Banksy 1975. Crimewatch UK Has Ruined The Countryside For All Of Us. 2003. Oil On Canvas.” It reportedly went unnoticed for a few hours – and it might have stayed on if it hadn’t crashed to the floor thanks to weak glue.

Banksy later went on to stage his own actual gallery show – his first – in Los Angeles in 2005, the centerpiece of which was a live elephant painted entirely in pink and gold in a wallpaper pattern – the elephant in the room, as one might say. And in 2010, he might have pulled off his greatest prank of all time, in another non-street art form, by directing the critically-acclaimed documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. The movie featured Banksy himself – hooded and in shadows, of course – as he recalled the story of the transformation of a French filmmaker into a popular street artist known as Mr. Brainwash. Many have questioned the factuality of the film, stating that Mr. Brainwash’s story is too good to be true, and that everything is just another well-played trick by Banksy, this time on the street art world itself.

Hoax or not, the film depicted very accurately how popular and mainstream street art has become. Banksy’s own works, sometimes carved straight out from the walls themselves, now regularly show in small alternative galleries, and can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars easily – Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were reportedly big fans during Banksy’s L.A. exhibition. Other street artists have been commissioned to do works beyond walls – Shepard Fairey, who became ubiquitous with his OBEY Giants plastered everywhere, came to true worldwide stardom in his own right with his Barack Obama HOPE poster in 2008. One can’t even count how many times the poster’s style has been copied; its image undeniably recognizable. Well-respected gallery director Jeffrey Deitch, who recently took over the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, has already planned a major street art exhibition for 2011.

But not every street artist out there is a Banksy or Shepard Fairey. Many still live an underground life, doing their deeds in the darkness of night, with an eye and ear out for the cops. But the surprises they bring – that random stencil on the sidewalk, the mini-painting on the side of a building – provide enough clues for me, the street art detective. Clues that someone out there has something to say, and it’s time the world started paying attention.

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