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Graffiti, is simple terms is any form of writing or drawing made on a wall or some sort of surface, usually as a form of artistic expression, without permission and within public view. It ranges from the simplest words painted in walls to detailed intricate pieces of art or sculptures. Graffiti has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. However, graffiti as a modern form of street art was born in the late 1960’s. The purpose of this research paper is to provide an insight into graffiti as a form of art and to break down and analyze the work of two of the most renowned graffiti artists; Banksy and Blek Le Rat.
The word Graffiti has been derived from the Italian word “Graffito” which means to scratch. Graffiti has a long history. Markings have been found in ancient Roman ruins, in the remains of the Mayan city of Tikal in Central America, on numerous rocks in Spain dating to the 16th century, and in medieval English churches.
The earliest graffiti precedes the English language. Graffiti has been used as a form of advertisement, worship and self expression even in the past. Whether being used as a tool to advertise or to worship, ancient graffiti served as an important function in history. It also helps today’s archeologists and sociologists to understand the people and cultures of the ancient world.
Although graffiti has existed in various forms, from when man lived in caves and later during ancient civilizations as well, the modern form of graffiti came into existence in the late 1960’s. Daryl McCray, more popular by the name Cornbread is credited as the first graffiti writer of the modern times. The story is that Cornbread loved a woman named Cynthia and went around North Philadelphia writing ‘Cornbread loves Cynthia’ on walls and other surfaces. Cornbread and his companions gained popularity and media attention very quickly. This caused tagging to become a sort of a trend.
The end of the 1960’s saw an emerging graffiti scene in New York, when a number of graffiti writers started tagging their names or the names of their gangs and crews so as to establish superiority mark their territory or just for the fun of it. Tagging became some sort of a game about who could get noticed the most. 1971 was also the time when subway trains started getting tagged creating some of the most iconic and important pieces of the early graffiti scene. The remainder of the 1970’s saw graffiti spread all over the country and people began to work on more complex pieces as it grew to become a form of self expression. A lot of the artists that became popular around this time crossed over into studio art so as to remain authentic with their work and not get into any legal trouble. This also increased due to the rise in the number of studios that exhibited urban contemporary art.
The 1980’s saw graffiti becoming inextricably linked with the emerging hip hop scene in America. This helped graffiti gain a lot of media and public attention. However, this did not always have a positive outcome. Graffiti and tagging started to become associated with crime and fear. The 1980’s saw two legendary films released about the link between graffiti and hip hop; Style Wars and Wild Style.
While hip hop was closely linked with graffiti culture, punk also adopted the idea of graffiti to spread certain messages. Amsterdam saw graffiti become an important part of the punk scene, producing a magazine called Gallery Anus to document the graffiti work. In America, it was the band Black Flag and their fans that widely stenciled their logo further spreading graffiti culture.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of graffiti artists tried to cross over in the world of art galleries and studios as they began exhibiting graffiti as a form of contemporary urban art. However the 90’s slowly ushered in the new breed of creatives that were to change the face of graffiti. The decline of the USSR at the start of the 1990’s saw a number of Eastern European countries open up to graffiti, while the rise of the internet and media helped to spread the message of this movement. It was in the 90’s that artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy made their first moves. They have been dominating the graffiti scene ever since.
Banksy is an anonymous street artist, political activist and film director active since the 1990’s. His art is very distinct and can be classified based on its stenciling technique. His art is usually a representation of common current happenings in the form of a spoof or dark humor. His work has been featured on various surfaces, buildings, walls and streets of buildings in the world, although most of his street is found in the UK. Banksy came from the Bristol underground scene, which mostly involved collaborations between artists and musicians. Banksy has mentioned multiple times that his main inspiration was an artist named 3D, who later became one of the founding members of the English musical group Massive Attack. Banksy displays his art on various publicly visible surfaces or self built physical props. He does not sell any of his original works, their reproductions or photographs of his work. However, his public “installations” are regularly resold without any formal approval, often after the removal of the surface they were created on. A small number of Banksy’s works are sold officially and non-publicly through Pest Control, Banksy’s official handling service, which makes sure that the buyers of these artworks don’t become victims of fraud.
Banksy’s identity remains anonymous and a subject of speculation even today. A large number of people have been suspected to be Banksy but his identity still remains unknown.
Banky’s artistry lies in his ability to use dark humor and sardonic wit to trick his viewers into contemplating the underlying seriousness of his messages about capitalism, advertising, politics and humanity. Anonymity has been very advantageous to Banksy, largely because it removes the label of a celebrity from his identity and also moves the focus of his followers towards his art more than his personal life. It also enables him to unapologetically represent the truth without worrying about its consequences in the future.
Because of the volatility and impermanence of Banksy’s chosen canvas, i.e. the street and improvisational public places, he remains true to guerilla art’s philosophy, being that commodification of art is a blasphemous way to validate a certain artist within only a specific social sector or market.
Some of Banksy’s most famous works are the Kissing Coopers, Rage, The Flower Thrower and Napalm Girl. His most recent iconic piece was the Girl With The Balloon, which shredded all by itself right after it was auctioned for 1.4 million dollars. The buyer still bought the piece as the fact that it shredded itself made it more iconic and added more value to it. It later came to be known as Love Is In The Bin.
Banksy very quickly rose to fame after the 1990’s and is still considered an artist whose has contributed a lot to the graffiti scene all over the world. He still remains an inspiration to many new artists and his works are seen as examples of perfectly stenciled guerilla art.
Blek Le Rat, born Xavier Prou is French graffiti artist. He was one of the first French graffiti artists and is also widely known as the “father of stencil graffiti”.
He started his work in 1981, painting stencils of rats on the walls of numerous streets in Paris. He described the rat as the only free animal in the city and an animal which spreads a plague everywhere, which makes it similar to street art. His name originates from the comic book Blek Le Roc wherein he uses Rat instead of Roc because rat is an anagram for art. He later moved towards life sized portraits and other such similar artworks.
Initially, Blek was majorly influenced by the street art style of New York after a visit in 1971. However, he later decided to choose a style which better suited Paris, due to the differing architecture between the two cities. Blek’s oldest preserved work, a 1991 replica of Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreta, which he dedicated to his future wife Sybille, was rediscovered behind posters on a house wall in Leipzig, Germany in 2012.
French authorities identified Blek in 1991 when he was arrested while stenciling a replica of Madonna and Child. It was easy to distinguish his work as compared to other French artists because of his unique style. This helped the police make a connection between Blek and the artwork. From that point on, he has worked exclusively with pre stenciled posters, citing the speedier application of the medium to walls, as well as the lessened punishment, should he be caught in the act.
Blek has had a great influence on today’s graffiti art and guerilla art movements, the main motivation of his work being social consciousness and the desire to bring art to the people. Many of his pieces depict solitary individuals as opposed to larger, oppressive groups. In 2006, he gained a lot of media attention and popularity after he began his series of images representing the homeless, which depict them standing, sitting or lying on sidewalks, in attempts to bring attention to what he views as a global problem.Blek uses stencils and spray paint to create wall paintings, using photographic sources and juxtaposition to convey provocative and politically controversial statements. Within his body of work, topics such as religion, the economy, the military and art history are approached with wit that reflects the quick sensibilities necessary to make art on the streets. Blek no longer paints on walls after he was tried for ten years and had to pay substantial fines, and would face jail time if caught again. He continues to produce work, but in the form of posters and not artworks painted directly on walls. He stays in an abandoned castle, somewhere in France with his wife and teenage son.
Blek’s interest in social commentary through graffiti has had a major influence on street artists around the world, including Banksy. Banksy has acknowledged Blek’s influence stating “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.” The two have expressed mutual desire for collaboration; in 2011, Blek was seen adding to a mural begun the previous year by Banksy in the Mission District, San Francisco.
There have been a lot of claims by journalists and followers of Blek regarding Banksy copying his style and a lot of his work.
Blek initially disagreed with those who claim Banksy copied his work: “people say he copies me, but I don’t think so. I’m the old man, he’s the new kid, and if I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it. I feel what he is doing in London is similar to the rock movement in the Sixties.
More recently, however, in the documentary Graffiti Wars, Blek took a different tone, stating, “When I see Banksy making a man with a child or making rats, of course I see immediately where he gets the idea from. I do feel angry, when you’re an artist, you use your own techniques. It’s difficult to find a technique and style in art so when you have a style and you see someone else taking it and reproducing it, you don’t like that. I’m not sure about his integrity.”
Blek and Banksy are both very influencial artists with similar styles and techniques. However, it would be hard to classy their work in the same category even though that’s what one would assume after looking at their works. Both Banksy and Blek have contributed a lot to the graffiti scene all over the world and can be considered pioneers of graffiti and guerilla art in their own right.