For twenty-five years London has been subject to a beautiful onslaught of criminal activity, reprehensible to some, embraced by others, colourful, witty and provocative. Street art, phenomenon of the 1990s, developed from graffiti art, a phenomenon of 1980s, is a regular occurrence on London’s streets; in some areas it is ubiquitous. Its existence in London owes much to the city’s cultural ties with New York, London’s wealth and status and to the talent and determination of Bristol based artist Banksy, who introduced street art to London.
In London there are hives, around which street artists buzz, fanatics hunt and serendipitous locals and tourists register pieces on their mobile phones. These hives are to be found in Camden, East London and Leake Street in Waterloo. The Camden part of Regent’s Canal, in 2009, hosted London’s first and only street art battle between street-artist par excellence Banksy and an old time graffiti artist Robbo. In Shoreditch, East London, gallery owners, design studios and businesses, inspired by early works of Banksy, commission art on the outside of their buildings. This commissioned work is accompanied by an ever changing pastiche of gratuitous work, which has turned Shoreditch and East London into the spiritual home of street art. Leake Street, a disused railway tunnel just behind Waterloo Train Station became a hive for street artists and graffiti artists after Banksy organised a street art festival there in Spring 2008, which led to the tunnel being designated a legal space for street art and graffiti.
The Chinese say life is both yin and yang and the same can be said for the energies and motivations driving street art. Yin is an explosion of energy, an attempt to mean something to someone, a fire fuelled by a need for recognition and acceptance. Yang is a deep breath out, a chance to reflect, an opportunity to disconnect and feel one’s real emotions; to disengage from the zeitgeist. For some, street art is all about the yang about free expression, emotion, creativity and the altruism of the street artist. It is part of an idealistic utopian philosophy that art should be for the people, free and accessible. However, in reality, most artists are guided by yin, fuelled by a desire to make it as an artist, to get a name, to get ahead.
All street artists experience the tension between yin and yang, it causes many to entertain delusions about the greater good of what they are doing, to hide their problematic egoistic tendencies and criminal activity. The fact is, the street artist is a psychopathic charmer, trying to seduce you with the beauty, audacity and complexity of his gift, hoping you forget he has, unilaterally, decided that his need for his art on your wall, is greater than your right to enjoy your wall, as it is, without interference. And London’s heart is fluttering. The media celebrate street art, local authorities protect street art works from vandalism; the firm Searchgrade, when it found out that Westminster Council wanted to remove a Banksy exhibit from one of its walls, went to the length of appealing the decision, unsuccessfully. In 2008, London art auctioneer Bonhams held London’s first auction of street art, ; Village Undeground held an “urban art sale” and a piece by Banksy attracted a bid of £208,100. The elevated status of the street artist prompts invitations for shows from owners hoping to cash in on the cache. Like this the street artist is laundered.
The rise of the internet, which has coincided with the rise of street art, has created a virtual street art world. In the real world of street art those who happen to see the art, and enjoy it, encounter it as a moment of serendipity. Bloggers and web site owners rip the art from their geographical location and juxtapose the images next to each other. Here, viewers of street art get a concentrated experience, delivered to them through the click of a mouse, rather than the motion of their legs. Street art in the real world is transient, in the virtual world, digitally preserved, it lasts forever. The magic that might have been shared by a few, who had the luck to walk down a street at a particular point in time, can now be shared by millions in the virtual world. What we are left to ponder is whether street artists are creating street art, with a view to how this will be seen in the virtual world first, with considerations for people who and experience it in the street, coming second?