IF THE WALLS OF CITIES could speak, they would be telling the story of the incredible evolution of street art from a bold and defiant urban scene to a major international art movement that’s readily accessible, easily understood and in a constant state of flux.
“Street art is the art of our current generation. It is the mirror of our era, as contemporary art should always be. It is the most important movement of the 21st century and we are all key witnesses of a global movement happening in front of our eyes. The Picassos of today are already at work. What makes it so strong is that it is everywhere and of great variety. So many different inspirations and techniques, from spray paint to wheat pasting, the practice has evolved tremendously. Can you imagine that when you talk about street art, a vast majority of the world’s population knows what you are referring to? This has never been the case with any other art movement,” says gallerist Magda Danysz, who curated the exhibition Art from the Streets currently being held at the ArtScience Museum until 3 June 2018, which celebrates over 40 years of street art.
For the first time in Singapore, almost 50 of the world’s most renowned urban and graffiti artists from 15 countries have taken over the museum in a show comprising over 200 large-scale mural paintings, installations, videos, prints, drawings, sketches and archival documents, which focuses on the vitality and diversity of the art scene. It unites legendary figures such as Dondi, Futura and Lee Quiñones, whose artworks are rarely seen, and the biggest names today like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Invader, JR and Blek le Rat. Highlights include Futura’s iconic spray paint artwork from The Clash concert in 1981 when he painted backdrops live on-stage for the British punk rock band’s European tour, thus bringing graffiti to mass audiences, and a monumental 11-metre-long mural by Fairey displaying wheat pasting and stencil techniques.
Ten artists were commissioned to create site-specific pieces: Argentinean-Spanish rising star, Felipe Pantone; Paris-based Moroccan artist, Tarek Benaoum; Polish graphic designer and illustrator, M-City; French street artists, Ludo, YZ and Zevs; leading British post-graffiti artist, Remi Rough; Yogyakarta-based artist, Eko Nugroho; and Singaporean and Australian artists, Speak Cryptic and Yok & Sheryo. Employing wide-ranging skills from stencilling, “calligraffiti” and painting to spraying and “upcycling” materials, they address local and global issues.
Taking a light-hearted approach, Brooklyn-based Yok & Sheryo have been working as a duo for seven years in the hopes that their artworks leave a smile on people’s faces. Five days in the making, their Rap Spray mural tackles topics of consumerism, mass production and habitat destruction. They explore the idea of a post-apocalyptic Singapore where material possessions are left behind and nature reclaims its place, lions drive Lamborghinis and tigers have forgotten how to climb trees.
Calling themselves “professional spraycationers”, the real-life couple lead a nomadic life making art internationally, from painting on the streets to sculpture, ceramics and large-scale immersive installations, drawing inspiration from Southeast Asian culture, music, surfing and skateboarding. Sheryo divulges, “Our artistic language comes from being on the road and picking up small bits and pieces from different cultures that find their way into our work, which is normally site-specific and is a reaction to what we see when we arrive in a new city. We always carry a sketchbook in which we draw the activities of that week, from what we are eating to temples we visit, animals, interesting characters we see and meet, etc. They all find their way into the book and this forms our visual language.”
Young Portuguese artist Vhils, who has been gaining attention with his portraits chiselled on walls, doors and billboards, helps make visible the invisible that lies buried beneath the surface of things, like an archaeologist removing in order to expose. He destroys so as to create – carving, cutting, drilling, etching and blasting his way through layers of materials. Having started off painting trains illegally, he then exhibited in galleries in 2006, reflecting on life in cities and how places, people and communities are impacted by the current model of globalised development.
Travelling and working internationally has become key to understanding the phenomenon to him, as he’s interested in witnessing it first-hand in as many locations as possible. “I see art as a tool that can help put focus on relevant present-day issues on both a local and a global context,” he notes. “Most of what I do comes from the idea of trying to merge art with the vandal aesthetics of graffiti, which is my artistic background. To contrast the beauty and poetics of the results with the destructive force of the means. This is also a reflection on the creative-destructive forces at work in contemporary urban societies.”
When Vhils began shifting from letter-based graffiti to stencilling and more figurative work, he decided to use what the city offered and rejected. He discovered that street posters not only had great visual potential but also embodied several principles behind urban societies: the power of change but also of persuasion, social and material advancement but also the culture of obsolescence and replacement. As he cut through their layers, he noticed that fragments of older posters appeared, like sifting through the layers of a city’s recent history. He soon applied the same technique and concept to other mediums, like walls, and most of his work evolved organically from there.
“For me, the idea behind working in the public space is to fundamentally humanise it in some way,” he discloses. “I believe that the relationship between a city and its citizens is like a complex network of reciprocal stimuli, of cause and effect, and that art in general can contribute to create a better environment for the city, its people and communities. Recent years have seen a huge increase in the number of festivals and legal, commissioned large-scale murals. This reflects an increased awareness, acceptance and desire for these works.”
Over the decades, urban artists have developed a dynamic visual culture that has been reinterpreted countless times, and many today refuse the label “street artist”, preferring just the word “artist”. Mixing the optical, abstract, minimalist and geometric art movements with his research on writing and calligraphy, L’Atlas has invented an original typography in the aim of creating a universal pictorial language. He states, “I’m not a street artist actually; I’m a painter. I spend my time in my studio and when I have outdoor work to do, I do it with my assistant. The last building we painted, I only drew the design on paper, so I’m now more of a conceptual artist. I don’t do anything on the streets today. That’s the paradox. Everybody calls me a street artist, but that’s not me. That’s what people want from me. I don’t need to do the project by myself anymore, to do things with my own hands to prove something. I’m 40 now, so it’s not the same energy as when you’re 20 and you want to exist through your acts. Now I want to exist through my ideas.”
His Punition piece presented at the exhibition sees him repeat his name like an act of punishment in graffiti on wood. It focuses on the calligraphic element of his oeuvre, even as it has evolved to become more abstract, kinetic and minimal, while never forsaking his graffiti roots. In May, he will hold a new show called Eternal Signs in Brussels showcasing his first-ever works in marble engraved by a sculptor in the Cyclades in Greece, home to numerous marble quarries. In the future, he dreams of collaborating with architects to produce permanent three-dimensional creations, even buildings using his forms, so as to be remembered for eternity.