The Art World’s Best Kept Secret

Street art: where did it come from and where is it going?

Vivian Maier mural in Chicago. Photo: Matthew T. Rader via Unsplash
Vivian Maier mural in Chicago. Photo: Matthew T. Rader via Unsplash

It is a late-summer night in the city where anything is possible. Small children have difficulty sleeping in the heat that makes bare arms and backs sweat. Fire hydrants shoot water into the street-lights’ glare while the city’s inhabitants have moved onto the streets.

Night has settled in the Bronx, but the lights of Manhattan’s skyscrapers shimmer in the distance. Nearby, the Subway cars sway and screech along the green line, the sparks lighting up the tracks as they break between the three-storied buildings. At a deserted subway station, a gang of teenagers climb down between the subway cars. One hand with an iron grip on the railing and the other holding a can of spray paint. The entire subway car is covered in letters and numbers in a combination reminiscent of a spacecraft launched to the moon from the dry vegetation on the other side of the country of dreams. Graffiti’s pioneers cover car after car with their tags. Julio 204, Taki 183, Frank 207 and Joe 136: artist names based on a combination of where they grew up, where they belong, where they come from. Predecessors, Cornbread and Cool Earl, have already been spraying their turf in Philadelphia for a couple of years. Now it is New York’s turn.

Many more would follow in their footsteps. For some, it is an alternative to being idle or drawn inevitably to juvenile crime. For others, it is about self-expression, letting their creativity flow and developing artistic talent. While for others still, it is about seeking validation by having their modern rune inscriptions seen in as many places as possible.

It’s not a crime. Photo: Jon Tyson via Unsplash
It’s not a crime. Photo: Jon Tyson via Unsplash

It has hardly escaped anyone’s attention. Street art is the world’s largest art exhibition. Like an enormous snake, it slithers from Santiago de Chile to Amsterdam, from the back streets of New York to central London. It finds its way from rowdy streets in the Bronx to brick walls in Bristol, taking the train across continents. Both figuratively and literally.

These street artists have formed the strongest art movement since postmodernism. It is a movement that has transformed every city around the world. What began as political statements by activists aiming to spread their opinions soon became the artistic language of the street. It became society’s most invisible method of communication. A powerful expression of the anonymous.

See also: Street Art: For the People

When 17-year-old Greek delivery boy Demetrius from Washington Heights tagged Taki 183 all over New York, a new trend was born. Life stories soon travelled through tags across practically every subway car in the city. The most active practitioners were like ghosts in the night and shadows in the day. They followed the sharp light of spring, the hot pulse of summer, the storms of autumn and the snowflakes of winter.

A mural in New York decorated with the faces of Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Keith Haring and Jean - Michel Basquiat. Photo: who?du!nelson via Unsplash
A mural in New York decorated with the faces of Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Keith Haring and Jean - Michel Basquiat. Photo: who?du!nelson via Unsplash

Street art evolved. Tags became graffiti, graffiti became performance and installations. The art form shifted from subway cars to house walls. From crossroads to trendy art galleries and auctions around the world. Names such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were picked up by Andy Warhol and his entourage. Suddenly the most serious collectors of contemporary painting in the world wanted to surround themselves with what most people called vandalism and special police units tried to stop as best they could. Billions were spent fighting the strongest artistic movement of modern times, but no matter how they tried, the pieces were just being shuffled around the board. Graffiti artists found new spaces on untrodden ground. Instead of putting their tags and the increasingly artistic designs on the outside of the subway cars, they covered the inside, and these rapid bombings with tags returned as the conflict with the authorities escalated to a policy of zero tolerance in several countries.

Love Sculpture in New York by Robert India. Photo:  Reno Laithienne on Unsplash
Love Sculpture in New York by Robert India. Photo: Reno Laithienne on Unsplash

Around the same time, the English School of street art received more headlines. Above all, one name in particular appeared in the media more than any other: Banksy.

The art of the Englishman, who initially worked mostly in Bristol, involves a very simple and direct message with elements of social criticism and politics. It quickly appealed to a wide audience, both children and the elderly. However, the purchasing public was split between various socioeconomic classes. The longer Banksy’s career, the more expensive his work becomes in the secondary market. His art has gone from costing a couple of hundred pounds to several million. Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s former gallerist, sold screen prints costing the equivalent of US$40 (£30) unsigned and $180 (£140) signed. The prices remained the same even though there was already a significantly more lucrative market. When they released new work, others were already waiting with their sales notices on eBay. In two minutes they were selling for US$2,500 (£1,920) instead of US$40.

Yet Steve Lazarides still waits for “the floodgates to open”. He means that prices have stagnated for the simple reason that none of the great works are coming to auction. This is because no one wants to sell their Banksy, and if they do come up for sale it happens outside the auction market. There the market is red hot. A signed screenprint of Girl with Balloon currently costs US$180,000 (£139,000). We are talking about a piece of paper that 149 other people have. And 600 others, unsigned.

Banksy, ‘Girl with Balloon’ on the Berlin Wall. Photo: Eric Ward via Unsplash
Banksy, ‘Girl with Balloon’ on the Berlin Wall. Photo: Eric Ward via Unsplash

The original paintings are even more expensive. Currently, US$1 million (£770,000) will get you a signed Girl with Balloon in the secondary market. It originally sold for US$300 (£230). When an original work featuring Girl with Balloon was partially shredded at Sotheby’s in one of the art world’s most notable art performances last year, in the middle of the auction itself, many art experts said the value immediately doubled. In addition, it became a coveted work of the future for museums, just seconds after being clubbed at auction.

See also: The First Works of 10 Famous Artists

While an increasing number of art dealers can count themselves as millionaires of street art, the artists themselves continue to give their own cities art and public decoration without asking for anything in return.

Why is this so? The simple reason seems to be that since none of the significant works have been sold at auction, the auction houses offer reserve prices that are too low. This in turn, drives collectors to sell them in other ways. And so it will go on, as long as auction houses do not guarantee sellers a relevant amount. It would be like playing Russian roulette. Most people who own a good Banksy know what they have. They won’t sell unless they really have to. Or as Steve Lazarides puts it, “If someone offered me £1.2 million for one of the better paintings, then I’d shake my head. £2 million, might get me thinking. £3-5 million might get me to lift it off the wall.”

When I ask Steve, the former dealer for the art world’s best kept secret, about the prices, he replies that most street artists from the generation he worked with were never sponsored, never received stipends, grants or other benefits. Most of the street artists he knows financed their own art projects by selling their art. If it wasn’t so, most artists would be the children of wealthy people. The question becomes, how interesting would art be then?

‘Together we create!’. Photo: My Life Through A Lens via Unsplash
‘Together we create!’. Photo: My Life Through A Lens via Unsplash

In the beginning, keeping the identity of street art masters secret was to avoid prosecution by the police and other authorities, but today it is more because the public wants it that way. When it comes to Banksy, an era has been built around one anonymous person. Nobody wants to reveal the secret or gains anything by it. It is like telling a five-year-old that Santa Claus does not exist.

Once the media hunted Banksy and Steve around the clock, hoping for a name or a picture. But soon they realised that if they were to reveal the anonymous artist and simply write about, for example, “Dave Smith from Brighton” that the magic would be gone. And newspaper sales would drop. If Banksy himself were to step forward today, his claim would most likely be challenged. No one actually wants to know the truth about who he is. Banksy should be Banksy, and the entire art world earns from him being as secret as the Phantom.

Even in the US, some artists have achieved the same cult status for a wider audience. One of them is Shepard Fairey who became world-famous for making a poster of a black man. That man was Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. Today, the work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

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