Humans have always felt the need to express themselves on the ‘walls’ surrounding their daily lives. Since prehistory, our ancestors have covered cave walls with drawings, using coal and natural pigments. This propensity continued during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, as seen by the frescoes adorning cathedral walls. In every era, walls have served as outlets on which to vent, but also channels for transmitting political, religious or personal messages to the masses. And today? These days, an artistic and aesthetic surge commonly named street art, based on graffiti and stencilling culture, is taking over most countries in the world.

Darryl ‘Cornbread’ McCray in front of a 1967 work Darryl ‘Cornbread’ McCray in front of a 1967 work

Specialists say that street art was born in the early 1970s in the United States, specifically in Philadelphia. This was when Cornbread, considered one of the pioneers of the genre, had fun expressing his love for a woman on the most unlikely walls in the capital of Pennsylvania.

From the outset, the notion of prohibition was intimately tied with the movement. Gaining popularity in low-income districts, street art was wielded like a standard by young artists who sought to free themselves from a social context that was as oppressive as the bitumen they grew up on.

Work by street artist Lee. Photo: fatcap Work by street artist Lee. Photo: fatcap

Banding together in crews, graffiti artists leave traces of their aliases all over the place, usually in well-exposed spots, such as subway carriages in New York, of which there is no shortage of possibilities. Due to its risk-taking element, graffiti is seen as an adventure, and has naturally become one of the pillars of wilfully non-conformist street culture, also manifested by hip-hop and breakdancing. Links can also be made between graffiti and the universes of comics and advertising.

Born Andrew Witten, Zephyr began his career in 1977, painting his alias Zephyr on subway cars. Photo: fatcap Born Andrew Witten, Zephyr began his career in 1977, painting his alias Zephyr on subway cars. Photo: fatcap

In the mid 1980s, the public line hardened. Numerous town authorities began pointing their fingers at what they considered acts of vandalism, calls to violence. Some would go as far as declaring war on these new activists by enforcing heavy fines. But this would not suffice to put an end to what was in the process of becoming a social phenomenon. In Paris and many other European capitals, graffiti invaded historic sites before claiming more territory in suburban ghettos, as well as abandoned industrial sites and the picture rails of certain galleries.

Bansky, ‘Graffiti is a Crime’. Photo: domain.com Bansky, ‘Graffiti is a Crime’. Photo: domain.com

Despite its liberty in form as well as content, street art respects a few codes. Yes you’ll find tags and graffiti, but that’s not all. Other techniques offer artists the means to express themselves on walls. Among these is the stencil: a practical and effective means of reproduction favoured by underground advertisers, but also political activists. Today, the stencil has practically become a fashion phenomenon, unquestionably led by British street artist Banksy.

French street artist Blek le Rat is a pioneer is of the street art stencil technique. Photo: Pinterest French street artist Blek le Rat is a pioneer is of the street art stencil technique. Photo: Pinterest

Another popular method is the sticker: once designed, it’s ready to dispatch anywhere you like. Mosaics by French artist Invader offers is one example, and can be found in most big cities around the world today. Other street art techniques include posters, mural paintings and monumental photography.

Invader. Photo: fnmnl.tv Invader. Photo: fnmnl.tv

Now profitable, hence venerated by the wealthy of the world, street art is today housed in museums and the halls of great collectors – not always with the approval of purists who lament the loss of street cred. Even more paradoxically, this art – whose very essence lies in marginality – has carved out a key position for itself in auction sales, where works by top artists can sell for several hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Bansky, ‘Keep it Spotless’, 2007. Photo: Sotheby’s Bansky, ‘Keep it Spotless’, 2007. Photo: Sotheby’s

When it comes to sales, Banksy has already broken the bank on several occasions. He is incidentally the world-record holder as the artist behind the most expensive street artwork, with his Keep it Spotless selling at nearly US$18 million ($13.6 mil). In 2015, another of his works – a large-scale piece measuring 10 × 2.5 m, produced with Inkie, another artist from Bristol – fetched over 600,000 euros (£524,000) during an auction at Drouot.

Space Invaders, ‘Alias HK_58’. Photo: Mutual art Space Invaders, ‘Alias HK_58’. Photo: Mutual art

In the same year, a ceramic mosaic by Space Invaders was purchased in Hong Kong at the price of 220,000 euros ($192,000). These are only three examples among many that demonstrate the notion of graffiti as an act of destruction is a view that belongs to a past century.

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