Arts Cover Story Culture

Street art and its transformation from subculture to the mass market

Street art is starting to crash through the established art market, and a crop of one-time vandals are becoming ‘rock-star artists’, with buyers willing to pay big money for their work.

21 Sep 2014

Not that long ago Conor Harrington was dodging police as he sprayed graffiti across Dublin, irritating property owners and the council who had to jet wash his paint off their walls.

He’s now preparing for a major exhibition in London where visitors will come to see his show based around the fall of great empires. Each canvas is expected to sell for well over £60,000.

Harrington is one of a new wave of street artists who made their name spraying walls, and continue to build their fame through striking public works, while pulling in substantial sums selling prints and canvases.

They’re also spearheading an evolution of street art from its subcultural and anti-establishment roots to one where serious money is being made, and where the lines between street art and ‘real art’ are blurred.

Over £250m sold

A top tier of street artists have built powerful fan-bases by spreading their work on walls, which is then diffused to a vast audience all over the world through the internet and social media.

It’s meant street art has quickly gone from a debate over whether it should be described as vandalism, to a sector where over £250m in street art works were traded last year, and all expectations are that the number will rocket this year.

The bulk of that activity is coming from buyers who would have never previously been interested in art now looking to buy a piece to hang on their walls. More experienced art buyers are also beginning to look at street artists as credible investments.

For some observers, the present day A-list crop of street artists have the potential to emulate the value of work from Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Gallery owners say the tantalising difference from those earlier famous street artists is the potential size of today’s art buying market.

Fuelled by the internet

Interest in street art has been fuelled in part by a particular type of urban gentrification that’s spread in cities around the world in recent years and the power of social media.

Street artist turned gallery owner, Charley Uzzell-Edwards, or ‘Pure Evil’ as he is known, says: ‘Street art is the first truly global art movement because it’s fuelled by the internet. If someone is doing a piece in Panama, we’ll know about it the next day.’

Zabou, a French artist living in London, was introduced to spraying on walls by a fellow student on her art course. The same week she put her first ever street piece online, a collector in Miami emailed to order five canvases.

When she headed to Paris and wanted to paint, she put a shout out on Facebook. A stranger offered to take her on a street art tour. The next day they were running from the Parisian police after being spotted painting walls.

Recently she even met someone who had tattooed a piece of her work on himself after seeing it online.


Value of social media

‘Instagram and Facebook gives you the potential to build a large audience very quickly, she says. ‘People can be anywhere in the world and see what you’re doing.’

For high profile artists like Conor Harrington, painting on walls remains both a fun and valuable enterprise. While continuing to provide a thrill to the artist, new murals drive profiles and sales through the barrage of posts on social media.

Fascination over public pieces has spawned the emergence of the street art tour; dozens of which take place every week in Shoreditch, Brooklyn, Kreuzberg in Berlin, downtown LA, Raval in Barcelona and Oberkampf in Paris, as well as countless other neighbourhoods all over the world that are now covered in spectacular pieces of street art.

Each tour further promotes the work of the artists, drawing ‘likes’ from newly educated and enchanted fans who click and post images and name-check favourite artists.

Billionaire street art collectors

The mainstream art world has been slow to adapt to the power of the web and social media to propagate artists. Many gallery owners privately admit they’ve watched with admiration how street artists have built fame, interest, sales and even ultimately raised the value of their work through the medium.

After dismissing street art for many years, the huge amounts of money exchanged has made many of the established galleries suddenly sit up and take it seriously, particularly in America.

Banksy agent and gallery owner Steve Lazarides says: ‘Billionaire art collectors have started coming to us now who are putting it next to their Picassos and Rembrandts.’

He adds: ‘It’s a complete breathe of fresh air compared to the art world.’

‘A very wealthy client of mine was in a gallery in Miami recently. He asked the person how much a piece was, and was told: “Seven”. He was supposed to know the number of zeros so he walked out. A lot of those older galleries are so awful and stuck up.’

A French startup called My Art Invest has been set up explicitly on the premise of the appreciation in value of street art and a new market that wouldn’t previously have invested. Offering the chance to buy shares in a piece of art, it harnesses the global, digital and financial nature of modern street art.

Even in this highly market-driven context of street, certain distinctions remain between street art and traditional art. Street artists are far less beholden to galleries to build their fame, popularity and even sell their work.

This shift in power from gallery owner to artist has empowered and enabled street artists to have greater control in their public identities and how and where they wish to be sold.

Roa, famous for enormous black and white stencils of animals, is one of the most respected street artists around but hasn’t sold a single print edition, despite painting on walls all over the world. He puts on three to four low key exhibitions a year, and is deeply involved in ensuring his work isn’t bought by art traders who would sell it on secondary markets.

The print shop

Commercialisation has been a thorny issue among street artists. Despite continued resistance, a broad outlook has taken hold that making money is fine. It’s how you do it that’s of critical importance.

The model of print editions for street artists has been led by Banksy and others like Ben Eine, who started out screen printing pieces for Banksy. They first began selling small batches (50-200) of signed prints for paltry sums just over a decade ago. By 2008, one of a print edition of 50 Banksy Kate Moss screen prints sold for £96,000 at auction.

Uzzell-Edwards is among several street artists to have been influenced. ‘You do the maths and realise the money from a print series would pay for a small house.’ says Uzzell-Edwards. ‘I’ve taken that model and run with it. It pays the rent for the gallery space.’

He typically sells a 100-150 edition run, for £200 a piece.

Pure Evil, Nelly Duff, Stolen Space, Pictures on Walls and Lazarides are among the most prominent London galleries-cum-retailers specialising in ‘urban art’, where demand from first time buyers for street art print editions has been booming.


Invader spotting

Street art’s principal attraction to date for the everyday buyer has been its simplicity and pop sensibility, accompanied with a strand of rebellion that still lingers. Artists have been keen to maintain the folklore while carefully exploiting their work commercially.

Invader is the French street artist who has been slapping up tiled mosaics inspired by the retro computer game onto walls since the late 1990s.

The pixelly pieces are in over 60 cities and instantly recognisable. The artist even offers an iPhone app that allows users to capture and validate ‘invaders’ spotted anywhere in the world. And the commercial upshot? Various Invader print editions are sold alongside prints, tiles, books, maps and even rolls of Invader tape from his own website. One ‘Invader’ reproduction sold for around £250,000 a few years ago.

Hope to Hennessy

The most successful commercialisation of street art has been by Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster. Even before that poster won him huge international acclaim, Fairey leveraged his fame as a street artist to build a clothing brand, Obey, which is now a multi-million dollar business.

Fairey has also dabbled in the tempting but highly risky area of partnering with consumer brands.

He even felt the need to explain a recent collaboration with drinks brand Hennessy on his website. ‘I look to collaborate with brands in a way that incubates the culture I love. Hennessy is a well respected brand with a quality product, ethos, and legacy so I knew that they would showcase my work in an awesome way… Street art is free, but I also embrace the idea that art and commerce need each other, and can relate symbiotically rather than in conflict.’

Corporate and consumer brands have been waving increasingly vast cheques to other street artists to co-opt street art into their brands.

Threat to the spirit

London artist Ben Eine, famous for his psychedelic lettering spattered around East London, accepted a lucrative commission from Virgin Atlantic, working on the airline’s lounges. Microsoft, Converse and Nike are others who have used street artists and public walls in their recent advertising. It’s heralded the arrival of a gaggle of agents and brokers in street art attempting to forge relationships between artists and brands.

Many street artists remain uncomfortable with this trend, sensitive to the threat it presents to the counter culture spirit that was the attraction to many artists in the first place.

But a recent example demonstrated that even staunchly anti-commercial artists can become dragged into a debate over the value and ownership of their work. The artist Stik turned to lawyers to stop a company using his work (ironically called Art Thief) in a corporate video as recently as August this year.


‘No shame in making money’

The Stik example is the latest to have provoked many artists to question some of the codes and ethics of commercialisation in street art with the attitude of ‘if someone’s going to make money, better it’s me’.

Lazarides says corporate commissioned work is a tiny fraction of the street art business, but there remains resentment in certain quarters towards any commercial activity from street artists.

Lazardies responds: ‘It’s often dumb-ass graphic designers that have a problem. There’s no shame in making money. If these people couldn’t make money, it would only be the children of the rich and famous who would make art.’

Purist graffiti writers and taggers have little truck with any such stance. They have barely-concealed contempt for the ‘pretty pictures’ that adorn walls. The slur ‘toys’ is thrown at the eye-catching pieces that draw the crowds. Physical skirmishes are not uncommon as taggers spray over works.

This fuzzy and difficult debate over the legitimacy to tag over pieces on public walls epitomises street art’s difficult evolution from a scrappy world of territorial and rebellious markings into one that’s arrived into the mainstream and undeniably commercial; one where official permission is often sought and Banksys are laminated in perspex and bolted to stop them being stolen.

Vandalism to beautification

It’s also a phenomenon not lost on savvy property owners.

In the space of a couple of decades, writing on walls has gone from vandalism that damages a building and speaks of the dereliction in an area to one that enhances, beautifies and gentrifies it.

Goldman Properties is an American company that transformed a run down area in the Wynwood area of Miami where street art projects played a crucial role. It’s been a similar story in the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn thanks to the close collaboration between the Bushwick Art Collective and a powerful property developer.

Gabe Schoenberg, who runs a street art tour company in Bushwick, observes: ‘They took areas that were considered shitty parts of town and they’ve made them upscale. It’s art that’s facilitated that. Of course, the real winner was the developer.’

Future of street art

Using street art to assist in gentrification is seen by many as further proof that, in terms of its subversive roots, street art is dead.

It is no longer the preserve of a small community operating outside the law. Since crashing into mainstream culture, street art has been legitimised, sanitised and repackaged into consumer artefacts.

There are concerns from a commercial perspective too. Street art could simply be another victim of modern culture’s voracious appetite for the Next Big Thing to seek out, fetishise, over hype and burn out.

On the other hand, social media and the internet have helped open up income paths for talented artists who were once limited to spraying on the street but can now make a living from their work. Not only has it unlocked opportunities for street artists, but it’s also opened up ‘art’ to a bigger audience.

The business of street art will continue to boom this year with more print editions and canvases sold through the web and specialist galleries. With a new physical and financial infrastructure beginning to take shape, filled with agents, galleries, originals and print editions, the market for street art has never resembled the traditional art market more.

This story is taken from Courier Autumn 2014.