I have always thought that part of the success of street art lies in the fact that these artists manage to integrate their oeuvres within urban spaces in the most unexpected ways. Their provoking works interact with what’s around them and force us to view walls, bridges, doors and windows through different eyes.
Outside of their context, ordinary objects and themes from pop culture gain totally new meanings. Take mushrooms, for example. When you see them on your plate they look delicious, and not at all surprising. But what if you are walking in the street and spot Christiaan Nagel’s signature polyurethane mushrooms? Or what about Vhils’ portraits, which stare at you from the wall next to the front door of anonymous buildings, right under CCTV cameras?
People say that few cities in the world are as rich in street art as London. I gained a better perception of the dynamism of the graffiti art scene in the East End thanks to Love Art London’s Beyond Banksy tour. On a damp British evening, off we went to a graffiti walk in the area on the footsteps of Noir, El Mac, Ben Eine, Stik, Roa, Invader and Jimmy C, just to mention a few.
Illegally painted or commissioned, on view for free or sold by art galleries: each of these artworks has a story to tell. The trailer for Shafiur Rahman’s documentary Brick Lane in Art will give you an idea of the variety of styles and intents of street art.
So what about the legendary Banksy? You can still spot some of his works in the area, but they have either been “seized” by pubs and restaurants (see the picture below), or it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty whether they can be attributed to the elusive artist, to the point that his online statements are the only way to determine what is Banksy’s and what is not. And when new works appear on walls or doors, they vanish in the blink of an eye as soon as someone realises that it is easy to make a lot of money out of them, whether it is for a good cause or for personal profit.
Why do we need to go beyond Banksy then? First of all, because the London scene has much to offer and Banksy’s presence (even when the artist is absent) casts a shadow on the talented underworld that lights up the city.
Moreover, Banksy has already gone beyond himself. Although the artist is still in control of happenings and performances such as the recent New York residency Better Out Than In (for which he received a Webby Award as Person of the Year), in some ways he has lost control over relevant aspects of the business related to his art.
With the echo of the controversies over the unauthorised Stealing Banksy exhibition still clearly audible, Banksy: the Unauthorised Retrospective at Sotheby’s is now making the headlines. Curated by Steve Lazarides, the artist’s former agent, the exhibition is currently on view at the S|2 gallery in London until 25 July.
Some say that Banksy is no longer the sensational guerrilla graffiti artist captured in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and that his innocence has gone forever. I’m sure that Banksy got over it, and he might even visit the show sniggering with satisfaction about this whole story.
(Photos taken during Love Art London’s Beyond Banksy walk, 28 May 2014. More pictures from the event are available on my Instagram profile).