View of the 5pointz complex in Long Island City before erasure (c. 2012)
Subsequent to the erasure of New York's infamous 5pointz complex in 2013 - formerly the world’s largest display of graffiti art - the fate of public street art in New York appeared to be one of clean up, if not outright erasure. In an unsurprising twist, the culprit for the destruction was the building’s owner, who committed the act to transform the space into luxury condominiums. What was once a collective masterpiece (dozens of skilled artists contributed to this canvas, both legally and illicitly for years) was destroyed in a single night. Understandably devastated and with some of their most important creations painted over, New York's graffiti artists immediately sought alternate methods to fight for the legitimacy of their practice and careers. For their first act, 5pointz artists mounted a large banner in 2014, designed visually as police tape, which read “Gentrification in Progress” onto the former 5pointz building.
In their next act, 21 5pointz artists sued the developer in a landmark case that drew the attention of not only the street art community, but the international art world as well. This past winter, in February, the artists were awarded $6.7 million in compensation for the destruction of their creations. A landmark case, the Federal District Court in Brooklyn ruled that the real estate developer removed “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum” and that the artists are owed the maximum amount for the developer’s respective damages caused.
"Gentrification in Progress" by anonymous artists at 5pointz in Long Island City (c. 2013)
On October 1, 2018, the artists involved in that case are set to open a new museum in honor of 5pointz; astutely named the Museum of Street Art (MoSA). This iteration is not open-air, and it is not entirely non-commercial either; surprisingly, it's located in another luxury development of sorts - New York's Citizen Bowery Hotel. Launching this month, the space will honor the legacy of the 5pointz artists, reuniting them once again to collectively create a new work for the public to enjoy.
In homage to 5pointz and this latest win for today's active street artists, we take a closer look at the history of street art with a review of five artists who employed street art vocabulary and graffiti in their work. These creators left their mark in more ways than one - shifting the public’s perception of what art can be.
Five Notable Graffiti Artists
JR, 28 Millimètres: Face 2 Face, Nuns in Action, Separation Wall. Security Fence, Palestinian Side, Bethlehem, 2007, photograph.
Although French artist JR maintains relative anonymity and works under a pseudonym, the artist leaves a significant impact each time he illustrates on what he refers to as “the largest art gallery in the world.” Known for his large-scale photography portraits and his Inside Out project, JR started his career as a teenager in Paris with the desire to transform public spaces. As seen above, JR often merges politics and social events into his subject matter. His works have appeared in post-conflict areas and frequently address our commonalities and the need to come together as humans, regardless of political or economic differences.
In 2007, the artist famously photographed three nuns pasting a photograph on the dividing walls between Palestine and Israel. The artist recalls, “I remember when we were pasting it on the wall, on the Palestinian side and some nuns walked by – and the work is completely illegal – and they recognized Brother Jack! They wanted to know what we were doing and so we explained and they wanted to help.”
The work pictured above, for sale by Sotheby's, epitomizes the artist's civic activity and involvement of community stakeholders in the creation of his large-scale works.
Banksy, Happy Choppers, 2006, spray paint on canvas.
Perhaps the most well-known and controversial street artist of the past two decades, Banksy is prolific in stenciled graffiti works. His identy remains a mystery, adding to the appeal and exclusivity of his works. His artwork appears worldwide and varies in theme, though his most notable and characteristic work - like that of JR - is categorized as visual commentary on contemporary society and politics. Especially in recent years, Banksy has also consistently frequented Palestine to provide his own take on the fraught political situation. He has illustrated several symbols, including a West Bank guard frisked by a child, a dove wearing a bulletproof vest, and windows that offer a visualization of what the other side of the barrier walls would look like.
Another well-known commentary on 20th century warfare, Banksy’s rendition of “Happy Choppers” points to the absurdity of conflict in general. His work is rare and hard to come by in private collections; some of the most valuable pieces in the market - including "Happy Choppers" - were collected by fellow artists and celebrities.
Mr. Brainwash, Andy Tomato Spray, 2008, screenprint.
The central figure in the Banksy-directed film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Mr. Brainwash is a pseudonym for the French artist Thierry Guetta. The film follows Guetta’s attempt to film street artists and their creation processes until Mr. Guetta decides to pursue his own craft, renaming himself “Mr. Brainwash.”
The Los Angeles based Mr. Brainwash is now known for his installations and prints of celebrities and his appropriation of other artistic styles. He borrows his imagery from Banksy, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring to recreate and reinvent popular visuals. In Andy Tomato Spray, for example, Mr. Brainwash utilizes an amalgamation of iconic imagery: the famed pop art visuals of Warhol, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and the image of Warhol himself. Mr. Brainwash encourages the mass production of his artwork and as a result, his art is widely known.
Blek Le Rat
Blek Le Rat, Can You Smell That?, 2008, spraypaint on canvas.
Known as the “father of stencil art,” Blek Le Rat is one of the older groundbreaking graffiti artists of the late 20th century. Born in 1951, he began his career as a teenager in Paris where he inspired the likes of Banksy to create public stencil art. Le Rat was also one of the first street artists to utilize a pseudonym. However, his identity was revealed in 1991 when he was caught illustrating a revised version of Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child.
Le Rat, born Xavier Prou, recreates iconic visuals from the history of art onto the walls of the urban city. His stencils often feature multiple known images in a collage-like style, such as in Can You Smell That? wherein Le Rat includes both the image of a cleaning advertisement and war photographs.
View of an Invader Mosaic, located on a street corner in London (c. 2014)
The anonymous French street artist Invader is best known for creating mosaics in well-chosen and partially hidden, or at least less than obvious, locations in cities throughout the world. Look up, and you may find one looking down at you from the second floor facade of a nondescript apartment building in New York, or appearing on the side of a mountain face in the port city of Split, Croatia. The visual style of his mosaics is often pixelated, recalling the graphics in the 1980s video game Space Invaders.
Invader, born in 1969 in Paris, uses his mosaics as a tool for “going into a city with tiles and cement and invading it”. As a result, the city street is his exhibition space. Invader is inspired by popular culture, in addition to his iconic Space Invader figures, he reworks popular imagery. For example, he has used mosaics to rework the well-known portrait of the protagonist in the film Scarface.