Sometime during the 1960s, 17-year-old Darryl McCray started painting, or “tagging” — as it is popularly known — his nickname, Cornbread, on public spaces all over North Philadelphia, the US. It was done to get the attention of a girl he had a crush on. He eventually got the girl, and developed a passion for the rush and excitement of tagging.
That is the purported origin of America’s first modern graffiti writer, or at least the first to get media attention. It marked the beginnings of the modern graffiti movement, though it was in New York City that the movement really took flight and its visual style established, with subway trains, in particular, being early targets.
Graffiti art has come a long way from the inner city of New York. Last year, a dedicated museum named Urban Nation opened in Berlin, Germany, and is but one of the latest mainstream recognitions of the genre.
Over the course of the last two decades, the global movement has resulted in a multimillion-dollar industry, and increasingly crossed boundaries into the commercial sphere. Off-the-cuff spray-paintings have given way to more meticulously planned, increasingly polished expressions of artistry that are sought after by collectors. With it, the term street art has become part of the popular lexicon.
This has been fuelled by the likes of artists such as the mysterious Banksy, whose artworks sell for over millions of dollars — including an especially rare commissioned mural by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on their private gallery wall, dedicated to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It is common to find news of his street art being cut out to be sold, or lawsuits filed over ownership of his public stencil works.
In 2010, an early collaborator of Banksy’s, typography artist Ben Eine, was asked by then UK prime minister David Cameron to present a painting of his as an official gift to Barack Obama. The former US head of state himself used the now iconic stencil posters designed by renowned street artist Shepard Fairey as part of his successful 2008 presidential campaign.
An alternate version of this poster is part of Singapore’s ArtScience Museum’s Art from the Streets exhibition, a first of its scale retrospective on the street art genre here in Southeast Asia. One can get an overview of how graffiti came thus far from its counter-cultural beginnings some 40 years ago. That it is hosted by a prestigious institution in one of the most regimented countries in the world is significant, if also somewhat ironic.
It is curated with the help of expert and writer Magda Danysz, who said in a statement that the exhibition comes at a significant juncture for street art. “It is definitely the most important art movement that has emerged in the 21st century … It is also very important at this stage to be explicit about the history of street art.”
A poster outside the main exhibit hall greets us with a boldly printed statement — “#REINVENT”. The word sets the tone for Art from the Streets, a sort of an invisible thread that runs through the exhibition’s six sections.
The first part introduces early pioneers of the movement, including “King of Graf” Blade and Seen the “Godfather of Graffiti”. Photographs and some original artworks reveal the visual genesis of a form that would become an intrinsic part of popular and hip-hop culture, even if not much alludes to that connection in this exhibition.
A thumbnail series of photographs, in particular, harks back to the colourful, expressive styles ingrained in those growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. From there, we are introduced to the next evolution, which sees the growth of conceptual designs, iconography and symbolisms.
The works mark a maturing of graffiti writing’s anarchical, freeing expressions both in terms of intent and creative techniques. We see how decades before his Obama stencil poster became ubiquitous, Fairey, aka Obey created his iconic Andre the Giant sticker in 1989, which first went up around Providence, Rhode Island.
Soon, a technique that initially existed separately to graffiti began to take prominence — stencilling allowed for a quicker speed (to avoid encounters with the police) and complexity of visual that was refreshingly different. Of course, the most famous of them all is Banksy, who has a small canvas work, Rat & Heart (2015), on display. Also shown is Blek Le Rat, a pioneering French artist who had a defining influence on the former.
Visitors will also get to witness the reinvention that came at the turn of the new millennium as the movement spread beyond the US and Europe to the Middle East and Asia.
In the final two sections, the focus shifts to the influence of the ever-changing urban environment on the genre, and the possibilities that come with mainstream recognition, especially when it comes to scale and accessibility.
The exhibition’s presentation could have been a little more stimulating. While the museum-style display offered a chance to focus on the artworks in isolation, the vitality and energy that comes with street art was noticeably missing. Barriers put up around some of the pieces also undermined the spirit of things, though understandbly necessary perhaps.
Nonetheless, ArtScience makes a valiant effort in keeping the essence of presence in street art alive by commissioning 10 site-specific works by artists from around the world. The varied and impressive artworks by up-and-coming Argentinian-Spanish artist, Felipe Pantone; Paris-based Moroccan artist, Tarek Benaoum; Polish graphic designer and illustrator, M-City; French street artists, Ludo, YZ and Zevs; one of the UK’s leading post-graffiti artists, Remi Rough; Yogyakarta-based artist, Eko Nugroho and Singaporean urban artists, Speak Cryptic and Sheryo & Yok certainly seem a world away from the art form’s graffiti beginnings.
'Art from the Streets' is on until June 3 at ArtScience Museum, Bayfront Ave, Singapore. Tickets are priced at S$17 for adults. This article first appeared on Mar 26, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.