For over half a century, graffiti artists have been some of the first to encapsulate the mood of political movements, subcultures and creative shifts of contemporary culture - creating art that acts both as savage indictments to witty quips. From London graffiti artist STIK challenging the diversity gap with the viral work Couple Hold Hands in the Street, to Jerkface reimagining cartoon visual culture and asking his audience to create their own joy, there are many a life lesson to be learned from graffiti.
The wisdom behind graffiti has created a constantly evolving creative community between the artists themselves and their curators, collectors and the millions of people who engage with their work on the streets on a day-to-day basis. This wisdom also sets graffiti apart from fine art canons for its confidence to say it how it is and to suggest new ways of living, as well as ways of seeing. As we explore the work of eight renowned graffiti artists, we discover eight distinctive life lessons from the genre that have advanced both social and political conventions.
At the opening of his inaugural gallery show in New York, Keith Haring claimed that public art “is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people”. It was this verve that allowed him to connect with one of the biggest audiences in contemporary art. Through his Dr Zeuss and Warner Brothers inspired aesthetic, he transformed walls into canvases that shattered convention and tackled LGBTQ+ rights, race, death and war. During the 1980s AIDs crisis, Haring created hundreds of works to shift the stigma over AIDs with his 1989 piece Ignorance = Fear, bringing the art world into a new era of creativity as social activism. Through this work, Haring signaled that standing by what you believe isn’t merely an option, it’s essential in an artist’s life.
Sabotaging the status quo is a common milieu for graffiti artists, but Jerkface offers one of the most compelling retorts to groupthink through his subversions of popular cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck and The Simpsons, which ask his audience to search for their own version of the Disney cartoon dream. In these images, the covert graffiti artist draws characters without eyes and hallucinogenic silhouettes. Inspired by 1980s pop art and graphic design, Jerkface’s confronting yet optimistic style has earned him an engaged and devoted following, who like the artist, insist on creating their own joy.
As a politically disenfranchised Brooklynite in 1970s America, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a New Yorker with a story to tell and a status quo to relentlessly question. After a childhood that exposed the chasm between minority and white communities, Basquiat was charged from a young age with the inequality of an America that had only just started grappling with its race problems. At sixteen years old Basquiat dropped out of school, grabbed a sharpie pen and started creating graffiti using the tag SAMO (Same Old Sh*t) to criticise capitalism and racism on the streets of Soho, New York. Throw ups like “the whole livery line bows like this with the big money” alerted the world to global inequality, decades before Black Lives Matter protests began.
When KAWS saw his career reach critical kudos in the early aughts, he knew it was his years of commitment to graffiti that had informed his subversive appeal, and that in risking arrest and illegally spray-painting trains, he was learning that transgressions can help shape success. This mix has led KAWS to become an artist that the art world look to for authoritative yet creative misdemeanors, including his 2019 archetypal cartoon-like rendering of a Chairman Mao character. The controversy piled on to this piece, but it’s this very gaze that’s developed a deep connection with KAWS’ audience - be it a white cube or a street in the middle of Los Angeles.
Making a statement on the Israeli treatment of Palestinian citizens was always going to cause controversy for Banksy, but he persisted, and taught the art world a lesson in the process: be responsible with your creativity, and use it for the greater good. Banksy’s most pivotal works are political, such as Love is in the Air and Dismaland — toppling political discourse through his art is where Banksy teaches the best lessons. The status quo and falling in line are all concerns far too myopic for the artist, who has formed a singular dialogue with his audience through a commitment to the alternative as a form of protest.
Bradley Theodore offers a riposte to the way history has written women, from Marie Antoinette to Anna Wintour, carving a non-traditional path in his platforming of formidable women across global history, politics, the creative arts and even fashion. Using skulls in place of faces, he asks us to question the legitimacy in the history we read on women. In a graffiti world that has been at times problematically focused on the male gaze, the Brooklyn-based artist spotlights the women who have been written out of it, encouraging the art world to reimagine the misconceptions of the female biography.
A five minute walk from his sun-filled studio in Brick Lane, East London, stands one of London artist STIK’s most widely Instagrammed works, A Couple Hold Hands in the Street, depicting a woman wearing a headscarf with a fellow stick figure. This is a quintessential work by STIK, who has used his pop art-inspired aesthetic to encourage viewers to consider a world where diversity benefits us all. The piece has been voted one of the most popular artworks in London, promoting the idea of diverse communities living in harmony, and reminding viewers how graffiti has the ability to impact legions of popular culture, not just contemporary art.
Art Basel Miami sets the agenda for the industry every year, but it’s the Wynwood arts district that attracts the avant garde crowds and gets curators excited. It’s also where artist RETNA’s large scale mural walls have become an essential stop on the Art Basel Miami art tour. RETNA’s commitment to the countercultures of the art world and working with the underdog is one of the reasons his work has resonated globally. Combining the calligraphic styles of Arabic, Lebanese and Roman, he creates a secret language that his creative community recognises. RETNA testifies to the importance of community through art, working with Chanel and Louis Vuitton as collaborators.