Graffiti has been around for centuries - the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians originally coined the term - but its transformation into street art really picked up the pace in 1970s New York. Walls and subway trains became the natural canvas for huge, colourful and masterfully spray-can painted works, all of them 'tagged' - a process in which the artist emblazoned his or her name on to a public building using impressive and very personal typography.
The street art community swiftly started to compete to make their tags bigger and better than each others, as well as formidable and awe-inspiring in their risky placing on public locations. (Graffiti - or as some saw it the vandalisation of public property - was, after all, illegal, and it's only relatively recently that a Banksy on a street corner was seen by local councillors as a fine work of art rather than an insolent act of urban trespass). But what better way to gain notoriety than to have your work out in the streets for all to see.
It was the artists' desire to outdo each other which led to the quality of the work rapidly improving - tags evolved, becoming far more than simple text, with symbols and motifs being incorporated into their design, as championed by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. It wasn't just the aesthetics that appealed; artists also quickly realised that street art was the ideal vehicle with which both to express their dissatisfaction with society and to represent the world they lived in - one of clubbing, rap and low culture. Their work was vibrant and exciting and the mainstream art world started to take notice. Just as the hip hop scene quickly embraced the style and started regularly featuring graffiti in their music videos, galleries soon approached artists to showcase their work.
New York may have kick-started the movement, but England quickly followed suit, and during the 80s, murals and scrawls started to be spotted throughout the UK. It was the work of Banksy - initially a member of the Bristol graffiti gang DryBreadZ crew - that was the real catalyst for changing how graffiti was seen. Much of his work was witty and subversive - such as his 2005 piece, The Kissing Coppers - and it was figurative and easily appreciated. By the late 1990s, his stencilled political and topical pieces had gained notoriety as had he - despite having retained personal anonymity - and galleries and collectors were lining up to have a piece of him.
The effect of all this was to challenge and alter the way in which the public perceived art. No longer was art considered purely to be something seen on gallery walls - the street artists had, in essence, liberated art, though it must be noted that their works do include straight painting. All of which paved the way for artists such as Stik, the British graffiti artist known for his large stick figures, and indeed for LA-based street artist Thierry Guetta, who gained notoriety in 2008 under his moniker Mr.Brainwash, and who Banksy himself bought to the forefront in his 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. As Mr. Brainwash said
'Art has no walls. Anybody can be an artist. Art has no rules. There's no manual.'
No manual, but something of a type cast list - Mr.Brainwash's figures from pop culture, like Charlie Chaplin, or Shepherd Fairey's Barack Obamas.
The street artist's world is a blank canvas then, on which they let their much-admired imaginations run wild. Well, sort of. Street artists can still find themselves on the wrong side of the law for their public displays, but within auction-houses they have huge economic sway - an untitled Keith Haring canvas from 1986 was auctioned off in 2014 for an impressive $4,869,000, a Basquiat piece pulled in a record breaking $110.5m in 2017, and in 2019 the Banksy painting 'Devolved Parliament' sold for $12.2mil, trumping the artist's previous sale record of $1.8million in 2008. With street artists commanding such hefty sums, it's no great surprise that collectors and investors compete for these internationally recognized and much loved pieces of art. Street art may have started on the outside - but it's now the epitome of in.