Simon Armstrong on street art's complex relationship with graffiti, the law and the commercial art world.
I thought we’d start off discussing Basquiat, as he was such a pivotal figure. Is there a danger with his works fetching tens of millions that graffiti art in the public’s mind is just another part of “establishment art”?
Yes, it is. That’s the short answer! But part of the story in the book is exactly that – the movement of a subculture into mainstream culture into high-end galleries and high-value things where something that was totally criminal, totally unacceptable to the art world, is now completely acceptable and collected; leveraged partly by Banksy and things like that. Basically the street art movement is what did that, but then it adds value backwards to people exactly like that. Basquiat’s probably one of the best examples, Keith Haring maybe, connections to Warhol and New York… I just think it’s amazing. I mean, one of those Basquiat paintings a couple of years ago went for an astonishing amount. It was millions. It’s very interesting how derided subcultural movements – these smaller, niche areas which are frowned upon – inform and ultimately become a centre. All this kind of stuff which is ultimately co-opted and becomes, in the centre, totally acceptable and cool starts in really odd, marginalised spaces and places. And that is what I’m interested in. So graffiti street art is a particularly good example of where this has happened. And it’s what I’m trying to talk about in the book really, because it’s largely the history of graffiti, and then street art sort of turns that graffiti movement subculture into this broader, accessible (and let’s be honest – commercial) situation. There are a lot of things to say about Basquiat because he’s a very interesting person anyway, and he refused to be defined as a graffiti artist. He was kind of like an art student who plays around with things that are happening on the street, but he’s not necessarily “in it”. But whether he wants to be defined as that or not, he is regarded as that; a street character.
You mention that FAILE produce framed prints for galleries – is that truly “street”?
No. So FAILE is interesting. When you do stencils and you do posters you’re essentially talking about multiples and the opportunity for multiples. Whereas all graffiti prior is one thing on a wall, which will be painted over, probably, in two weeks. It sort of facilitates mass production and the industrialisation of art where there are multiples, there are many. You can do supply and demand. That’s kind of what street art did and there are two sides to it. It’s a huge, democratic thing. So kids who didn’t have a lot of money, but were really into it, could get a print; you could get Banksy prints for £30 when they first came out, and FAILE for £20 – £50. People can get it, stick it on their walls, collect it, resell it for money. But perhaps the other side of that is where something changes fundamentally and it becomes an object of commerce, rather than an object of art, per se. So I think FAILE are a key group in this shift across, with street art becoming this mass consumption thing, but there are also links to Warhol It’s something I talk about in the book: everything happens within the framework of capitalism, where you can’t get out of it.
Do you think galleries should be showing street art or should it only just be viewed on the street?
Yes, I think it’s fine because I think it’s something else. I think purism is important, but also silly. It belongs wherever it wants to be. It doesn’t have to be on the street, off the street. It’s the simple thing of installing artwork in a gallery in the daytime with coffee and tea and helpful assistants and media support, versus climbing around the underneath of a train carriage at 3am. They’re completely different, technical things. But a lot of the intentions are the same and the messages are the same, they’re just happening in different spaces. And it was inevitable, because it was such a powerful movement. I’m not saying it’s necessarily good or bad, obviously some of the exploitation of artists and the exploitation of people within it is bad, but the movement is clearly a success.
Do you think the final curse of zero authenticity for a street artist is to be referenced in an academic analysis of street art?
That’s very interesting. There are different degrees and there are different groups of people. Within the proper, hardcore, graffiti scene there are very strong codes of ethics about things you do and things you don’t do, and they take authenticity and selling-out very seriously. There are so many people involved that it’s now very diffused and there are all kinds of people doing it for all kinds of reasons. There are people making art aboutgraffiti, or people using older graffiti techniques, but they’ve never painted on the street. Things become so diffused and complicated, you can’t really hold that pure thing because it’s got so big. Three guys got killed last year under a train in South London and quite a lot of journalists came out to speak and ask people for more information. None of the graffiti artists would talk to the press. Whereas if you picked a street artist who worked in an art gallery, they probably would. There are a different set of principles at work. But things have been written academically about graffiti since the 70s and there are some great early books and interviews with people in the 80s. Does it destroy their career? I don’t think so, because a lot of the principle is about how far you can get; how far you can infiltrate. How you can get your name everywhere. The key bit is TAKI 183, the tagger in New York. The New York Times did an article about his tags all over New York city, and that basically kickstarted the entire graffiti movement, because everyone saw that in the newspaper and thought “Right, woah, we want to do that!”
Banksy: creative artist or political polemicist?
Sort of stand-up comedian, isn’t he?! He’s got a lot of one-liners. He is funny, to be fair to him. But also, unfortunately, he’s quite predictable. It’s quite easy to almost guess what he’s going to do next. But you know what, that’s his “thing”, and that’s alright. A lot of people hate Banksy. He’s such a problematic success. He brought a kind of humour and knowing-sarcasm in, which was needed.
A kind of Hogarth of our day?
Yeah, because it’s very male, laddish, competitive, names, tagging, aggressive, bleurgh! You kind of need more than that. A lot of people object, the fundamental thing being about stencils. People couldn’t deal with it, because everything is about hand styles and controlling your spray can. That’sthe craft, that’sthe skill. Stencils are “cheating”. And they thought “Who’s this middle-class guy? What’s he doing?” Graffiti has a set of codes, values and principles, but once street art blows up it’s a free-for-all; you can basically do whatever you like. I think what’s interesting there is when Banksy really took off and was kind of immediately taken on by middle-class, white, young, media hipsters, people who were a little bit uncomfortable with graffiti loved Banksy. So in a sense he’s a crossover. He’s quite problematic, but refreshing and pretty funny. Part of the “thing” is how high you can get up a wall, how you can climb up under a bridge and get something up there, where nobody else can get to it and Banksy is a master at that.
Is Banksy’s self-shredding artwork a marketing gimmick rather than a radical statement about art’s ephemeral nature?
I don’t think it’s just one thing. If you go back to the original ethics, it’s about how audacious you can be, and to take it that far is amazing. But also, for many people it’s stupid and not interesting at all! But that’s the weird dichotomy of Banksy. Many think he’s a sell-out, but actually a lot of his achievements are exactly what graffiti artists and street artists set out to achieve. And he does it with quite a bit of flair, sometimes. He changed everything; he’s a pivotal figure in the whole story, there’s no question of that. When your parents know his name, that’s impressive!
If you could have one piece of graffiti art in your life (irrespective of size or value), which would it be?
I’d have a piece by Dondi White or Futura, or one of the real pioneers. Lady Pink, maybe. One of the real people who changed everything. There are about 10 people who, I would say, are kings or gods.
And one piece of street art?
I’ve got a Banksy! And I’ve got a beautiful Miss Van piece, which is an enormous painting. But there are just too many to choose from! That would be more of an aesthetic choice. Whereas with graffiti, that’s historic. I want an iconic person! It would probably involve spray paint though, because I’m kind of embedded in that, it’s what I grew up thinking about. And I think that’s probably true in the book; that it’s maybe a bit weighted towards graffiti culture and graffiti history. But it’s important because it’s basically the springboard for everything else. So yeah, I’d be more after a piece of graft than a stencil. There’d be only one of them, and not 500!
Words by Saskia Jiggens