There’s an odd emotion that hits me as I gaze upon Ernest Zacharevic’s works of art, one afternoon in Penang under the blazing overhead sun. It’s that profound sense of loss.
The flaking faded paintings before me lies in a nest of clustered pre-war buildings along a narrow street. A joyous little boy with an outline sketch of a dinosaur on a leash plays side by side along another pensive boy wearing an unstrapped motorcycle helmet, seated atop a real motorcycle — an extant architectural feature set up against the faded red wooden door of a crumbling Chinese shop lot.
The images themselves are painstakingly painted directly onto the wall and door. As the years pass by, they seem to grow more translucent, as if to blend and dissolve right into the peeling walls before the eyes of thousands of tourists who throng the narrow roads of Penang in search of the Lithuanian street artist’s famous pieces. The locations of his works on the walls of atmospheric shophouses in the inner city of Penang have been transformed into legitimate tourist destinations, complete with long queues for selfies and dedicated souvenir stalls.
Yet it’s the nagging sense that these paintings were not made to last forever that makes me sad.
“Street art is by its nature ephemeral and often it exists for just a few days; sometimes just a few hours, but very seldom longer,” explains Honor Harger, executive director of the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Just weeks later after my encounter with Zacharevic’s art, I’m here to experience Art from the Streets, which traces 40 years of street art, from its countercultural beginnings to its extraordinary rise as a major phenomenon in contemporary art. The exhibit has been curated by street art expert and writer Magda Danysz.
The leitmotif of street art, she says, is to provide instant but transient enjoyment. The purpose of street scrawls, murals and masterpieces is to exist within the everyday development of the place they inhabit. Street art isn’t intended to survive. The clue is in the name of a movement that began as a visual, creative protest.
Street art usually exists for only as long as the surrounding environment will allow it and artists like Zacharevic understand that. “I’m kind of happy for them to disappear,” he admitted to Lonely Planet. “I’m just as much a spectator as everybody else.”
A controversial start
From early prehistoric cave paintings and inscriptions on the walls of Pompeii, to Chinese dazibao and graffiti — coined from the Italian verb ‘to scratch’ — street art in all its eclectic forms has emerged and reappeared throughout history and across civilisations.
Some of the earliest expressions of street art were certainly the graffiti which started showing up on the sides of subway trains and walls in the late 20th century. Street art then often referred to guerrilla artwork on inner city walls and train lines, a movement popularised in the late 60s and 70s. One of the earliest forms of graffiti was “tagging,” or the use of elaborate typography to encode the painter’s name on the sides of buildings or subway cars. The artists’ skills were determined by evaluating control of the spray paint and developing their unique typographical marks.
It was also during a time when street art served as a way for disenfranchised groups of citizens to express their dissatisfaction with society. Street art hasn’t always been accepted as the norm. For many years, it was synonymous with vandalism, causing many artists to use it as a form of expressive rebellion. As the 90s era saw a significant rise in street art around the world, it has since remained a popular mode of expression particularly with regards to social issues.
“In 1975, graffiti was a shorthand way of accessing the mood of the time,” says writer Jon Savage in his 1992 history of punk, England’s Dreaming. “Graffiti was like a secret code, the voice of the underdog. It was people telling you things you couldn’t read in mainstream media and wouldn’t necessarily think about.”
Essentially an illegal activity, a process of creation through destruction began its evolution into numerous forms of artistic expression which eventually found its way to galleries and the global art market. Although still considered subversive and frowned upon by authorities, politicians and affluent communities at large, art enthusiasts have strived to ensure that street art earns its place in the contemporary art world. “Street art often has a loud rebellious voice of its own,” adds Harger with a smile.
The large colourful canvas of colourful explosions and lines grabs my attention. “This particular piece here is historically significant,” reveals Harger. Iconic street artist Futura began painting in the New York subways during the 70s and soon developed his own abstract graffiti style he termed as “futuristic”. “He wasn’t just interested in ‘tagging’ his name but wanted to work with colour and form. When we look at an image like this, it calls to mind some of the great works of modern art like Kandinsky. It certainly has a very different style to what we might have been seeing in subway stations,” she says.
The pioneering American artist, adds Harger, helped define the graffiti movement of the early 1970s by moving it away from lettering and towards the more painterly, abstract style, paving the way for a whole new generation of high-profile urban artists.
In the early 1980s, Futura began painting “legally” while he toured Europe with the punk band Clash. He would create extraordinary backdrops while the band played their music. These were seen by thousands of fans which ultimately took his work to a global audience. “Very few of these backdrops exist today,” says Harger wistfully, adding: “They weren’t designed to be placed in a frame and exhibited at a museum. Most of them would’ve been thrown away.” She tells me as an aside that many of the contemporary street artists the museum commissioned for this show turned his art display into a shrine of sorts. “After all, it is a piece of history by one of the world’s most influential street artists.”
Evolving art form
Like any 40-year-old underground creative movement, street art is omnipresent in towns and cities worldwide and continues to retain that legacy of irreverence even in its most sanctioned forms. From surreptitious etchings on walls late in the night dodging the prying eyes of police and angry landlords, street art has nevertheless evolved into an art form that’s admired and slowly gaining the respect and accolades it deserves.
Authorities and developers no longer whitewash over revered street artist Banksy spots on their properties; there was outrage when his Old Skool was painted over. I recall a similar outrage back in Penang not too long ago when Zacharevic’s street art became the target of vandals. Where in the past street art used to be viewed as an eyesore and detested by city authorities, works by Banksy now fetch upwards of a million pounds.
As I walk through the exhibits, I’m reminded of the extraordinary fact that street artists utilise their environment as a canvas like no other movement before. Any surface can be turned into a canvas. They go beyond the confines of the expected, or training, to create works on any background — from walls to railings, from wood to metal, from buildings to vehicles. Street art’s fundamental appeal is twofold: it contests hypocrisy and inequality in society as it serves as self-affirmation for artists whose oeuvre lies beyond the traditional scope of fine art.
Invader’s pixelated video game-like installations in mosaic have appeared in over 65 cities, in major gallery exhibitions, and at auctions. Zhang Dali spray painted more than 2,000 silhouettes of his head on the walls of condemned structures throughout the city of Beijing. In some instances, he punched through the wall to create the head in profile. “All the buildings are gone and all the artworks are gone. So the only way we know is through humble documentation,” says Harger.
Italian artist Blu creates giant monochrome illustrative drawings, many of which cover Berlin’s abandoned buildings. French artist JR makes supersized photographic installations. Shepard Fairey, whose OBEY stickers and posters have been a cult for over a decade, reached the mainstream with PROGRESS posters donated to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign back in 2008. “He wasn’t working for Barack Obama, he just believed in the values Obama was campaigning on,” points out Harger.
Yet despite this success, these artists and their contemporaries still find themselves on the wrong side of the law for their sometimes unsanctioned public displays. French artist Zevs with his trademark ‘liquidation’ technique kick-started an exhibition in central Hong Kong by daubing a dripping, black Chanel logo on the outer wall above the window of a Giorgio Armani boutique, which led to his arrest and brief imprisonment for damages done to the building.
“That’s why most street artists choose to remain anonymous. Street art is more often than not — despite the accolades —considered illegal as it usually involves the vandalism of property,” explains Harger with a laugh. Dubbed as the world’s most famous vandal, Banksy is considered the most controversial artist in the field of street art today. His images depict his satirical criticism of socio-political issues aimed at political hypocrisy and social injustice. Key elements of his signature include rats as his ultimate role model for the insignificant and unloved.
What some call vandalism, others call street art. Where some see criminals, others see outlaw poets, heroes of free speech taking their work directly to the people, bypassing galleries and auction houses, and breaking down the lofty walls between art and the public. And while everyone knows street art often comes with a limited life expectancy, it doesn’t make it any less painful — as I had discovered one sunny day out in the streets of Penang.
Art from the Streets
Where: ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
When: Until June 3
For details go to www.marinabaysands.com/museum/art-from-the-streets