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CultureFrom the Streets to the Galleries

From the Streets to the Galleries

 The Rise of Street Art 

In Conversation With Chris Clifford and Midnight (James Carter)

“Street art as a genre is still a relatively young movement and, as such, presents a constantly evolving scene where new artists and trends are always breaking through,” comments the Knight Frank luxury investment index which shows that art values have grown 71% over the past 10 years. From a collectors or an investors point of view, the affordability and access of the genre compared with many other art movements is particularly attractive. But what about from an artist’s perspective? How do the guys tagging graffiti walls feel about this new found hype? 

Chris Clifford is the owner of Private and Public, a local art gallery whose recent exhibition, Mixtape, highlights the importance of Graffiti and Street Art (amongst other forms) from the 1980s to the current day. James Carter aka Midnight is a local street artist, whose work can be seen on the entrance pillars of the Private and Public Gallery building and who is a highly regarded and highly successful street artist and whose credentials stretch far outside of the island. On the eve of the exhibition launch, we sat down with them both to chat about the evolution of street art; a subject explored throughout the Mixtape exhibition and one which James has witnessed first hand. We find out whether the new wave of popularity amongst collectors is damaging the genre’s ‘street cred’ and if Street Art is worthy of such market hype and ultimately investment. 

Let’s start from the beginning. How did Street Art evolve as a genre and when was the moment it started to be taken seriously?

Chris: Graffiti can be many things, from the scandalous scrawling’s of Roman citizens to the radical graffiti of revolutionary 18th century Parisians. It can be scratched, written or painted and for tens of thousands of years humans have been leaving their marks on walls. From prehistoric cave paintings to New York street art, graffiti is something that seems to bubble up wherever humans go and one thing is for certain, it’s an explosion of creativity which in its current form has its roots in the 1980’s Hip-Hop music scene. When did it come on your radar James?

James: I have always been drawn towards it. From a young age, we would take family trips to London and I would stare out the train windows at the concrete canvas around me. The letters, the colours, the shapes and characters really spoke to my creative side. I still remember it so vividly. I studied it as part of my A level thesis and posed the question: is Graffiti art? This then really got my curiosity going and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it, but in Jersey there was no major access to materials. For tens of thousands of years humans have been leaving their marks on walls.

With those limitations, how did you get into working within the street art genre? 

James: It wasn’t until I went to study Graphic Design at university that I started to be involved in the scene. A few course mates were “Writers” and they asked me one day if I fancied coming along to paint, I produced a sketch and then we went to this semi-legal spot on the river Thames in Essex and I started my journey into Street Art. I was instantly hooked: the spray, the smells, the sounds of shaking cans and most of all the challenge to produce crisp clean lines on a wall from a sketch on a piece of paper. It was a life changing experience for me.

Who are the most important figures in the development of the genre?

Chris: For me all roads lead back to Keith Haring who was an American artist whose pop art emerged from the New York City graffiti subculture of the 1980s. His animated imagery has become a widely recognised global brand. Much of his work included sexual allusions that turned into social activism by using the images to advocate for safe sex and AIDS awareness. 

Haring’s popularity grew from his spontaneous drawings in New York City subways depicting chalk outlines of figures, dogs, and other stylized images on blank black advertising spaces. After gaining public recognition he created colourful larger scale murals and produced more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, many of them created voluntarily for hospitals, day care centres and schools. By cleverly melding art with social activism and the hot political themes of the day such as anti-crack, anti-apartheid, safe sex and AIDS awareness Haring is, to me at least, the stand out artist of his generation.

James: Yeh I remember being obsessed with Keith Haring work, I loved the simplicity and style. But also that he used it to convey a message. As I became more aware of the movement I started looking at other artists too like Shepard Fairey, Invader, D-Face, Dave the chimp, Futura and Gary Stranger. All roads lead back to Keith Haring who was an American artist whose pop art emerged from the New York City graffiti subculture of the 1980s.

As an artist, how do you define what is considered Street Art or who is a Street Artist? Many people would associate it with just graffiti, but that seems a pretty basic generalisation…

James: It all started with Graffiti writers, they definitely birthed the movement but when the scene saw stencil artists, paste up artists and 3D artists emerge-  it almost needed a more general term, as they weren’t technically Graffiti writers. But in my opinion it was a label that was placed upon the art forms within “Street Art” to make it more publicly consumable and marketable. It made it able to bridge the barrier from the streets to the galleries.

Do you think then that moving Street Art into the mainstream takes away some of what makes it so provocative and exciting? 

James: I think initially that was the fear and yes it does take away some of the core of what specifically Graffiti was all about, as it was about calming space, making territory. But Street Art as a whole has begun to grow past this initial notion, it’s become something more vast with different outputs and different mediums by artists across the globe, that are producing work for social, political and environmental reasons as well as creative output, so it’s a driving, abundant and exciting movement. But there are still artists staying true to the roots of Street Art and making sure that genres like Graffiti’s history is not forgotten. 

Speaking of making Street Art more accessible, who are the most collectable street artists and how is their work performing?

Chris: The crossover of urban graffiti to the walls of the world’s leading galleries has meant that works by many Street Artists have now become pure investment grade. These pieces have continually risen in value year on year since they were first produced which in-turn has attracted a broad spectrum of investors from around the world. Auction records for unique works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Banksy all continue to perform very well in today’s market and consistently match and often outperform the Old Masters and Modern Art periods of art history.

What are the most expensive works of street art to sell at auction?

Chris: If, as many critics and art historians now do, you subsume the Pop Art genre into the wider Urban Street Art movement then some of the most expensive works ever sold at auction are by artists such as Andy Warhol (Shot Sage Blue Marilyn 1964 sold for $195m), Jean Michel Basquiat (Untitled 1982 sold for $110.5m), Banksy (Love is in The Bin sold for £18.4m) and Keith Haring (Untitled 1982 sold for $6.5m). When you consider that all of these pieces were initially sold for just a few thousand pounds or dollars, the uplift in value over a relatively short period is incredible and outstrips all other asset classes in the market.

“The uplift in value over a relatively short period is incredible and outstrips all other asset classes in the market” 

Why do you think street art is becoming so popular?

James: It’s always been popular, it’s just become a bit more “En Vogue” and people seem to be finally recognising the value and merit in the work produced. But it’s become such a diverse scene and there is so much incredible work by so many incredible artists it just can’t be ignored. 

Is there a specific sort of collector who buys Street Art?

Chris: The amazing thing about the Urban Street Art genre is that it appeals to all ages and all budgets. Teenage skateboarders collect cool and inexpensive prints by relatively unknown artists for a few hundred dollars whereas the urbane Hedge Fund manager in their 50’s, who experienced the Hip Hop explosion of the 1980’s as a youngster, will now pay millions at auction for works by Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. 

James, do you own any street art by other artists? 

Yeh I do, I own a fair amount of street art, with works by Kaws, Invader, Glen Fox, Captain Kris, French Fred, Rost, Shepard Fairey and Dave the chimp to name a few.

 “Street Art is truly accessible, both literally and figuratively.” 

Who are the street artists of the future we should be watching?

 Chris: Love it or hate it, Street Art remains wildly popular and it’s not hard to understand why. While much of current high-brow contemporary art is set within the pristine gallery spaces of Mayfair in London and Chelsea in New York Street Art is truly accessible, both literally and figuratively. 

Undoubtedly Street Art may have lost some of its outlaw cool as many artists transitioned away from the streets into galleries and Banksy’s work has even been used as a marketing tool by developers and city officials but my top 10 pick of the best emerging street artists in the world right now is as follows;

1.    Sara Erenthal (Brooklyn New York) for her signature red lipped portraits

2.    Ben Slow (London) for his monochromatic portraits

3.    Deedee Was Here (Brooklyn New York) for her large bright collages that combine her paintings with billboard posters

4.    Libby Schoettle (Manhattan New York) for her Phoebe New York cartoon characters which have popped up all over the world in the last year

5.    Dirt Cobain (Los Angeles California) for his playfully defiant murals featuring drug paraphernalia

6.    Sr. Lasso (Manhattan New York) whose murals playfully address the boundaries between architecture and the public realm

7.    Sacsix (Wynwood Miami) for his satirical take down of political and celebrity figures such as Donald Trump and Paris Hilton

8.    CB Hoyo (Havana Cuba) for his humorous subversion of iconic Pop Art images

9.    Eelus (Brighton England) for his giant stencilled murals in London and the South of England

10. Ant Carver (Hackney London) for his semi-abstract murals and portraits in Shoreditch

James, same question to you, any artists local or further afield you are appreciating at the moment?

James: I am always looking at art and seeing what’s out there but at the moment I would say check out: 

1. Carpain Kris: London based Street Artist from New Zealand who has a great street style energy and characters mixed with bold colours and type

2. Garry Stranger: UK based Street Artist – Super crisp letterforms and type based graffiti work.

3. Penfold: Bristol based artist – Clean and abstract pieces in print and mural work. 

4. Scien & Klor: French Canadian artist couple – Wild style Street Art with vibrant colours and graphic elements, they have a design company called 123 Klan.



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