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What You Need to Know About Street Art

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What You Need to Know About Street Art
Jean-Michel Basquiat in "Downtown 81"

Practiced by everyone from prehistoric cavemen to the ancient Romans to your neighborhood teenagers, street art is less a movement than an impulse: the urge to infiltrate one's everyday surroundings with artworks that project a personality, an idea, or a graphic sensibility. Though this artistic tactic has been constant throughout history, the street art phenomenon that surfaced to the contemporary mainstream in recent years has brought the oppositional dynamic at its core between art and vandalism-creation and destruction-under fire. While street art remains controversial, it has never been more popular.

Growing from the group of "taggers" belonging to the cultures of hip-hop and punk rock, street art no longer solely describes the artists who spray-canned the train-yards, subway rails and abandoned nightclubs of New York City, Los Angeles, and London in the 1970s. Although as early as 1979, graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy were exhibiting in galleries, it was not until the 1980s that artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat began to be widely recognized by institutions, critics, and collectors, creating work that applied the styles they had cultivated on the urban fabric onto canvases and prints. Street art quickly became an international phenomenon, with diverse local scenes developing in cities worldwide, from the Mission School of San Francisco to the darkly humorous, trompe-l'oeil stencils of Blek Le Rat in Paris or Banksy in London and Bristol. In São Paulo, artists like Os Gemeos merged the local tradition of "pixação"-illicit political statements scrawled onto the city walls-with hip-hop culture to create a unique visual idiom.

More recently, street art has increasingly gained recognition and acclaim as fine art, with artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey exhibiting in solo shows at museums and galleries worldwide-and commanding increasingly high prices. At a 2011 auction at Christie's, a Banksy canvas sold for over $200,000. That same year, Jeffrey Deitch curated the exhibition Art in the Streets at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the first major museum exhibition in the United States devoted to the history of graffiti and street art. Films such as Exit Through the Gift Shop have similarly aided in transforming what was once an underground subculture into a mainstream movement. The political orientation of many street artists hasn't been dulled by fame: Fairey's Hope poster became the single most recognizable image of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.

Artists continue to play with the boundaries between street art and traditional media: Rona Yefman's DIY Kit, I Love My Life allows collectors to become stencil graffiti artists themselves, while artists such as Jessica Hess, Cabelo, and JR mix painting and photography with the influence of classic graffiti style for the purposes of urban activism. Considered by some to be at the vanguard of contemporary art (and vandalism by others) street art remains subject to a numerous different interpretations and reactions.

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