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From Underground to Sotheby’s
The Rise of Street Art

Since a Banksy was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for more than 300,000 pounds at the latest, Street Art has become collectors’ new pet child. But graffiti art made its breakthrough back in the 1980s, the Deutsche Bank Collection, among others, acquired works by artists such as Keith Haring and Futura 2000. Tim Ackermann on the emergence of a subculture.

Desperately seeking Banksy: over the past several years, the art establishment has brought forth a human equivalent to the Loch Ness monster with the anonymous street art megastar. Each year, just in time for the summer lull, the British media outdo one another in their attempts to track down the phantom with the spray can. But Banksy has always been an expert at masking his identity and location. His anonymity is also his protective shield. After all, he's wanted by the police.

Banksy, Can't Beat the Feeling, 2006,
Deutsche Bank Collection

It's around eight years ago now that the first subversive spray-painted stenciled images initially appeared in London's East End: small anarchic rats picking locks, sawing holes into floors, painting over official signs, or otherwise throwing a wrench into the works of the big city. Elsewhere, there were images of little girls holding balloons; two police officers passionately kissing each other; or a gang of apes lurking underneath a railroad bridge in Shoreditch, and below them the menacing prophecy: "Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge." The art was funny and cynical, poetic and political all at the same time. It was wonderful—and it was free.

The artist who goes by the alias "Banksy" has a fairly cynical sense of humor and a keen instinct for the icons of art history and current events, which he also revealed in his later marketable works. For instance, in Can't beat the feeling, today a part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, he combines the infamous photograph of a Vietnamese girl fleeing from the Napalm bombs of the American army with pictures of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.

Banksy, Stop and Search, 2007
Courtesy the artist and Lazarides Gallery
(c) Banksy, 2008

From early on, Londoners grew to love Bansky's trenchant — if not always easily appreciable — spray-paint images. The works have become a true fixture in the city, and some are even looked after by neighborhood councils. At the moment, however, it remains to be seen whether Banksy will continue working in the streets in the future and delight the art world with more and more daring actions and sarcastic murals.

This summer, the British Daily Mail printed an alleged photograph of the spray-paint artist; it also provided a name: Robin Gunningham. While this latest disclosure might be a sign that things are closing in for Phantom Banksy — the hype surrounding the graffiti star keeps growing. It's no longer merely Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Christina Aguilera, and Dennis Hopper who are interested in the Englishman's pictures; over the last two years, Banksy has conquered the art market in an unparalleled way, and astronomical sums are now being paid for canvas versions of his spray-painted stenciled images.

Paul Insect, Dead Sid on Gold, 2007
Courtesy the artist and Lazarides Gallery
Copyright: Paul Insect, 2008

In October of 2007, the hammer fell at Sotheby's auction house on a bid of £322,900 for a genuine Banksy. Another picture was auctioned off on Ebay for £208,100—including the wall it was sprayed on, mind you. On the other hand, the unknown collector who chiseled a spray-painted rat by Banksy out of a cemetery wall and then had the wall restored for 20,000 Euros wound up with a real bargain, according to a report in the BZ in Berlin.

The commotion surrounding Banksy is so great that he has almost single-handedly established street art as a major new phenomenon on the art market, flinging the gallery doors open wide for a whole slew of other street artists. When Paul Insect, whose work is shown in the same London gallery as Banksy's, had his first solo exhibition in 2007, it was already sold out before the opening: Damien Hirst shelled out over half a million pounds.

Faile, Braving Faile, 2006/2008
Courtesy the artist and Lazarides Gallery
Copyright: Faile, 2008

So, are we looking at the next big sell-out of an urban sub-culture—a culture that, in its temporary occupation of urban space, has always had a turbulent understanding of the concept of private property? The big street art market offensive can't be explained quite this easily, because the scene was never really homogenous. In the early eighties, when the five boroughs of New York City were covered by a dense sprawl of graffiti tags; when newspapers starting printing stories about well-known graffiti artists like Taki 183 and photographers like Henry Chalfant documented the graffiti-covered subway trains of New York—when the subcultural phenomenon of graffiti was about to take a serious leap across the Atlantic towards Europe, the term "street art" was coined in reference to a special sub-genre of spray-paint art. The Briton John Fekner, who with his slogans and sprayed dates was one of the pioneers of this movement, recalls the scene's skepticism towards the new label in the book Street Art — The Graffiti Revolution: "We laughed at the term "street art". If you had a degree, you did "street art" as opposed to graffiti."

Even if Fekner's description isn't quite correct in its generalization, a fundamental difference has remained: classical graffiti artists work for a hermetically sealed insider circle. With their nearly indecipherable tags, they make their mark in as wide a radius as possible in the city space, communicating with one another but not with the rest of the public.

Futura 2000, ohne Titel, 1984,
Deutsche Bank Collection

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