Unencumbered by the restrictions of gallery walls, opening times, and entrance fees, urban art has been illuminating the lives of ordinary people for over 2,000 years. Propelled by its popular re-emergence in the 21st century, thanks to the likes of Keith Haring and Banksy, urban art not only serves a decorative purpose, but is also frequently chosen to express a voice of political and social disenchantment.
From city walls in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, to the modern streets of New York, Paris and London, urban art has made mainstream artists out of its pioneers, whose work today commands millions of dollars at auction and reaches audiences of millions with art purposefully created for the city it inhabits. Combining elements of street art and graffiti, urban art’s subversive presence has spread from walls and subway trains in individual neighborhoods to become a global phenomenon that has illuminated the Berlin Wall and cities across the world with murals and designs of arresting visual power and social conscience.
Often representing the voice of the everyman, urban art has found its way into the heart of contemporary art. Armed with little more than a spray can, activists and artists have reclaimed urban spaces from governments and multinationals to give the gift of art to everyone – without the need for an entrance fee. But, urban art wouldn’t be anything if it wasn’t for these five pioneers.
“Art is an evolutionary act. The shape of art and its role in society is constantly changing. At no point is art static. There are no rules”
Raymond Salvatore Harmon, BOMB: A Manifesto of Art Terrorism
Tracy 168 (b.1958)
The invention of the spray can changed everything for urban art. One artist who early on harnessed its transformative quality was Michael Tracy, better known in New York as graffiti artist, Tracy 168. Influenced by Cornbread and Dondi White, Tracy 168 achieved legendary status as the first to decorate the subways with cartoon characters in a distinct wild style that elevated urban art from name tags to a visual art.
The baroque, spikey appearance of Tracy 168’s wild style technique involved dense layers of twisted lettering and embellished with arrows or drawings, which earned him public and critical praise. “Tracy offers an astounding variety of styles, from 3-D to space-age spiky to Cubistic. He floats out words on cushions of colors, and ties them up in unreadable knots, festooned with tendril-like flourishes,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter.
A mentor to street artists including Keith Haring and the graffiti artist SAMO (who would later reveal himself to be Jean-Michel Basquiat), Tracy has shown at the Brooklyn Museum, but guards his integrity fiercely. “This movement is to art like jazz is to music,” he explained. “It’s a fusion of styles and cultures that knows no boundaries. It is a universal language. And the message of Wild Style is “Be yourself. Find out what your talent is and get good at it.” I love everyone, but I will not surrender the truth and lose my integrity.”
One of the pioneers of the street art movement, DAZE swapped writing graffiti on New York City subway cars for artistic acceptance in the mid-1970s. This began when he joined Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring at a 1981 Beyond Words exhibition at the Mudd Club. His work has since been purchased by the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Inspired in his youth by the colorful, cryptic graffiti on New York trains, Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis’s early artistic education was informal. “I didn’t know if it was art,” Daze remembers, “but I knew it was creative,” and this creativity proved irresistible. Daze enrolled at the High School of Art and Design where he practiced his craft. “There was a creative engine that was driving people to continue to develop and to evolve and to push the limits of what was happening,” Daze explains.
Featuring dreamy imagery fused with bold urban landscapes, Daze’s paintings today concentrate on canvases and murals on commission, which he shows in galleries and museums around the world. He continues to live and paint in New York.
Keith Haring (b.1958)
In a prodigious, but tragically short life, Keith Haring created a distinct visual language that started on the streets of New York City and would propel him to worldwide fame, before his untimely death from AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31.
Haring’s instantly recognisable illustrative murals of figures and symbols were arresting artworks, that were also used as powerful tools of social activism to advocate for safe sex and AIDS awareness, as well as anti-crack and anti-apartheid societal themes. His work was a critical sensation and in 1982 he participated in documenta 7 in Kassel. At auction, his work is equally in demand, as his Untitled acrylic on canvas, in four parts sold for £4,301,250 at Christie’s in June 2021.
After moving to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts, Haring produced over 50 public artworks from 1982 to 1989, many of them voluntarily for hospitals, day care centers, and schools. The artist’s mural Crack is Wack (1986), can still be seen today on an East Harlem handball court.
Shepard Fairey (b.1970)
What started in 1989 with a series of stickers of the wrestler, André the Giant, posted around New York City with the slogan, André the Giant Has a Posse, would bloom into the OBEY clothing line and set Shepard Fairey on a path to worldwide fame.
Fairey attended the Rhode Island School of Design and in 2008 he produced his most recognised work with a series of posters for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential bid, including the iconic HOPE portrait. Peter Schjeldahl, the The New Yorker art critic called the poster “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’.
In 2014, Fairey returned to his urban art roots with a towering mural paying tribute to Nelson Mandela on Juta Street in Braamfontein, Johannesburg to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Purple Rain Protest. In the same year, his Make Art Not War mural in Berlin demonstrated Fairey’s political support for anti-war movements and peace, while the motto was adopted by street artists.
He’s the world’s most famous urban artist and his identity remains a mystery. After emerging in Bristol, England in the mid-1990s as part of an underground art and music scene, Banksy began spray painting stencilled pop-cultural references and subversive political messages on walls and bridges around Bristol and London. Today his work can be seen in cities as far removed as New Orleans and the wall of the West Bank.
The anonymous superstar of urban art has used city walls worldwide to address political themes, satirically critique war, capitalism, hypocrisy, and greed with the help of stencilled rats, apes, policemen, and even members of the royal family. Recently, he took over the iconic Houston Bowery wall – made famous by Keith Haring – to paint a mural of Turkish journalist Zehra Doğan, who was controversially jailed for her painting of a damaged Turkish city.
Banksy’s notoriety sells, even if the artwork is destroyed in front of the buyer. Bansky can simply do no wrong. The partially shredded Love is in the Bin sold for £18,582,000 at Sotheby’s in October 2021. It originally sold for £1.04m in October 2018, but alarms sounded as the hammer fell and the canvas dropped through a hidden shredder built into the bottom of the frame to create a modern master. Free-to-view murals can still be seen on New York’s 79th Street (Hammer Boy), as well as in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto.