What’s Driving the Popularity of Urban Art in France?

Lot 33: J.R., "28 millimeters/Karcher," printing photograph on paper on wooden palette, 2007. Artcurial (December 12)

France is home to many bastions of Western art history, including iconic museums such as the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Musée Rodin. Despite its traditional institutions and long history of supporting academic art, France has increasingly become a hot spot for those interested in collecting urban and street art.

As the category continues to grow and begins to appeal to a broader collecting audience, some of the largest galleries and auction houses in France have started to regularly host large and successful sales of urban and street art. In December, Artcurial is hosting a sale of urban art; their previous three sales dedicated to the category in 2017 reached a collective hammer price of $3,351,208. Arnaud Oliveux, Director of Artcurial’s Urban Art Department, suggests the reason for its growing popularity may be that urban art is one form of contemporary art that the public can get their hands on before institutions, which have been slow to incorporate it into their collections.

Urban Artists You Should Know

  1. Banksy
  2. JR
  3. Invader
  4. Shepard Fairey
  5. Os Gemeos
  6. Futura 2000
  7. Dran
  8. Dondi White
  9. Rammellzee
  10. Seen
  11. KAWS
  12. Mr. Brainwash
  13. Revok
  14. Miss Tic
  15. Ernest Pignon-Ernest
  16. Blek Le Rat
  17. BANDO
  18. MODE2

Defining Street and Urban Art

Urban art is often made by city-dwellers and is about living in modern metropolitan environments. Its development is connected to protest art, antipropaganda, hip hop, typography and calligraphy, vandalism, comics, and video games. Unlike street art, urban art isn’t necessarily created on or for public spaces, but is often produced in a studio by artists with connections to graffiti and street art.

Lot 41: Os Gemeos, “Maria De Seu Pereira & Pereira De Maria Beje,” mixed media and paint on panel, 2012. Artcurial (December 12).

Some authorities on the subject consider street art and urban art to be interchangeable terms, but this continues to be a topic for discussion. In an article in Widewalls, Anika Dačić suggests the difference can be compared to that between graphic novels and comic books: similar to the outsider, but glaringly different to the fan.

Although it is widely said to be one of the most important contemporary art movements, defining urban art is challenging because of its Postmodern nature: works are not unified by style so much as by context. Unlike other art movements, according to Julie Ralli, Director of Urban and Contemporary Art at Tajan, “it is a terminology and a movement defined by critics and professionals, rather than by the artists themselves… There are, therefore, a huge variety of intentions and practices in the movement.”

Global Roots, Local Resonance

Urban art is a movement with roots in many societies around the world. Yannick Boesso, Director of the Urban Art Fair in Paris, says that it would neither be right nor fair to give a provenance to urban art. “Excluding prehistoric art, there have been different major apparitions of this movement across the world, all around the same time, but for different reasons.” Boesso cites graffiti in New York City and Philadelphia, Pixaçao in Brazil, and Dishu in China as some of the preliminary breeding grounds for street art.

Lot 13: Blek le Rat, “Lady in blue I,” spray paint and acrylic on wood, 2011. Sold via Tajan for €15,600 (October 2015).

France has a great history of street art, Boesso notes, having fostered pioneers of the movement like Blek le Rat, “notably one of the artists who most influenced Banksy.” Just like hip hop in New York City, where the atmosphere of respect, collaboration, feedback, and shared learning nurtured its growth, “the French market supported its artists, so they’ve been able to push boundaries and work abroad, be it in the street or in a gallery,” says Boesso. “No other country adopted the hip hop culture, with graffiti and its derivatives, as early or with as much vigor as France,” Ralli adds.

The famed revolutionary spirit of the French may be responsible for this push toward the new. As a country that prides itself on its ability to effect change through protest, the fostering of radical art may come more naturally to the French. Boesso explains that during the events of May 1968, when French students were in large part responsible for the overthrow of the French government, France saw a period of profound expression through propaganda, billposting, happenings, and artistic appropriation: many of the key elements of contemporary urban art. Ralli agrees, “in view of our history and artistic culture, it could be that the French public are more open minded, or more on the quest for novelty, avant gardism, and contemporaneity.”

Moving Toward a Digital Future

Lot 12: Rammellzee, “How to Make a Bomb,” aerosol paint, acrylic, and collage, 1985. Artcurial (December 12).

It might seem counterintuitive that urban art could thrive in a digital environment, but the internet has fuelled its popularity and presented it to a global audience. “The internet and digital technology has allowed us to conserve art that has disappeared… Thanks to this, I can see work by Revok in LA, or the graffiti-covered trains of Rome, even though they have been cleaned,” says Ralli.

For specialists in the area, this presents infinite opportunities for the future of urban art through new combinations, hybridization, and collaboration. Eventually, the category could evolve using today’s disruptors: virtual reality and hacking, “even if, at the moment, progress is hampered by barriers to investment, or a lack of universal usage (digital development skills, charging, etc.),” says Boesso.

Political Influences on Urban Art

Shepard Fairey, “Palace of Power (HPM),” silkscreen on paper, 2016. $8,000 via 212 Gallery.

When asked about the political influences on urban art in today’s heated environment, Boesso mentions the significance of subway graffiti in the South Bronx as an economic crisis took hold in the 1970s, murals along the river in LA during times of increased violence in the 1990s, urban art in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprising, and the public response by artists to the Charlie Hebdo attack in France.

“It is not more pertinent to yesterday, today or tomorrow. Human society advances through friction between different people and classes, and by fighting for rights and conditions. I do not think that Street Art is more pertinent […] than the first pamphlets of the enlightenment. It is just one of the means of expression of our perpetual struggle,” says Ralli.

Find more street art on Invaluable, and read on to learn about 5 French artists specializing in Digital and Urban Art at the Salon de Montrouge.