When Graffiti Artists Cross That Fine Line:
Banksy, Dash and Samo
by Charles Schultz for whitehot, New York
Unlike traditional fine art, the nature of graffiti is glorified in the thrill of the act as much as in the finished ‘paint job’. At its best, graffiti becomes a beacon of freedom and rebellion that uplifts an unsuspecting pedestrian through wit and wonder as quality public art tends to do. The romantic vision of a sangfroid vandal beautifying the city’s otherwise banal wall spaces, while the working class sleeps, adds to the idealism. But what happens when these outlaws of aesthetics are folded into the bustling world of contemporary art? More importantly, how is their artwork impacted when it is removed from the street and placed on the white walls of an art gallery?
The best known graffiti artist to become an international art superstar is Jean-Michel Basquiat (a.k.a. SAMO). His rampant rise to pop culture deification in the white cube, amounted to an early death sentence. Despite his grievous demise, two new graffiti artists have left the streets for a crack at international art world recognition and they’re both making tremendous strides.
Dash Snow, the brazen young American, and Banksy, the notorious British vandal-turned-artist, are both following Basquiat’s path off the street, albeit in entirely different ways. Snow’s graffiti lacked the satiric wit of Basquiat and Banksy. He none-the-less cultivated the persona of an all-night hoodlum spraying his gang’s four letter insignia, IRAK (street slang for "I steal") all over the lower east side of New York. Like Basquiat, Snow was picked up and promoted by a gallery early in his career and ascended to international recognition at break neck speed.
His work was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, displayed in London’s Royal Academy for Saatchi’s USA Today show, and this spring he’ll be showing in the Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery in Berlin. He has been a doll with the American press who hyped not only his art but his debaucherous lifestyle in feature stories for the New York Magazine and the New York Times. And just as Basquiat modeled high-end suits, Snow has started modeling for Adriano Goldschmied, a trendy jeans company in favor with today’s hipster community.
Banksy, quite unlike Basquiat and Snow, has avoided the initial push of a commercial enterprise through the gallery scene. Already a notorious graffiti artist in London, Banksy snagged international attention when he took a trip to the segregation wall separating Palestine and Israel and painted on it. His reputation ballooned as he covertly hung his own artwork in such prominent public institutions as the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Louvre, the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, and New York’s MOMA and Natural History Museum. He’d put on a number of small underground exhibitions around London before his break-out show, Barely Legal, in Los Angeles last September. This L.A. show cashed in to the tune of six zeros. Since then his works have appeared at international auctions. Only last week, one of his works, Bombing Middle England, sold for over two hundred thousand dollars at Sotheby’s, setting a record for the artist. He’s become such a beloved vandal that when he stenciled a scene on a sex clinic in his hometown of Bristol, the public requested it stay and the city council declared it public art.
The fundamental difference between these three artists is that Basquiat and Snow never attempted to sell graffiti as fine art. Basquiat made paintings and Snow makes collages and installations, both accepted genres of fine art. Although Banksy also produces art specially crafted for the gallery he does sell prints of the same stencils you’ll find on the street. In essence, Banksy is the only one to remain a graffiti artist while achieving the market value of a fine artist.
Of course everyone needs to make money and no one should fault an artist for selling work in a gallery. But unlike Snow and Basquiat, Banksy had already elevated himself to a level just beyond the ordinary consumer’s grasp, therefore making his art more desirable. His graffiti is simultaneously art for the public, free, yet unattainable, and sold to the wealthy at prestigious auctions. In contrast, for Basquiat and Snow, the gallery was a launch pad for their respective careers, but for Banksy the gallery is little more than a store front.
Basquiat’s relationship to the galleries and dealers that established his career and promoted his work became exceedingly strained to the point where he was being used as an art making money pump. Conversely, Banksy has found a way to manipulate the same system and achieve enormous financial success without compromising what seems most important to him, his anonymity. As for Snow, his success is just beginning; we’ll see how he handles the machinations of the global art market.
Banksy, "Bombing Middle England" 2001.http://www.metro.co.uk/news/article.html?in_article_id=36475&in_page_id=34
Banksy, "Balloon Girl" 2004http://www.artofthestate.co.uk/photos/banksy_balloon_girl_downey.jpg
Dash Snow, "Fuck the Police" 2005
Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery
1985. Photograph © Lizzie Himmel
Photo by Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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Charlie Schultz was born in 1982 and raised on an equestrian farm in
central Pennsylvania. He graduated from Bard College in 2005 and
currently lives and works in New York City.