“Graffiti is vandalism, but street art is nice.“ I would venture to say you’ve heard this more than once. The question is how to differentiate one from the other. Tate Modern is one of those that claim to be able to. In May 2008 they commissioned six internationally acclaimed street artists to use the building’s river façade, making them the first London museum to do so. The works of Blu from Bologna, Italy; the artist collective Faile from New York, USA; JR from Paris, France; Nunca and Os Gêmeos, both from São Paulo, Brazil; and Sixeart from Barcelona, Spain scaled the walls and reflected in the water.
In 2011 I talked to Leipzig artist Flamat. Note I said artist rather than graffiti or street artist. I don’t want to put him in a box. He started out as a rebellious 13-year-old with a spray can in his hand. He listed his steps in moving on to the next level when bored of the previous one: tagging, blocking, characters, to expanding to full walls with no pre-prescribed style and then on to doing works on legal walls for money. People call his stuff street art, but he doesn’t. He defines street art as works on illegal walls that are political in nature. He hadn’t painted an illegal wall in eight years and had been taking fewer and fewer commissions. He was having a hard time reconciling the two. According to him, “It’s just medium on a surface. Why is it when it has a slogan, it’s ok and when not, it’s vandalism?”
Flamat is something of an impressionario in town. He chose this name because it’s what they called a lighter back in the day. He doesn’t like the infiltration of American words into the language or the use of them for aliases. He wanted to pick something that expressed where he came from: and that is Leipzig. That, and wanting to break out of the boring mould lead him to more and more experimentation. He has gone in several directions. In 2011 he had a studio (indoors). That’s where I met him. I asked what he was working on and he showed me a poster. He was doing a new one each year.
It was a lovely development of his character work. He’s working more towards kids; he said they have a longer attention span. They aren’t distracted with the ins and outs of adult life. They notice every detail. The poster, a drawing of an apartment building in a French style, had a character in each window. They were each doing something different. The concept being you could hang it on the wall and make up different stories. How wonderful is that! And there’s so much more. Look at his website. I’m sure you’ve seen his work around town. (And for more street art: http://superfreunde.eu, http://derskizzenblog.de, https://www.facebook.com/LEStreetArt).
Meanwhile in Basil, Stéphane Meyer’s, or TRAZ‘s, solo exhibition “Shift- Art in between” opened 4 June and lasts ’til 28 August. One of the curators, Roy Hofer, says, “Street and Urban art is a young interesting art form which seems to be a good investment.” He thinks today’s generation wants something they can relate to and their world relates to the street, even if they didn’t actually come from there. Jean Michel Basquiat was a good example. He and his crew under the tag “SAMO,” for same old shit, adorned the Lower East Side of Manhattan with enigmatic epigrams during the late 1970s. This was where it all came together: hip hop, post punk and street art. He focused on “suggestive dichotomies” like wealth vs poverty, segregation vs desegregation and the inner vs outer experience. By the 80’s his work was being exhibited internationally.
Which brings us back to Europe. Like Basquiat, TRAZ uses words and image. He takes words from the world around him. He equates it to music sampling. In fact he uses a lot of words from hip hop lyrics. He chooses words that have visual contrast, just like he did when he painted on the streets. He grew up in France where he and his friends were very much into the underground nature of hip hop culture. When he went to design school, he never lost that interest. Says TRAZ: “My style is inspired by the graffiti and graphic design practice. In my work I mix and take the best of both worlds, paying attention to small details. I like to draw, adjust and adapt letters, add different splashes of bright color, playing on expressive writing styles inspired by the street art movement. I am always led by a strong desire to continually improve my own visual style, by developing and exploring a alternative approaches, using new mediums. My goal is to continue to surprise and provoke thought from the public.”
Cut back to Leipzig. While so many are focusing on the New Leipzig School, artist Tine Günther is a far cry away. Her rough and ready style comes from the street. With text, abstract forms and dripping paint, you can’t help feel that she was painting in the darkness with someone watching for the cops. Where does she turn for inspiration? The energy of the street with its people, voices, noises, architecture, selling, movement and interaction.
Günther recently asked her daughter the age old question, “What is art?” She replied, “Well mum, art is everything. Like a tree is art for example. Painting also. Everything that is living or has living energy.”
The 1983 documentary film “Style Wars” shows us the origins of Graffiti. It comes from pent up energy just waiting to burst out. Perhaps it’s this energy we all share that draw us to it. Perhaps it’s the collective nature of it. After all, if no one sees it, is it really there? Perhaps it’s its reaction to our modern world. It reflects the society we live in. It gives us modern-day heroes. Perhaps, like Basquiat, we too relate to “kings, heroes and the street.”