Genius or vandalism? The guerrilla artists subverting our streets

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Painting on live snail shells, scrawling portraits on Metro tickets and eating meatballs out of potholes. Matilda Battersby discovers the guerrilla artists working today

Big city dwellers tend to keep their heads down. We race from that important meeting to that great sandwich shop, hardly noticing our surroundings, let alone a particularly striking piece of graffiti or a minute human figurine drowning inside a discarded tin foil takeaway carton. Which is why cities are the chosen canvas for guerrilla artists, otherwise known as ‘street artists’, ‘urban artists’ or ‘graffiti artists’ as per their preference, whose often innovative and surprising artwork is neither commissioned nor given permission to be there.

Many guerrillas work under pseudonyms, like Banksy, Sixeart and JR, protecting their identity to feed the surprising nature of their efforts, but also (possibly) to safeguard themselves against criminal action. For many the distinction between graffiti and vandalism doesn’t wash. Such artists exist undercover, but this doesn’t mean they can’t achieve mainstream success. Banksy is a prime example of a guerrilla who has maintained his anonymity but still had massive commercial accolades, book deals and exhibitions. In fact, his show at Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery was the 30th most visited exhibition in the world last year.

France has produced some phenomenal underground artists. Jef Aerosol, a stencil graffiti artist, has tagged much of Paris with his beautiful drawings; JR, a photographer who makes a point of capturing underrepresented people in society, pastes huge blown up print outs on walls, bridges and pavements; Luc Grateau paints portraits of commuters on discarded Metro tickets, and leaves them for the next person to find. He told The Independent last year: "Every day in Paris, you see dozens of different faces but by the evening, you can't remember any of them. For me, it is important to try and remember." While Invader, a French street artist seemingly obsessed with the Space Invaders video game, sticks small tile murals of creatures from the game high up on buildings all around the world.

Click here or on the image to see examples of guerrilla artists working today

American guerrilla artists inspired by big names such as Neck Face, laser graffiti artists James Powderly and Evan Roth, and the artistic collective known as Faile, are also growing in numbers. A great example is Shephard Fairey, whose unsolicited “Hope” poster for the Barack Obama electoral campaign, has been called "the most efficacious American political illustration since 'Uncle Sam Wants You'", even though the Obama camp had nothing to do with it. Fairey has since been catapulted into the limelight, becoming notorious for his colourful stickers and posters, and (not least) for having been arrested for vandalism 14 times in his 20 year career, regardless of the fact he's had exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the V&A in London.

Despite the commercial success achieved by the big guns, the whole point of guerrilla art is that you don’t have to attend a gallery to see it. There are huge numbers working on individual, small scale projects around the world. You just need to keep your eyes open. For some reason, probably related to the credit crunch, potholes, both here and in America, have become a bit of a trend. With roads littered with the irritating craters guerrilla gardeners or artists (whichever they prefer) like Pete Dungey and Steve Wheen in the UK have been using them to plant flowers in. Meanwhile across the pond, married artistic duo Claudia Ficca and Davide Luciano, have been using potholes as the subjects of bizarre photographs. They turn the crevices into luxurious bubble baths to wash dogs or their dirty linen; they fill the holes with grapes and crush them to make wine; they even filled a pothole with spaghetti and meatballs and tucked in while sitting in the middle of the road.

“We consider our pothole project in particular to be guerrilla,” they told The Independent. “We create restrictions for ourselves. We never close off the street and we never shoot in alleys. We don't have permits, we stock our car with props. We meet our model on location then we set up and shoot. It takes about 15 minutes.” The pair are not political and say their work is playful rather than a comment on the problem of un-repaired potholes. “We wanted to create something that was fun, made people laugh. Turning a negative into a positive,” they say, referring to the whopping $600 repair bill for their car which they ran up after a collision with “a canyon sized crater of a pothole,” which served as their inspiration.

Closer to home there are some extremely interesting artists at work. If you hang out in Muswell Hill or Archway, North London you might come across small splodges of mosaic on the otherwise dusty and boring pavements. Artist Ben Wilson’s canvas of choice? The revolting dots of chewing gum spat out by lazy passers-by. He’s a familiar sight to those who live in the vicinity, lying prostrate on the pavement in bright orange overalls, tiny paint brush in one hand and a blow torch in the other. He’s even developed a nickname as ‘the chewing gum man.’ His work looks really appealing and the concept of using something discarded or careless as the basis to make something beautiful or surprising draws parallels with Ficca and Luciano’s work. But Wilson has been getting political lately, telling the Islington Tribune that he is planning a “guerrilla art protest” against plans for the closure the Accident and Emergency department at the nearby Whittington Hospital.

Elsewhere in London you might come across a creation by the artist known as Slinkachu. This artist plays on subverting normal objects so that sometimes his work goes entirely unnoticed. He customises tiny train set figures and makes it look like they’re swimming in the masala slop of a discarded takeaway curry (see Chicken Tikka Disasta), or leaves the figures drowning in spilled milk. One of Slinkachu’s projects saw him graffiti-ing tags onto snail shells before setting them free: “I like the idea that these little creatures are decorated and then sent on their way. That these pieces of art disappear into the city and have the potential to re-emerge at any point, as I think snails live for quite a few years,” he explains.

One of the brilliant things about guerrilla artistry is that it’s largely devoid of the self-congratulatory pretensions of a lot of modern art. The work itself can cost next to nothing produce, is often part of a weird obsession on the part of the artist and not part of a money or glory chasing need. The elusiveness of the artists is a testament to this, perhaps because the anonymity separates ego from the work. As Slinkachu remarks: “I don’t often wait around to see how people react to my work. I prefer just to leave and not to see what happens to it.” Guerrilla artwork is also about the corruption of what we're bombarded with in our daily lives in terms of bill board and street advertising. It can make destruction positive, a political act ridiculous, and (best of all) it proves that nothing is sacred and that everything can be scrawled on.

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