Urban myths: Has street art sold out?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As a new show dedicated to graffiti, stencils and spray paint opens, Matilda Battersby asks if such anarchic work really belongs in a gallery

The pavements near where I live in north London are unremarkable but for one thing. The disgusting splodges of chewing gum ingrained on drab, dusty paving stones serve as a canvas to the street artist Ben Wilson, who regularly creates miniature murals on them.

Wilson can often be seen dressed in Guantánamo-orange overalls, stretched out on the roadside with a paintbrush in hand. He and his colourful offerings, which feature local landmarks, political statements and cartoonish caricatures, are well-known in the area. Children call him "the chewing gum man".

As with most street artists, Wilson's work is uncommissioned, unsolicited and illegal. One of the joys of it, and that of other urban artwork, is the surprise of encountering it under otherwise ordinary circumstances. In Bristol and London, where the UK "scene" is at its most vociferous, you won't just find Banksys but a huge range of daubings, murals, stencils, stickers and installations by any number of creatives known by pseudonyms to safeguard them against arrest. Their work is provocative, political, uncensored and usually exacted under cover of darkness. Viewed as vandalism by many, street art is steeped in punk, anarchy and iconoclasm. Because it ideologically sticks two fingers up at the Man, it seems anathema that street art should become increasingly commercial.

This month, a touring exhibition of the Victoria & Albert Museum's collection of street art prints, which includes pieces by Banksy, D*Face, Ben Eine and Shepard Fairey, makes its UK debut at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry. To accompany it, the gallery has specially commissioned six new works by emerging street artists.

I found this news surprising. After all, a gallery commissioning street art undermines the nature of the genre, doesn't it? Exhibiting art influenced by graffiti and tagging is one thing, but offering up white walls to be spray painted is another. When Faile was asked to exhibit at the Tate Modern in 2008, the gallery was sensitive enough to offer up its external walls rather than its interior ones.

"Street art belongs on the street," says Ben Eine, an artist who hit the headlines when David Cameron gave one of his paintings to Barack Obama during a visit to the US in July. "But I'm a working street artist and I earn my money selling art in the style of street art via galleries. I don't get paid for what I do in public places. So I invest the money I earn in galleries back into doing the stuff I passionately want to do on the street."

Eine thinks his approach negates accusations of selling out. He says: "If that's how artists are going to work, then I think it's cool. But if they're just a bunch of so-called street artists that make stuff in their studios and sell it in galleries, then they're making a bad choice."

Gill Saunders, senior curator of prints for the V&A, told me she had no idea the Herbert had commissioned new work to go alongside the collection the museum had put together. She wasn't alarmed at the news, but was interested in what she called the "life cycle" of such works, and whether they would be destroyed or sold after the show.

"I suppose there are two angles on this," Saunders said. "On the one hand, I'm wary of commissioning such work as I think it should exist out on the streets for its own sake. On the other hand, you could say that street art is partly ephemeral, but it's also a kind of performance art. In that sense, I think it's perfectly valid for a gallery to commission something to mark an event in that way."

The Herbert is not sure what will happen to the artwork post-show. Much of it is being made on MDF boards rather than real walls, so can be peeled off and taken home by the artists afterwards. If someone wants to buy one of the pieces then they can do so privately via the artist, but as it is a public gallery the Herbert would have no hand in this.

Pahnl, one of the artists commissioned by the Herbert, says he hasn't had any criticism from his friends in the scene. "Graffiti writers and taggers see anybody who enters the gallery environment as selling out. But street artists embrace the idea more, often because they have a fine art background."

Flogging prints on the side to finance free work is the understandable toss-up faced by many such artists. Yet because it is an underground art form, it's possible that embracing commerciality in this way will go some way to normalising and censoring the statements such artists can make.

Wilson is not idealistic about the making and selling of street art, but he says that what he has striven to do over six years would not have been possible if he had expected payment. The issue over whether street art should be commissioned is thrown into a new light when Wilson explains that he takes commissions all the time – from people in the street.

"People come up to me in the street because they want a picture; this can be because their friend's just died or they've had a baby or they want a love message for someone," he says. "The majority are school kids, the homeless or local taggers, so I'd never take any money from them. But if somebody does want to give me money then that's fine."

Wilson says it can be difficult to fulfil his commitments to such commissions when he's short of money, because he has to pay for paint and because has a family to support. He says he's been questioned by police around 900 times, but laughingly tells me that even the police have started commissioning him.

The integrity with which he views his work is impressive, as is his criticism of corporations, advertising and the government. This is the crux of his need to produce street art: he feels a need to produce art simply to exercise his creative muscles. He'd never put a price on his gum paintings "because I wouldn't want them to be like everything else", but he wouldn't rule out exhibiting in a gallery.

If street art is born from a subculture defined by covert tactics and illegality then it is going to be painful putting it into a conventional setting. Die-hard fans will be appalled but it seems that in the world we live in, at least part of the movement needs to reach out to commerciality if only so that the artists can feed themselves and buy paint.

Eine, who paints stylised topography spelling out politicised statements, struggled to find a painting innocuous enough for the Camerons to give to the Obamas. He settled on one emblazoned with "Twenty First Century City." With the Prime Minister endorsing a street artist who has been arrested on more than 15 occasions, the times must certainly be changing.

Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A and new work by Fresh Paint, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry (024 7683 2386; www.theherbert.org) 9 October to 16 January

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering