Meet the leading lights of street art ready to take Banksy's crown

Britain's best known street artist Banksy has sold his work to Brad and Angelina; the Tate has embraced graffiti. It's small wonder that a new movement is developing. Rob Sharp looks at its leading lights
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's a group of Frenchmen on the ground floor of the Lazarides gallery in London's Soho and they're staring at me. I'm there to interview Invader, one of the world's most secretive and edgy street artists, who for many years met the press while wearing a mask, but the charming French publicist who's accompanied me doesn't know what he looks like. Neither do I. So, after a brief moment to take in our surroundings – leaning canvases, bubble wrap, huge plastic laminate still to be removed from boulder-sized Rubik's Cubes – we size up each of the men in turn. They are all identically dressed (that's no use), slightly too young for their 30-something ages in T-shirts, dirty trainers and baggy jeans (goes with the territory), and look mildly embarrassed (maybe that's just a European thing). As the introductions proceed, there's an element of us hedging our bets that one of these men might be our anti-socialite of choice.

When we eventually move to a quieter room to sit down, one of the Frenchmen enters shortly after us. It is Invader, sans mask, "scrubbed up" and ready to sell. This loss of anonymity is crucial. His changed wardrobe signals he is no longer filing himself next to the wide-boys tagging M4 flyovers, or daubing murals in Glasgow's dilapidated squares. Instead, with his neatly cropped hair and boyish demeanour he looks more like a computer programmer. Appropriately enough.

The fact that Invader is even here, holding a solo show that opens today – in the gallery most associated with Banksy, no less – is evidence that you can't move for street art these days. Whether it is Tate Modern's ludicrously successful exhibition Street Art, held last year, in which it allowed six street artists (including three on Lazarides's books, Blu, Faile and JR) to decorate its Bankside facade, or Banksy's own summer exhibition, Banksy Versus Bristol Museum, currently showing at the Bristol City Museum, it's safe to say that street art has been co-opted by the mainstream. Later this year, Art Basel Miami Beach is to host Graffiti Gone Global, its very own graffiti art fair; Cartier is even sponsoring a graffiti exhibition, Born in the Streets, currently running at its art foundation in central Paris.

It would be churlish and reductive of a vibrantly diverse field to suggest that all street artists are trading in their ethics for big pots of cash; political graffiti plasters the streets of Gaza city or Baghdad as much as it did the cityscapes of East Berlin during the early 1990s. But with Banksy's work selling to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for $1m (as a selection of his art did at an auction in 2007), and his recent New York show attracting 30,000 punters in two days (according to Lazarides, anyway), it is clear that street art is making headlines, increasingly, away from the street.

Invader is a good example. Born in 1969, he started his "invasions" in his home city of Paris over 10 years ago, making up mosaics consisting of small coloured tiles arranged in the form of an early 1980s Space Invader (geddit?). They would be left high up on buildings and in between bill posters, in places where the public would chance upon them and be suitably delighted. Moving to other cities, (London, New York, Tokyo) he began to prepare maps, which people could follow to the mini-invaders' locations. And so, it turned into a game: the city acting like a playing field or a Pac-Man maze. "When I walk around a city at night to find a spot I sometimes find one that's in a very visible, obvious place," says the artist, in halting English. "And then if people find it, it will be like, 'You win'. Then there is a drive for people to discover the ones that are not easy to find, and that's a real interaction for me with the population."

Invader's introspective intelligence is born of what must be a lonely, nocturnal life, and the necessity of avoiding detection. The week of our interview, he describes how he had been posing as a road repairman in Hoxton by wearing a hi-vis jacket while assembling a couple of pieces (he has 110 in London alone); he was recently in Newcastle and was stopped by the police but claimed to be removing, rather than sticking up, his work. "They told me to leave it alone, then gave me a slap on the wrist and sent me on my way," he says.

Though he has been arrested several times in different countries, it has been for short periods, and he has escaped with little more than the odd caution and fine. Things changed when he met Lazarides in 2006. He began experimenting with larger work: oversized invader characters, the Rubik's Cubes mentioned earlier, famous album covers (Bowie's Diamond Dogs, The Strokes' Is This It) that are pixelated by his tiling technique.

"It's a great opportunity to make incredible pieces, so why not? I think you have to evolve," says Invader. "I did it in Vienna two years ago. There was an official invitation to do a huge piece and I did it with quite a large team working for me. And we achieved this incredible work. That was a good opportunity. I used to say that I'd like to do 1 per cent legal and 99 per cent illegal work." He has since had two exhibitions, including this one, at each of Lazarides's two London galleries (split either side of Oxford Street, at Rathbone Place and Greek Street). The first was in 2007.

But there are any number of popular street arts daubing their names across galleries. While their approaches all differ in terms of legality, materials and technique, they have one thing in common: their canvas. Whether it is Eine's screen-printed stickers, or oversized single letters peppering the streets of London, or Judith Supine's figurative, collage-like work, or even Mustafa Hulusi's subversive "London is a Shit Hole", billboard posters, all have been united under the same banner by those selling it. It is all a long way from the origins of street art, which some might lay at graffiti's door; a world of urban highwaymen tagging the subway trains of early 1980s New York, or the stencil graffiti of Blek le Rat in Paris, or inspired by social and economic divisions in Sao Paulo or the Middle East.

Lazarides admits that artists might lose credibility if they sell to celebrities, but thinks diversification is the lifeblood of his industry. "We're not just selling to the graphic designer, it's a whole different spectrum of people who are buying it now," he says. "To begin with it was the celebs, because they didn't want to be told what to buy and wanted to branch out a bit. On those merits it became popularised and there's a much bigger spread buying it now. That's good because when it's not cool any more you lose a certain section of your market but keep the rest."

That says little about the art's merit however. "I've heard rumours that Banksy's work has fallen in value in recent months simply because it's so out of fashion," says Andy Capper, editor of VICE magazine. "You can't tell me that someone drawing a robot with a felt-tip pen or who is trying to subvert a Star Wars figure is making art. Graffiti started with Puerto Ricans in New York, not 35-year-olds who are still living with their parents. If there is an element of rebellion then it has something to say. But if you're going to put a little sticker outside my office and call it art then you're just a little bitch. The great tragedy is that there are people like Dash Snow, the 27-year-old graffiti artist, who just died, who don't nearly get the same exposure. That means something to me. Now advertisers employee graffiti artists to make their beer bottles look a little nicer; that happens the whole time."

Maybe there is some kind of compromise between integrity and acceptance. JR, also based in Paris – whose blown-up photographs of ordinary people, say, affixed to Bethlehem's separation wall, have a socially responsible edge – thinks that street artists should fund their illegal activity through gallery work.

"What I think is that artists need to sell if they are going to continue working separately from television producers and brands in the street," he says. "We all need to maintain that balance. If you are using the street to promote your work in a gallery then that's not really where I'm coming from; working out in a city has a great responsiblity and that's not something I would take lightly. It's very important that I am able to continue to work illegally. If I went to the Middle East and got authorisation, it could be just from the Israelis and how would that look to the Palestinians? Not good at all; I wouldn't be neutral any more. It would be the same if I was sponsored by Coca-Cola."

While the majority of Invader's work is still conducted illegally, he is still rattling off the limited-edition prints, he is still associated with the man who sold Banksy to the Hollywood A-list, and his work is still immensely popularised and oversimplistic. Maybe the street and the gallery work arrived in concert (though that seems too good to be true); or maybe his move indoors is the same progression seen with Basquiat or Banksy, and the many more artists who will undoubtedly follow in his wake. But the question then becomes: if it's being shown in a gallery, is it still street art?

D*Face

Who? Real name Dean Stockton, D*Face hails from London, obsessively mulling over punk, skating culture and street-art founding father Shepherd Fairey. It was Fairey's street-art campaigns such as "OBEY Giant", in which he distributed stickers across the capital, that initially inspired Stockton to come up with his own sticker designs, and craft his own street-art projects. The alias D*Face is derived from the distinctive faces on his stickers, instantly recognisable to passers-by who have their urban-guerilla eye in.

What? Works with a range of media including spray paint and stencils along with the trademark stickers. In 2006, he held his first solo exhibition at the StolenSpace gallery in London's Brick Lane. According to the artist "street art is not just about stickers and posters; it's about whatever you can get your hands on. If that's a projector, then you do projection; if it's casts and moulds, you can use them as well." It is this versatility and originality that has earned Stockton a considerable fan-base, and a number of sell-out shows. Anothernotable achievement was designing the debut-album cover art for the Welsh band The Automatic. LP

Miss Van

Who? Hitting the streets in the early 1990s, Miss Van's diverse influences range from Mark Ryden, and psychedelic comic-book artist Vaughn Bodé, to Junko Mizuno, well-known on the Japanese Manga scene. Dividing her time between Barcelona and her hometown of Toulouse, this member of the female vanguard continues to pace cities as well as exhibiting in galleries – her first solo show was at the Galerie Diloy, Toulouse, in 1999. Since then her work has been displayed across Europe, including at London's Notting Hill Arts Club, and in US galleries such as the Upper Playground, San Francisco, in January of this year.

What? Her work celebrates female beauty; she paints in acrylic rather than spray paint, allowing her to create intricate drawings of her "poupées" (dolls), their feminine figures and colourful, flowing dresses. Critics may refer to the dolls as "erotic vamps", sex objects which should not be painted on public streets. But they are seemingly intended to be vulnerable as well as beautiful, and the dark, slanted eyes that all the poupées share suggest that they have a deeper meaning than simply being objects of desire. LP

JR

Who? Described as "unbelievably hot" by no lesser authority than Isabelle Paagman, Sotheby's head of contemporary art, JR is a 25-year-old whose life changed when he found a camera on the subway in his hometown of Paris. He started out as a regular tag-spraying teenager, but now describes himself as a "photograffeur", placing massive portraits in urban settings. The artist, who now chooses not to disclose his full name because it "would add nothing", is also earning a reputation as a bit of a globe-trotter, having displayed pieces in such testing environments as the favelas of Rio and the Kibera slum in Kenya.

What? Everyday people are transformed into billboard megastars, with snaps blown up to ludicrous proportions and placed in prominent positions. The simple subversion has been used innovatively, with shots from Paris ghettos placed in the street centre to emphasise the rich/poor divide, and photos of Israelis and Palestinians who hold regular jobs – taxi drivers, teachers – displayed in pairs on both sides of Israel's separation wall. Back in Europe, a 100ft version of Ladj Ly, an arresting shot from the 2004 Paris riots, recently adorned the outside of the Tate Modern, and the Lazarides Gallery sold its smaller version for £26,250. AR

Mustafa Hulusi

Who? London-born Turkish-Cypriot artist Hulusi began in the East End, covering the city's streets with his leaflets, posters and billboards. He studied fine art and photography at the University of London – his paintings in particular, which often draw on inspiration from nature such as flowers and fruit, display a remarkable level of training and technique. He has experimented with a wide variety of art forms including screen-printing, photography, oil on canvas and multimedia film.

What? Much of Hulusi's work comments on the state of modern society – his contribution to the 2008 exhibition at east London's Working Rooms, entitled 'Culture Clash', took the form of screen-printed neon posters in powerful colours, repeating the words 'Culture Shock' in both English and Turkish, over and over again, imitating the overload of information and slogans that are forced upon us by contemporary advertising. Solo exhibitions have included shows at the Max Wigram Gallery, London, and Galerist in Istanbul. Hulusi has also exhibited across the Atlantic, with a recent show at LA's Patrick Painter Gallery, entitled 'Obliteration and Memory'. LP

Eine

Who? Like many artistic street-folk, Eine's early life is shrouded in mystery; what is known is that he has been painting trains and walls around London since the early 1990s; after his distinctive graffiti-art style began to win him plaudits, he moved to spray cans, marker pens and the sometimes controversial screen-printed stickers; according to Tate Modern's street-art specialist Cedar Lewisohn, writing in his 2008 book 'Street Art', Eine turned this "sticker bombing" into an art; "soon every available surface in East London was covered in his garish pink and black stickers," he writes. He is perhaps best known for daubing, huge, single letters on closed shop-front shutters.

What? As well as moving into gallery spaces; and focusing on his one-off lettering, for a time Eine was associated with the art website pictureson walls.com. Again, his contact with the police is of the humorous, rather than consummate jail-bird variety. With his single letters, he is throwing the focus on typography in the context of the street, rather than the act of making the street art itself. He works through certain fonts, consuming the entire alphabet before moving on. "I've been stopped three times and all three times it's because I've dropped the back of a sticker on the floor," he says. RS

Comments