BSince its offbeat, graffiti-filled beginnings in the 1980s, when New York trailblazers became role models for guerrilla artists in British cities, British street art has been on a journey of sorts. Back then, as part of a crackdown on illegal marking in Bristol, British Transport Police raided an “aerosol art project” that Banksy later counted among its alumni. Earlier this month, Banksy was named an honorary professor at the University for the Creative Arts, and an exhibition of his work is set to tour.
Leicester this week saw further confirmation that aerosol culture is now a mainstream feature of the urban landscape. The tallest piece of street art in Europe has just been completed in the city center to great acclaim and an interview with one of the Today programme’s artists. With a span of 82 meters, the mural of St. George’s Tower pays homage to the city’s achievements and heritage in primary colors. Football, rugby and Leicester University’s groundbreaking DNA research are all mentioned.
Even examples of large-scale street art like this one cannot compete with the incomparable creations of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera a century ago. But like the striking Athena Rising mural in Leeds, this too is public art for the people. The work was painted in five weeks by local aerosol artists from the Graffwerk project – whose website promises to “break the visual monotony” – and was carried out in partnership with a group of companies dedicated to enhancing the attractiveness of Leicester city centre. In May, the same partnership welcomed street artists from around the world to the Bring the Paint Festival, which saw over 40 large-scale artworks created across the city. Across the country, street performers are winning significant commissions from local bodies, changing perspectives on everyday life.
Some practitioners from the early days may feel nostalgic for the days when aerosol art had to be done stealthily and at high speed. In his book Wall and Piece, Banksy recalls a police chase that resulted in him hiding under a dump truck for over an hour. But it’s cause for celebration that the impact of the Bristol artist’s work and the groundbreaking brilliance of street artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Franco Gaskin – aka the Picasso of Harlem – paved the way for universal appreciation about the value of street art in public spaces. Since cave painting, man has felt the urge to artistically shape his natural or built environment.
Powerful street murals can reinforce a sense of place and local identity, reaching audiences that may not seek out more formal settings. Exposed to the elements and the unpredictable fortunes of the buildings and territories with which they are inseparable, this type of art also has a vulnerability not found in museums or galleries. It can surprise, undermine and delight. After the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, business owners in Harlem erected prohibitive steel gates to protect their businesses. Gaskin covered them with murals depicting everyday scenes from local life, changing the area and mood. Leicester’s new street attraction was created under less strained circumstances, but it makes a welcome addition to Britain’s growing portfolio of street art.