Street Art Origins
The official origins of street art is fairly difficult to determine, as many would argue that it is something that has been present for as long as humanity itself. Some of the worlds first-known (and least-understood) forms of art are the prehistoric cave paintings, dating back to as early as 30,000BC. There have been over two hundred painted caves found throughout regions of southern France and northern Spain. More often than not, these paintings illustrated animals but they also depicted the occasional human form, human hand prints, and an array of symbols and engravings. In all cases, their meanings remain elusive but many argue that these ambiguous, prehistoric expressions are humanity’s first introduction to ‘urban’ art.
‘Street art’ as a concept, is a fairly recent adopted term and is often identified with rebellion and vandalism. Primarily associated with graffiti, some of the earliest expressions of modern graffiti dated back to the 1920s when homeless citizens using the railroads in the United States would mark the train boxcars to publicly document their illegal journey. In the 20s and 30s, gangs that scored the urban environment with graffiti were on the rise and during Word War II, a popular communist tag: ‘KILROY WAS HERE!’ accompanied by a drawing of a long-nosed man peering over a wall, started to crop up everywhere. Though the origins of this tag are not really known, there is something very innocent about the communal and comradery nature of graffiti during such a bleak time. With street art so deeply rooted in distress, you can see how simply making your presence known could have brought comfort by creating a sense of community.
The real impact of this subversive street art culture, notably expanded in the 1960s and was referred to as the ‘graffiti boom’ in New York. This was a time when young people started creating an artistic movement to respond to their socio-political environment, communicating sentiments that they could voice nowhere else, publicly through art. To better understand the surge of the street art movement in the United States, it is important to note that the cultural climate of New York during this time was one of insecurity and hopelessness. Living not only in a climate of an economic recession but also an environment of crime, lawlessness and violence, the teenagers of New York took to the streets to communicate their thoughts in a public form of rebellion. Thus, street art established itself in the current political and social issues of the community, with more and more artists starting to introduce aesthetic elements in their compositions to bring attention to their work. Street art was being used to emphasis a message, usually one of protest pertaining to social concerns, and placing itself in public venues for all to see.
Soon, this street art phenomenon gained the attention and esteem in the ‘legitimate’ art world and started to be seen in galleries in the early 1980s, two particularly prominent artists of the time being Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Inspired by the simple demonstrations of rebellious and expressive teenagers, street art developed into true artistic monuments, finding its way into galleries and the global art market. TAKI 183, a popular graffitist in the late 1960s and early 1970s stated: ‘a lot of what the graffiti movement spawned, early on, was just vandalism and defacement. But later on, real artists started doing it, and it did become a true art form’. The movement has paved the way for artistic masters such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Vhils, Swoon and so many more and although it is still sometimes considered taboo due to its outlawed nature, street art has rightfully earned its place in the contemporary art world.