During the 20th century artists looked to the street and graffiti for inspiration. Street art has a century of artistic interest from modern art. I hope to show in this short and incomplete history that street art is not a transitory fad but the flowering of long established trends in art history.
At the turn of the 20th century modern artists attempting to connect with authentic, democratic creativity turned to the naïve, folk, primitive and street art. Graffiti was the logical conclusion as it was both urban and, at that time, primitive. Modern artists like Francis Picabia, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly found inspiration in graffiti and tried to imitate it in their paintings.
The urban landscape of the street, including its graffiti, was important theme in modern art. As early as 1902, the Italian painter Giacomo Balla, who later was a member of the Futurists, painted a realist urban scene that focused on the chalk marks on a door – “The Bankrupt”. Brassaï photographed graffiti on Paris streets in the 1920s. English Pop artists reproduce graffiti in their art just as they reproduced other signs from the modern world. David Hockney used graffiti in some of his early paintings. And Gilbert and George used photographs of graffiti in ‘The Dirty Word Pictures’, 1977. All of these artists were working with graffiti before the aerosol spray paint drastically improved the quality, at least calligraphically, of contemporary graffiti.
When aerosol graffiti emerged on the streets and subway cars of New York about 1968 it obtained a new sophistication and, with the late 60s focus on youth culture, a new relevance. In the same year the Situationalist International covered the streets of Paris during May riots with graffiti slogans bringing graffiti firmly into the attention of art students, including Malcolm McLaren. Graffiti was no longer the source material and inspiration for art; it was now art.
Graffiti and street art has since spread around the world. Some of its exponents quickly moved into art galleries: Robert Combas, Harold Naegeli, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and, most famously, Jean-Michel Basquiat all emerged from a street art background.
And graffiti continues to be the source of inspiration for contemporary non-street artists. Most notably, Gilbert and George have returned to using contemporary graffiti in their recent work, with mirrored images of tags in their ‘Perversive Pictures’, 2004. “Like the other pictures incorporating found text – whether graffiti, personal advertisements or street flyers – they form an idiosyncratic map of the city, tracing the artist’s endless wanderings” Wrote Simon Bolitho about the Gilbert & George Major Exhibition (Tate Modern, 2007)
“We’re making pictures out of the subjects that talk to us: religion, graffiti, sexuality.” Gilbert & George (interviewed by Michael Fitzgerald “We are two people but one artist: Four decades of Gilbert & George” Art & Australia v.47 n.4 p.577)
This is just a rough draft the future history of art will have a lot more to say about the relationship between modern art and graffiti that has developed into contemporary street art.