Photography Techniques

A Brief History of Street Art

A Brief History of Street Art

look back at how graffiti traveled from the subways of New York City to buildings and auction houses across the world.

Shutterstock has partnered with acclaimed contemporary street artist Bradley Theodore for an exclusive exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach on December 1. In it, Theodore reimagines photographs of cultural and historical icons, including Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn, and Whitney Houston, from the Shutterstock Editorial collection. 

Here, we celebrate our collaboration by taking a brief but inspiring look at the history of street art.

In 2002, street artist Banksy began installing a series of stencils around London depicting a little girl with her hand extended towards a floating red heart balloon. While none of these stencils remain in their original locations, having since been harvested by collectors and sold at auction, a 2017 Samsung poll ranked “Girl with Balloon” as the UK’s favorite artwork.

So, it was really no surprise when, in 2018, a framed print of the stencil sold by the artist at Sotheby’s fetched $1.4 million.

Bonham's Pop X Culture Sale
A Bonham’s auction house staff poses next to British artist Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” at Bonham’s Pop X Culture sale in London, Britain, November 2021. Image via ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

However, no sooner was the sale of the iconic print complete, than a shredder within the frame activated, cutting the bottom half of the print to ribbons.

Three years and one pandemic later, the half-shredded piece, retitled “Love is in the Bin,” returned to Sotheby’s and was auctioned once again. This time for $25.4 million, the most ever paid for a work by Banksy or any living street artist at public auction.  

Of course, Banksy is hardly the first street artist to achieve bluechip art market status. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring both began their careers as graffiti artists in New York during street art’s heyday, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, respectively, and were soon embraced by the art establishment.

London Exhibition

The Guilt of Gold Teeth

Keith Haring Mural
Many notable artists began their journey as street artists. Images via James Gourley/Shutterstock, Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock, and Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock.

In the decades since their deaths, their works have sold for record-breaking sums. In 2017, Haring’s Untitled (1982) sold at Sotheby’s for $6.5 million (the most ever paid for the artist’s work) and Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) sold at another auction for a staggering $110.5 million.

All of which is to say that the work of street artists is, has been, and will continue to be, big business. Very big. 

The Beginnings

“Street art took off in New York in the early ’70’s,” says Alexandra Henry, a street art chronicler and the director of Street Heroines, a 2021 documentary feature that looks at the work and impact of female street artists around the world.

“It started with tagging—teenagers putting their names on public property—and evolved from there, with people using spray paint to write bigger and better, breaking into train yards at night, and creating large [typographic murals] on subway cars.”

Subway Graffiti

Brooklyn Wall Mural

New York Graffiti
While often marginalized, women were a part of graffiti art from the beginning. Images via Everett/Shutterstock, Henryk Kaiser/Shutterstock, and Henryk Kaiser/Shutterstock.

These early acts of graffiti vandalism were, and still are, illegal. However, their proliferation across the city made them as much a part of New York’s visual identity as the subway itself or the Statue of Liberty.

They coincided with the rise of hip hop culture and reflected the growing frustrations of the young and the poor, desperate to be seen and make their mark on the world’s most iconic city. 

The first woman to gain real prominence and recognition for her work was Lady Pink, who began tagging subway cars in the late ‘70s, although she was hardly the first or the only woman doing graffiti at the time. “Women were part of this community from the beginning, although they were often sidelined and marginalized,” Henry says.

Underpass Graffiti
Graffiti on a pedestrian underpass in Great Britain. Image via Nicholas Bailey/Shutterstock.

“[Lady Pink] got the most recognition because she was going the hardest and doing the biggest pieces in the train yards with the guys, but other women were and always have been part of the culture,” Henry says.

“The fact that this misconception exists, [that women are not active members of the street art community] has a lot to do with how street art—and art, in general—is curated and marketed to the exclusion of women, and because we still live in a society where people think a woman’s place is in the home and have a hard time even wrapping their heads around the idea of a woman actually going out into the streets and taking up space with her work.”

The Spread to Europe

Women were also integral in the dissemination of the nascent art from around the world. Particularly photographer Martha Cooper, whose book Subway Art, coauthored by Henry Chalfant and published in 1984, is often referred to as the street art Bible.

Paris Exhibition
Once considered vandalism, graffiti was quickly recognized as actual street art. Image via Ginies/Sipa/Shutterstock.

“It was first produced by a German publisher because no one in the US wanted to touch anything associated with graffiti and vandalism,” Henry says. The book began circulating around Europe and soon artists were flocking to New York to see this new art form for themselves.

“Painting on trains was sort of the coolest thing you could do at the time, so a lot of artists came from Europe to make their mark and be seen.”

Graffiti Artist Jamie Reyes
As this new art phenomenon crossed the pond, people traveled from Europe to make their own artistic contribution. Image via E J Flynn/AP/Shutterstock.

These Europeans brought their backgrounds and experience in fine art to bear on the medium, helping push it beyond typography and into the realm of large-scale character-based murals.

“It’s not like the Europeans were the only ones portraying characters in graffiti at that time,” Henry says. ”But, they definitely helped evolve street art by creating bigger pieces, inspired by muralism.”

School Wall Graffiti
Not only did Europeans make their mark, they brought their own experiences and backgrounds to the medium. Image via Ken Towner/ANL/Shutterstock.

From there, street art spread across the country and around the world, from LA to London, Barcelona to Bogata. In each place, the medium took on different forms and occupied different spaces, thriving in the poorer neighborhoods of the world’s most densely populated urban environments. 

Hungary Wall Art
A wall mural at Siofok, Lake Balaton, Hungary. Image via Patrick Frilet/Shutterstock.

The irony, of course, is that as the appreciation for street art grew, the work of street artists, once illicit and created in direct response to the vast wealth inequality present in urban spaces, became one of the early signs of gentrification.

Graffiti and Gentrification

“The art attracts tourists, which attracts developers, and leads to gentrification,” Henry says. “It has become this sort of double-edged sword that many artists struggle with. Real estate developers now know that hiring an artist to do a mural gives the building a certain amount of street cred, but for the artists, the more they [participate], the more they contribute to pushing out the people who currently live in that place.” 

New York Wall Graffiti
As graffiti became recognized as an art form, the value of that art lead to the gentrification of many neighborhoods. Image via Henryk Kaiser/Shutterstock.

It’s a problem for which there are no easy solutions. As street artists and their work continue to gain prominence in mainstream culture, the prices for their work climbing ever higher and higher, the places where that work exists will also increase in value.

“Many artists are activists,” Henry says, ”but they’re also people who have bills to pay and want the opportunity to fill commissions and get their work out there.” 

Columbian Graffiti
Street art began to gain prominence across the globe. Image via Stefan Kunz/imageBROKER/Shutterstock.

The Future of Street Art

At the same time, as technology advances, street art itself is becoming increasingly virtual, no longer restricted to the place of its making.

Social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat already allow artists’ work to reach larger and more global audiences than ever before. And, advancements in virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchain have the potential to revolutionize the way not just street art, but all art is created and consumed.

LA Graffiti Art
A graffiti artist in Venice Beach makes his mark. Image via E J Flynn/AP/Shutterstock.

“Non-fungible tokens [NFTs—non-interchangeable units of data stored on a digital ledger] are already taking off among street artists, giving them new opportunities to sell, create, and control their own work like never before,” Henry says.

Artist Juan Garcia
Artist Juan Garcia, also known as “Ecks,” contributing to a wall in Bogota, Colombia. Image via Mauricio Duenas Castaneda/EPA/Shutterstock.

As culture and technology evolve, so too will street art. It has already evolved so much in its first fifty years. Who knows what the next fifty will bring?

Cover image via Henryk Kaiser/Shutterstock.

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