Graffiti. Its universal. Public art for the public by the public. It’s also age old. The cavemen were at it. Its nothing new. Some loathe it. Some love it. Most of us carry on with our daily lives and just accept it. Or stop seeing it. Jean-Michel Basquiat made it cool. The art establishment lapped up every colourful splatter. He also brought it full circle with his neo-tribal approach. I guess we’re still cavemen at heart.
Last week Topshop flew over Tokyo-based graffiti artist Houxo Que to bring some day-glo magic to its Oxford Circus window. I initially thought, “Great, amazing idea.” Topshop are so quick on the mark, always one step ahead. To have a grafitti artist in your window, creating a hyper-colourful canvas was a very clever way of getting people to stop, look and walk in through the doors. The frenzied kaleidoscope of florescent yellows, pinks and oranges mirrored the clothes inside. Fast, upbeat throwaway clothes for the increasingly savvy customer.
But why Houxo Que? With the all the amazing graffiti artists in London alone why fly in somebody from abroad? I feel this was an amazing opportunity missed and that the gesture was somehow shallow. Topshop is at the heart of London retail and has its many fingers on the pulse of cool. It draws in girls and women of all ages, not to mention boys and men or, indeed, tourists gagging for a slice of Kate Moss style. This was mere window dressing and it probably did the trick. However, companies like Topshop can afford to take risks, be a little bit braver than the rest. That whole store should have been given over to street artists to do something radical and inspirational.
Banksy: Before + After
I’ve always likened graffiti art to tattoos on a metaphorical urban skin. Heavy.Tattoos are interesting as they can be both tribal or individualistic – a way of marking yourself as different from the rest. After all, our bodies are quite generic – in most cases two arms, two legs a head, a torso. The permutations within those parameters are endless, of course, but a tattoo separates you from your doppelgänger.
Graffiti is a way that the individual can make their mark on their environment – illicit, clandestine, rebellious. Apparently so. The success of the artist Banksy throws this into question. Graffiti, an anti-establishment art form, is now firmly embraced by the establishment. The defacing of the Banksy on Essex road seemed brutal at first but was this the work of teenager up for a laugh or was this the lampooning of Banksy for “selling out”? I wonder if Banksy approves? It is a logical conclusion as the Banksy arguably stopped being graffiti once it had a stratospheric price value placed on it. This is a grey area. You could also say that the Banksy piece is now as officially public art as, say, a Henry Moore sculpture.
Grafitti + Commerce
The Banksy on Essex Road was infamous for the Tesco shopping bag as flag. Tesco is the largest supermarket chain in the UK. It has stores everywhere. Not only mega stores that sell everything from clothing to celeriac but also satellite outposts that are strangling the life out of many a British high street. It regularly undercuts its competitors and independent grocery stores, or corner shops as we call them, don’t stand a chance. Even it’s logo takes its cue from the colours of the Union Jack, the British flag – red, white and blue. It doesn’t get more patriotic than that. The rapidness with which a new store appears is jaw-dropping. The logo is such a familiar sight you could say it was a kind of corporate graffiti,tagging its irrepressible might on practically every street corner.
Yesterday a guy called Ujk, pronounced “yook” popped into my friend’s shop, The Willow Shoreditch, for a coffee. Ujk is Montenegrin for wolf. He had a quite a look going on. Black woman’s poncho teamed with tough boots and a lot of studs. I especially liked his flat cap with the studs on the beak. We had a long chat about his life as an artist, fashion designer and special effects make up artist. He customises leather pieces and does a lot of graffiti. He also squats, moving from one place to another, an urban nomad/ modern day punk Romany. He was a big fan of MuTATE Britain and Joe Rush. MuTATE is an art movement of underground artists founded by Joe Rush and his Mutoid Waste Company. They create huge, moving robots out of industrial wreckages and monumental canvasses of graffiti. Rather than show their art in traditional galleries they choose desolate locations such as underneath the Westway Flyover in West London. Their logo is a devilish play on that of the hallowed – be thy name – Tate gallery. It would be amazing if their art filled the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern but that would go against the grain of what they do.
Ujk was quite drawn toward this type of art. It resonated with his beliefs and way of life. He talked about Joe Rush with the admiration and adoration of a teenage groupie. It was quite refreshing to hear such an honest and open response to art. As he said, “Art should be dangerous and strong.” He comically mimicked The Modern Artist throwing a cup of paint at a canvas and sighing contentedly at his new masterpiece. Ujk said Yuk! Inspiring.
Wolf Man: Friend or Foe?