With an Oscar nomination, an ever-growing international profile, and a new 2.5-acre “Dismaland” dystopian theme park, Banksy is practically synonymous with street art—but plenty of other noteworthy artists have joined the Englishman in taking to the streets to create art that speaks to the public. Below, we highlight a few of them who are making news through their past and present creative engagement with politics, commerce, and a myriad of other issues that shape urban centers across the globe.
This French artist garnered lots of attention in 2011 when he won the TED prize, dedicating the cash winnings to his “Inside Out Project,” which involves taking enlarged photographs of anonymous citizens and pasting them on the sides of buildings—making visible the range of communities and identities present in any given neighborhood. Demonstrating the continued importance of JR’s project, a group of students from Morgan State University in Baltimore recently contributed to it by covering the walls of a local art incubator with portraits and the message #BlackLivesMatter.
Hailing from Brooklyn, Swoon began pasting her images around New York 16 years ago, attracting the eyes of everyday passers-by but also the attention of curators from the Brooklyn Museum, where she had an installation in 2014. Although recognized by mainstream institutions, her work continues to fuse art and activism in order to address the concerns of marginalized groups. Recently, as part of broader efforts by artists to rejuvenate New Orleans, Swoon donated a work to benefit “Our School at Blair Grocery,” an urban farm and community activism center in the city’s Lower 9th Ward.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Marquis Lewis, known as Retna—a name plucked from a song by the Wu-Tang Clan—creates calligraphic works that combine familiar elements into something entirely alien. Aspiring to make his art accessible to all cultures, Retna draws on Egyptian hieroglyphics, Spanish, and other languages to create universal works without a singular meaning. This summer, a mural by Retna is featured as part of the Jeffrey Deitch-organized “Coney Art Walls” project, in which a number of street artists have created works at Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
Courtesy Library Street Collective and the artist. Photo by Sal Rodriguez.
After being sued over his famous “HOPE” image of President Obama, Fairey told Artsy that he made some changes to avoid trouble like that again. But the artist popped up in the press in July after Detroit indicted him for “malicious destruction of property,” a felony. Fairey, in Detroit to legally paint an 18-story-tall mural, commissioned by real-estate tycoon Dan Gilbert, allegedly put up posters on buildings owned by the city, which is cracking down on graffiti in order to generate revenue and entice development. After surrendering to authorities in L.A. but making bail, Fairey made a court appearance in Detroit, with the next another court date upcoming.
When talking about contemporary street art, it’s crucial to remember the forefathers of the movement, including Basquiat. Born in Brooklyn and working in New York before his death at just 27 years old, many of his pieces have since been lost, destroyed, or tangled in costly litigation to determine their authenticity. The well-received Basquiat retrospective now at Guggenheim Bilbao is a testament to the continued relevance of the artist, whose complex narrative works address issues of racism, police brutality, and black identity in ways that are just as applicable now as they were in the 1980s.
Best known for “culture jamming”—the practice of modifying billboards or other advertisements to change their corporate message to a radically anti-capitalist one—English’s creepy and sardonic works tackle consumerism and politics, often in his signature medium of rich oil paint. At the end of June, English teamed up with Philadelphia-based UBIQ to design a line of Vans that feature the artist’s “propaganda characters,” including the artist’s famous “Abraham Obama” that merged the faces of the two presidents.
All art is susceptible to damage and destruction, but street art, where the canvas is often someone else’s building, is especially vulnerable. This is particularly true in China, where one effect of rapid urban development is the frequent demolition of buildings and the street art they hosted. Google has launched an initiative to digitize the work of Choi, an influential Hong Kong calligraphic street artist who passed away in 2007, underlining both the significance of Choi’s practice and the importance of putting art online.