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August 09 2012

Buskers campaign against new policy in Liverpool

Rules that clamp down on street performers are causing concern that Merseyside's street culture is being needlessly regulated under the the banner of 'business improvement.' Christian Eriksson challenges its basis

Up and down the country, corporate bodies called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are increasingly administering urban centres, offering their paying members privileged access to unelected officials who are literally 'on call' to take their grievances directly to policy makers. In the case of Liverpool City Council's recent decision to regulate busking and street entertainment, we find a lesson in the pitfalls of charging unnaccountable bodies with directing democracy on the public's behalf.

Would-be performers in Liverpool city centre must now sign up to a mandatory licensing scheme and obtain a photo ID card before they can book a two hour slot to play in council-designated pitches. The scheme requires that entertainers be bound by a number of restrictive terms and conditions. These range from entertainers being forbidden to sit on the floor or occupy a pitch more than 1.5 metres in a diameter, to a clause granting council officials the right to stop a performance purely on the grounds of personal taste - turning enforcement officers into what one busker describes as "a poor man's Simon Cowell". Any person failing to comply with these terms and conditions will be issued with a letter threatening prosecution for trespass.

In essence, Liverpool's policy is an attempt to bring busking and street performance under the remit of the 2003 Licensing Act, despite clear statements published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2006 that busking is not a licensable activity under that legislation. The legally-questionable nature of Liverpool's policy does not end there, for it attempts to make it an offence for anybody under the age of 18 to busk, despite central government guidelines clearly stating that busking is permitted for anybody over the age of 14.

Accounts from buskers suggest that the policy was pushed through council meetings, with their recommendations flatly ignored. Jonny Walker, a Liverpool-born busker and singer-songwriter, was involved in the council's consultation process:

I was invited by officials to look at the proposed policy. I had major issues with it and was asked to prepare a report with suggestions for how to improve it. My report was ignored and no changes were made to the policy which was then rubber stamped at a council meeting.

Once he realized his views had not been taken into account in the finished policy, Walker started a petition which has garnered more than 3,000 signatures to date and launched a campaign to urge the council to rethink its policy. The campaign has gained the backing of the Musician's Union.

Diane Widdison, national organiser of the union, has said that Liverpool City Council did not consult them regarding the new policy:

The Musician's Union are happy to help the council put together a best practice guide for buskers. We would suggest a working party which includes street artists and performers so we can agree on a guide which is acceptable to both sides. We do not agree with making the process overly bureaucratic or too restrictive for no good reason.

Liverpool city council responds:

In essence, we are trying to balance the needs of all the people who use the city centre – shoppers, visitors, people who work there and buskers.

While there may be claims that there is a lot of opposition to the policy, it has also been welcomed by many people, especially on grounds of reducing noise and ending repetitive songs.

The council adds that the idea is also to be being fairer to all buskers and potential buskers by preventing the same ones hogging pitches for hours on end.

It is also important to note that the policy will be reviewed in three months and a panel including buskers, representatives from the musician unions and other interested parties will meet before the end of August to discuss the policy.

The council stresses that the regulations are not an attempt to stop busking, but to provide a balance between the different people using the city.

The elected member in charge of the policy, Coun Steve Munby, Liverpool's cabinet member for neighbourhoods, has claimed that the policy was crafted to deal with the many complaints the council receives
from businesses and shoppers about noise levels, repetitive performances and the number of buskers at certain times.

Munby says that buskers add "animation and colour to the centre" but on some Saturdays, there have been 12 performers in a short stretch of Church Street competing "in effect for limited cash." He added that having a regulated system for street entertainment is in the best interests of buskers, businesses, shoppers and other city centre users and brings Liverpool into line with other major cities.

Ged Gibbons, CEO of Liverpool's City Central BID and champion of the new policy, says:

This new busking policy is hugely welcome and will make a real difference to the vibrancy of the city centre

and has claimed to have received regular telephone complaints from the likes of M&S and Primark about troublesome buskers. In the same vein, minutes from the council Cabinet's agenda in which the policy's terms and conditions can be found, describe the policy as crafted to deal with long-standing "complaints from businesses, residents and others".

However, information acquired under Freedom of Information legislation shows that as of November 2011 the number of city shopkeepers who formally complained to the Council to regulate buskers/street performers was so low that the council themselves do not bother to record complaints:

[...] due to the immediate nature of the complaint the majority of complainants simply draw the matter to our street Nuisance Officers but do not formally complain. Subsequently the licensing department do not formally record the number of complaints they receive regarding buskers/street performers.

And why do affected retailers not formally complain? The answer, in short, is that they do not need to. That is what Liverpool's City Central BID is for.

Around 650 businesses currently make up the BID, and each pays a levy on top of their business rates to fund it. Besides extra cleaning, care and security, this levy effectively grants businesses an amplified voice in local democracy. Like BIDs in other British cities, Liverpool's is a quasi-governmental corporate body which works with local authorities, but is not wholly accountable to them. Karen Lappin, Store Manager for Liverpool's Blacks, explains what you get with membership into Liverpool's City Central BID:

Ged [Gibbons] will come round, one of the team will come round, and they'll sit down and ask how they can help you.

Critics of the new busking policy argue that with its access to policymakers, Liverpool's City Central BID has hastily embarked upon the needless regulation of Liverpool's street performance culture under the banner of 'business improvement'. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 29 2012

Impressionism, Degas and Shepard Fairey – the week in art

The French avant garde storm London's Royal Academy, plus shows from Peter Blake and Mark Wallinger, Olympic posters and Britain's biggest mural – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism – Paintings from the Clark

The art of the French avant garde in the 19th century always has the power to startle because it is always underestimated. Newspapers tend to see it as safe; art historians analyse its bourgeois ideology. But the public knows better. The reason Monet, Renoir, Manet and their contemporaries remain so popular is not because people want "safe" art. It is because we can recognise true inspiration when we see it. The impressionists captured the feel of modern life in a way that was unprecedented. There's a lightness and reality to their paintings that is the taste of the world we inhabit. In these paintings, as their contemporary Karl Marx said of modernity, all that is solid melts into air.
Royal Academy, London W1, from 7 July until 23 September

Other exhibitions this week

Richard Wilson
The artist who filled Saatchi's tank with oil offers a sculptural take on a British pop icon, as he recreates the tottering bus from the final moments of the film The Italian Job.
De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, from 7 July until 1 October

Peter Blake
A hero of pop art revisits the music that has inspired him.
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 7 October

Mark Wallinger
This quirky conceptualist always goes his own way – and it's worth following along.
Baltic, Gateshead, until 14 October

Olympic Posters
Chris Ofili's is the best and Tracey Emin's is the silliest, but whose will capture imaginations this summer?
Tate Britain, London SW1, until 23 September

Masterpiece of the week

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising

The strange erotic intensity of this history painting by Degas is a clue to the passions that pulse within his later impressionist and post-impressionist works. Near-naked young men and women face each other in tense competition, a fantasy of some athletic sex war. Degas shows a similarly charged sexual obsessiveness in later paintings in the same gallery: through his eyes, even hair-brushing becomes a sadomasochist ritual, and as for an acrobat suspending herself by her teeth ...
National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

That it's possible to redo Van Gogh in dominoes

What a jumbo jet nose, a ginormous megaphone and a bus spray-painted with bubbles have in common

That a contemporary collection of Middle Eastern photography has been acquired for the UK – and about time, too

How beautiful the new Turner, Monet and Twombly show is

What the wild men of Germany, Romania and Croatia look like

And finally

Have you uploaded anything to the Guardian Art and design Flickr page yet?

Or shared any of your art with us?

Have you seen our Tumblr?

Do you follow us on Twitter?

Or on Facebook?

Have you signed up for the Art Weekly newsletter? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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June 28 2012

Street art takes London by storm

A 10-storey Shepard Fairey megaphone, a bus covered in bubbles, a Banksy work on the nose of a jumbo: London Pleasure Gardens has unveiled new pieces by the world's top street artists

Street artist Shepard Fairey unveils largest mural in the UK

The artist responsible for the Obama 'Hope' posters has made a 10-storey artwork broadcasting the power of free speech over London during 2012

London Pleasure Gardens, a new event space in Newham, today unveiled important new artworks by several prominent US street artists. The unveiling coincides with the official launch of the London Pleasure Gardens on Saturday 30 June.

The most prominent new work is by California's Shepard Fairey, also known as Obey, who has painted a huge mural in his characteristic black, white and red, of a megaphone that "projects free speech great distances". Fairey said: "I am really happy to be associated with LPG … it will be something that unsuspecting Olympic enthusiasts will stumble across. The mural symbolises freedom of speech and expression and is the tallest piece I have ever done." Fairey's megaphone mural is over 10 storeys high and is visible from Pontoon Dock DLR station.

Fairey started making street art stickers in 1989, which evolved into the iconic Obey stickers and posters featuring the face of now-deceased wrestler Andre the Giant that were posted worldwide. Fairey is best known in 2008 for his red, white and blue Hope posters, used in Barack Obama's US election campaign.

Other artists involved include Ron English, featured in the films Supersize Me and Exit Through the Giftshop; TrustoCorp from New York, who twist corporate branding for their own purposes, and LA's Risk. Ron English has painted the nose cone of a jumbo jet and speech bubbles on hoardings on the site. Risk's colourfully painted bus is another highlight.

The artwork has immediately established London Pleasure Gardens as an important hub for street art in London, and confirms London's importance as a major street art centre globally.

The directors of the London Pleasure Gardens have a long track record of arranging large shows featuring national and international street artists. Another of their projects, Mutate Britain (a play on Tate Britain) in 2008, included a large exhibition in Ladbroke Grove, west London, under the Westway flyover called One Foot in the Grove. London Pleasure Gardens director Garfield Hackett said of the project: "The pleasure gardens of old showed the positive effect that sharing in art and culture can have on London. We can't wait for people to join us here to see what we're creating." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 23 2012

Renowned street artist Shepard Fairey commissioned for north London mural

Work by artist who rose to prominence with Obama 'Hope' poster is located on wall of Turnpike Lane shop

The natural territory of the street artist Shepard Fairey would seem to be as all-American as it gets. Emerging from the country's skateboarding scene he achieved global prominence with his much copied, much parodied Hope poster displaying a stylised Barack Obama in shades of blue and red.

He spent much of Friday assembling his latest street mural in a seemingly less likely locale – a suburban street in Turnpike Lane, one of north London's more economically mixed neighbourhoods.

Hoisted aloft by a rented cherry picker, the 42-year-old artist used stencils and paint to create Envision, an image of a giant, stylised eyeball design, set in the frame of a disused Victorian placard site on the wall of a local shop.

The unlikely public commission, carried out with any charge by the artist, was the almost accidental result of a wider community regeneration programme carried out by the local council, Haringey, and the green travel charity Sustrans.

In getting together to decide options for more pedestrian-friendly street layouts, locals pondered what to do with the crumbling and slightly tatty shop wall, and decided the existing frame left by the long-disappeared Victorian placard would be best filled by a mural.

James Straffon, a local who helped organise the project, went to a London art gallery specialising in graffiti artists to seek help.

He said: "The woman from the gallery asked: 'Ideally, who would you like?' I said: 'I know it would never happen, but Shepard Fairy.' She said: 'Shall I get in touch with him, then?' I stuck my neck out and said yes and sent them a diagram with the sizes, thinking nothing would happen. Literally a week later they said, he's interested and he's coming over."

Straffon says he remains unsure why such a celebrated artist would be interested in a relatively out-of-the-way location. He said: "I think what sold it was that it's an old Victorian billboard. I think they like the fact it's the old London thing."

Before Fairey arrived, Straffon and some neighbours spent a day preparing the wall, painting it in a specified shade of red for a background to the stencilled design.

The US artist and his team spent several hours in decidedly mixed weather putting the design in place. Straffon said: "He's come from west coast America to dreary, sodden London. He must be thinking: 'Great, I've got to do this.' It's quite windy, too."

Another oddity is that this is Turnpike Lane's second work by a globally-known street artist in a matter of months. Last month, a mural believed to be by Banksy, a rough UK equivalent to Fairey, appeared on the wall of the area's local Poundland shop, showing a child sweatshop worker sewing jubilee bunting. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 17 2012

Rats! Banksy doesn't need more publicity

Witty it may be, but Bansky's art is nothing to aspire to. The Australian plumbers who destroyed his work have created something infinitely more useful to humanity

Good news from Australia! While fitting out a cafe in Melbourne, builders have managed to run two pipes precisely through the middle of a Banksy. Where once there was a rat with a parachute and a briefcase, there are now two plastic elbow-joints and a bit of a mess. By creating something of lasting value for humanity, the plumbing is a clear improvement.

Because Banksy is easily Britain's most overrated artist – cynicism's Vettriano. In its banality and self-importance, his work towers over all contemporaries. A policeman snorting coke, a helicopter gunship with a pink bow on top, and this week, on Wood Green High Road, the appearance of a child labourer making bunting: this stuff insults us all, vapid consumer drones that we are, by presuming that its insights will be news. One of the triumphs of the Cultural Olympiad, which showcases British art, is that Banksy appears to have no role in it.

Clearly it's the subterfuge around his work that has made him famous and revered. (There is to be a candlelit vigil in Melbourne, for goodness sake.) This fame has made the pieces valuable, and the value seems to have deluded many people into considering them profound. Not Banksy himself, however: he was deluded from the beginning. "I like to think," he says in his book Wall and Piece (RRP £20), "that I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things that no one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom." Yes indeed, I bet he likes to think that frequently.

There certainly is some wit and chutzpah in his work, and he is a fairly polished illustrator. But what should be the right amount of reverence for that? Other graffiti artists have judged it fairly well, by eventually obliterating the sweeping maid in Chalk Farm Road and the hitchhiking Charles Manson in Archway, among many others. Also, accidents keep happening. In Melbourne alone, three Banksies have been destroyed in the past two years.

To be clear, Banksy's work is not wholly unenjoyable – and Big Macs don't taste terrible either – but if he is starting to inspire people then their sights are being set about a mile too low. The whole point of graffiti is to be transitory and disposable, so let's hear it for the planet's cleaners, builders and vandals who, recognising instantly the uninterestingness of Banksy's art, dispose of it. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 08 2012

Sea Odyssey's vast puppets bring more to Liverpool than the Grand National

Merseyside's recent spectacular show illustrates how street theatre and public art can attract vast crowds. The north west's industrial heritage is doing the same. Alan Sykes reports

Two new reports highlight the value of cultural tourism to the economy of the north west of England. Last month's 'Sea Odyssey' street theatre jamboree in Liverpool is reckoned to have brought in £12m in extra spending by the vast crowds which thronged the city streets. Meanwhile, an estimated £11m was spent in the last year by people visiting industrial heritage attractions throughout the region.

For 'Sea Odyssey', the city's Business Improvement District managers estimate that their core area of the city centre alone saw a footfall just shy of 1,000,000 people over that weekend – 53% more than for the Grand National a week earlier. As well as those watching the event itself, visitors poured into shops, restaurants and other attractions which saw significant rises in custom – the Walker Art Gallery was 145% up on the previous year, the Maritime Museum was up 130% and Merseytravel, who laid on an extra ferry for people wanting to watch the giants sail down the Mersey, handled an extra 143% of passengers.

Councillor Wendy Simon, Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism at Liverpool City Council, says:

"We always knew this would be a huge weekend for the city, but 'Sea Odyssey' exceeded our expectations in terms of the crowd numbers and their reaction to the show. An independent report on the impact of Sea Odyssey is now being put together with final figures available within the next couple of months."

The city council certainly believes it got value for money for the £1.5m it cost to commission the French street theatre outfit Royale de Luxe to put on the event.

Meanwhile, a similar contribution to the region's economy, albeit in a more widespread and low key way, is claimed for the industrial heritage attractions spread throughout the area.

For the last year, Visit Manchester, working with the other tourist boards in the North West, has been managing a project called Modern History, an ERDF-funded project aimed at promoting around 100 of the North West's industrial heritage attractions, including Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry, Cumbria's Honister Slate Mine and the Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire. The research shows that mines, mills and transport systems that have been converted into visitor attractions are increasing the tourism revenue of the region. Honister, for example, which continues to produce the Westmorland green slate that was probably mined there in Roman times, now offers a via ferrata climbing path – giddily strung from a cliff-face and shortlisted for this year's Enjoy England awards - to go with the mine tours and slate sales.

The report shows that an extra 24,000 day visits and over 5000 overnight stays throughout the North West were generated by the campaign. Lisa Houghton, marketing manager for Modern History, is quoted in the Manchester Evening News saying:

The north west was instrumental in moving the world into the industrial age and the rich stories that surround this period are still relevant today – as the high visitor levels reflect. The research proves what a hard-working campaign Modern History has been and we are confident that even though the project has come to an end, it leaves a strong legacy that will continue to drive footfall to our wonderful attractions and museums for years to come. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 26 2012

From Russia with love

Russian street artist P183 is covering Moscow with his politically charged murals – and says he's doing it for a 'strong, educated and cultured homeland'

Decorating the walls of Moscow with politically fuelled graffiti isn't met with quite the same admiration as it is in the UK, yet an artist known only as P183 has made a name for himself by capturing the zeitgeist of modern-day Russia in his work.

P183's portfolio includes a sprawling mural of a masked protester holding a flare, a CCTV camera fitted with machine guns and a cardboard cut-out of a young girl hanging baubles on a barbed-wire fence. After gaining notoriety when photographs of his art got picked up around the world, he is now preparing a new series that will be unveiled around the Moscow streets soon.

Dubbed the Russian Banksy, or "Bankski", his art resembles the world's best-known street artist, although P183 insists he has never tried to imitate the Bristolian. Speaking from Moscow over Skype, dressed in his usual black garb and balaclava, he says: "I fully understand that we both have a common cause, but I never sought to emulate him or anyone else. I use the songs of people such as Yegor Letov and Konstantin Kinchev for inspiration – not public figures."

P183 first began writing poems at the age of 11 on the Tsoi Wall in Moscow, which pays tribute to Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi. Then as he got older, he began to spray murals elsewhere in the city. Lately he has set up guerrilla installations, including a giant fork shovelling industrial piping that looks like a plate of spaghetti.

As with most street artists, P183's canvas is all too soon covered with grey paint by the authorities. "The city government is categorically against street art, so any wall drawings are painted over. Graffiti with political meaning and social subtext are painted over especially fast," he says.

At the mere mention of this week's Russian election, he scowls. "I'm not going to talk about Putin, it's too much. In our country, there is a very heavy atmosphere. People are closed-minded, and money is the most important thing. Our state does not support creativity. To me, street art is a tool to send thoughts to people."

His motivation remains "to have a strong, educated and cultured homeland". If photographers continue to get to his work before the authorities, he may help to achieve just that. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 01 2012

3D street art: a question of perspective

How did Dutch artist Leon Keer create a 3D illusion on a street in chalk? The same way they created perspective in Renaissance Florence

The wife of 15th-century Italian artist Paolo Uccello used to beg him to come to bed. She was fed up of him staying up all night drawing objects with the new method of 3D illusion – or as it was called at the time, "perspective". He still wouldn't come to bed. "This perspective is such a sweet thing," he said.

Uccello's obsession lives again in the street art of Leon Keer. At a recent chalk art festival, this Dutch artist drew a meticulously planned picture of a "terracotta army" of Lego figures on a street in Sarasota, Florida. After the ethereal white outlines were filled in with earth-coloured paints, it looked as if an army of Lego people (based on China's famous terracotta warriors) had been excavated by archaeologists right in the middle of this American town. The hole and the outsized toys look three-dimensional and solid – if you are standing in the right position.

Photographs of the work show that from the "wrong" position, the picture looks smeared and distorted, a brown blur. Only when you stand at the correct viewing point is the illusion perfect, and then it is very convincing indeed. The first chalk design, seen from this viewpoint, seemed to float in mid-air above the road. Finished, the painting seems to go down into the ground in a hole made in the street.

How does it work? It relies on exactly the same calculations that fascinated Uccello and his contemporaries in Renaissance Florence. If you decide on the viewing point of a picture – the place where the observer stands or sits – you can then plot how everything in that person's view will recede and elongate as it gets further away. The simple fact that further objects seem smaller can be used to create an illusory world if you plan the relative proportions of everything in your picture on a grid like the one Keer drew on to the street.

Lots of trick effects arise from this principle. Hans Holbein's painting The Ambassadors is meant to be looked at from a few feet in front – except for one object that just seems to be a black-and-white smear from this angle but is actually a skull, best viewed from a point to the right of the painting and very close to its surface plane.

Another trick is trompe l'oeil decoration, where you paint a fake window or sculpture high on a building so that it seems real from the ground. Ceiling paintings that seem to depict entire crowds of heavenly beings sitting on clouds use the same methods. So does this amazing street picture.

Computers enable artists to calculate such effects with new precision – just as they enable 3D film-makers to achieve similar illusions. But all these modern wonders go back to the Renaissance when the closest thing to a computer was a set-square. The science improves. The locations change from churches and palaces to cinema screens and street surfaces. Our capacity for wonder lives on. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 31 2012

Moscow's Banksy – in pictures

A street artist who created a giant pair of glasses from a streetlamp and snow has been dubbed 'the Russian Banksy'. Here is some of P183's best work

November 17 2011

3D street art around the world

British artist Joe Hill's creation has broken records for the longest and largest 3D painting, according to Guinness Book of World Records. We take a look at some other top examples of 3D street paintings

November 02 2011

The artists' artist: street artists

Five street artists nominate their favourite living artist in their field

Blek Le Rat on Richard Hambleton

I first became aware of Hambleton's work in Naples in 1984. He doesn't use spray cans: he uses brushes and black paint in pots to create immense human shadows, which can be up to 250cm tall. His highly stylised mixture of drips, strokes and splashes makes for extremely powerful silhouettes. All his characters emanate an energy that only a grand artist can create. Canadian-born Hambleton – notorious for 30 years now, having worked in cities all over the world – often paints his shadowmen in rather dark, if not rotten, places such as car parks: hidden nooks and crannies where they can surprise passersby.

Hambleton, who now lives in New York, is the only painter whose work I have ever bought. But money and fame are not his priority. His ambition is to show and to share art in the urban landscape.

Blek Le Rat is a stencil art pioneer who works in Paris.

Aiko on Miss Tic

There are few female voices in the world of street art, but some women shout really hard and loud. Miss Tic, one of the "stencil legends", has been bringing short words and sensual images to the streets of Paris since the mid-1980s. Her works tell stories of her own experiences intimately and sometimes painfully. They can be romantic and provocative – and they always inspire me to be wilder, louder and bolder.

I learned about Miss Tic in the mid-2000s, right after I left the Faile collective in Brooklyn, New York, to go solo. The few women who are in the game there rarely manage to stay hot for as long. It was great to know there was someone I could look up to. Her seductive stencilled women and accompanying words are well known in Europe. Unfortunately, the poems, which are her strongest weapons [often commenting on the role of women in society], aren't translated into other languages, but this only makes her, and her art, more mysterious.

Aiko was born in Tokyo and is based in New York.

Sickboy on La Mano

La Mano means the hand. I saw his work in 2000 when I went to Barcelona and it was a pivotal point in my graffiti. His graphic depictions of a hand were everywhere. At the time, graffiti was mainly seen as letter-based, but he just used a logo and repeated it. He would draw a fat, cartoonish hand in cream with a black outline, and it would be everywhere you went. It ended up embedded in your subconscious. The hand could be really big, going over two buildings; or really small, on a doorway; or he'd use several sizes, intertwining.

I'd never been a big fan of stencil work, which is where a lot of people think graffiti crosses over into more acceptable street art. La Mano stuck more closely to the graffiti aspect, which I try to adhere to now. I like the freehand, grab-a-tin-of-spray-paint approach. I came back from that holiday in Barcelona inspired, with a whole new outlook, and I now use a temple logo in my art.

Sickboy is based in London.

The Faile collective on Bäst

We first came across Bäst's work on the streets of Manhattan in 1998. There was something so alive about his art, and the fact that he worked in a variety of media, that really set it apart. Bäst's combinations and appropriation of pop culture were refreshing and raw. Older pieces such as Molotov Dwarf – a man with the head of a Disney dwarf, holding a molotov cocktail – pre-dated Banksy's Flower Thrower and instilled the same kind of emotional contrast through image-pairing. He has an ability to deconstruct mass media in a way that is dirty and violent, yet beautiful and sincere.

His studio work has evolved in an equally compelling direction. Botulism, at London's Lazarides Gallery last year, featured collages of images and advertising, giving the impression of an ever-expanding, media-driven bacteria. The relationship between street and studio is important: Bäst is just as energetic at 2am in an alleyway as he is on the wall of a gallery.

Faile is a New York street art collective, formed in 1999.

Swoon on Revs

I had just moved to New York and was becoming curious about graffiti, but I had this stereotypical idea of what it was. When a friend pointed out some roller pieces [made with paint rollers], I remember thinking: "Oh my God!" They were such a part of the landscape I thought they were advertising. To learn they weren't, that they were illicit works, flipped my brain.

Revs's constant focus on the city has become part of its fabric. But his stand-out project is the one in which he wrote his life story, a page at a time, through the tunnels of the New York subway. He would roller out white paint and spray paint black letters on top. It's such a heartfelt, intense work: to spend that much time in the tunnels, to chronicle your life in a place few people will ever read it, is strange and beautiful.

When the train stops in a tunnel, as it often does, or goes really slowly, you can sometimes catch glimpses of the pages. Revs has created a permanent, but hidden, part of the city. When you discover it, you feel you have really stumbled upon something.

Swoon, based in New York, creates life-size cut-outs pasted to city streets. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 03 2011

Back at cha! Banksy graffiti war re-erupts

Attacks resume between Banksy and apparent King Robbo supporters after police marksman work is defaced

One of Banksy's most famous works has been defaced in what may be the latest episode of a long-running spat with a rival street artist.

The image above a shop in Bristol, which is generally accepted as the artist's home town, shows a police marksman with a child about to burst a paper bag behind him.

It appeared near Bristol city centre four years ago but has now been defaced with black paint. The vandalism has been signed "Team Robbo" apparently a reference to King Robbo, regarded as a founding father of the London graffiti scene.

The pair, or perhaps their followers, have been blamed for defacing or manipulating the other's work over the past two years.

A key battleground has been a spot under a bridge on Regent's Canal in London where an artist said to be the mysterious and elusive Banksy painted over a section of a 25-year-old mural by King Robbo.

Robbo was thought to have retired but he – or perhaps someone else – emerged to partly restore the work.

The much-loved "paper bag" image opposite Bristol children's hospital was defaced at the weekend. It was tagged "Team Robbo" and "BSK".

It is not yet known if the defaced work will be repaired. Bristol city council says it is not responsible as the image is on a privately owned building.

The council cleaned up a previous Banksy mural – of a naked man hanging from a window – which was vandalised in June 2009.

Also in 2009, red paint was splattered across Banksy's Mild, Mild West artwork in Stokes Croft, Bristol, and repaired by the community group the People's Republic of Stokes Croft.

In July, a Banksy image of a gorilla in a pink mask on the wall of the former North Bristol Social Club, in Eastville, was mistakenly painted over.

Saeed Ahmed, the building's new owner, said he had never heard of Banksy and had had the wall whitewashed. Ahmed apologised. The artwork has now been partially restored. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 27 2011

100 years of neon

Peter Conrad celebrates a century of the medium that sells the raffish charms of America and has inspired film-makers and artists, from Hitchcock and Coppola to Bruce Nauman and Tracey Emin

Every night, on the corner beside my apartment in Greenwich Village, two words inflame or intoxicate the sky. One is red, the other green, so they imitate the universal code for stop and go, permission and prohibition. The green word, spelled out in thin letters arranged vertically like a fire-escape ladder, is WINES, though the acid colour suggests very unripe grapes. The red word, marching along horizontally with letters that are thicker and therefore seem louder, is LIQUORS; inside these blockish capitals, smaller yellow lines crackle like sparks.

The two words cohabit on a neon sign that advertises an establishment grandly known as Imperial Vintner, which in fact is an off-licence squeezed into a corridor. I've never been in the shop but I regard the sign as my beacon. It's thrillingly raffish to tell a taxi driver: "Pull up by the liquor store", as if this were the entry to some underground lair, accessible only to those possessing a password. Neon, writing its brazen enticements across the darkness and contributing its simmering hum to the uproar of the street, for me sums up the nocturnal romance of American cities.

What makes WINES and LIQUORS glow is a gas – air chilled until it liquefies, then slowly reheated – trapped in tubes and excited by electrodes. The tubes have been heated in advance and can be blown or twisted into any shape you please; a phosphorescent coating gives them an eerier, more spectral glare.

The technology has something magical and dangerous to it, because gas is another name for chaos. The etymology is the same: gas hints at the turbulence and instability of nature, with contending forces engaged in perpetual combat. The Belgian chemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont, who coined the word in the 1640s, thought that gas was a spirit, perhaps a demon. In an intermediate zone between solid and liquid, gas can make you laugh or lift you off the ground or concuss you or kill you, even though you can't see it. Studying carbon dioxide, van Helmont found that it was emitted by belches: like a neon sign, our digestive system is a long, curvaceous tube full of gases that breathe fire.

Along with helium, xenon and krypton, neon was first extracted from the air in the late 1890s. Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers discovered a category of gases missing from the periodic table and the Greek names they assigned to these elements paid tribute to their occult source. Helium refers to the sun, in whose chromosphere it was traced; xenon means strange (as in xenophobia, which warns against foreigners); and krypton implies that the gas is cryptic, in need of decoding. Neon simply identifies something new, enigmatic and unclassifiable.

Unlike hydrogen and oxygen, these gases would not enter into combinations with other elements, which led to their being called noble gases: chemistry has its small snobberies and it's ironic that this low reactivity was taken to be a sign of aristocratic exclusiveness.

Neon is the gas that has happily leant itself to the most ignoble uses. All across America, it announces LIQUORS or EATS or GIRLS or yells XXXX!!! in the flushed red window of an adult video store that has PREVIEW BOOTHS for its patrons. It is seldom used to mark a museum or a library, although it is capable of using its palette of scorching, infernal colours to reprimand the vices that it otherwise encourages.

In the New York neighbourhood known as Hell's Kitchen, not far from the galactic glare of Times Square, there is a homeless shelter with a cruciform neon sign that terrorises its down-and-out customers by declaring SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT. The paint on the metal cross to which the warning is attached has turned leprous with age and the creaking threat hangs above the street like a multicoloured cadaver rotting on the gallows. Neon plays nasty games with us: it goads us to misbehave, then utters this kind of thunderous reproach.

Almost exactly a century ago, the French inventor Georges Claude first put the luminous tubes of gas to commercial use. Claude patented his system in November 1911, after showing off the results at the Paris motor show the previous December. He chose the occasion for his demonstration well. The new form of lighting, made possible by electrodes that went to work like an ignition switch turning on an engine, suited the cult of speedy modernity; when neon was first used in America in 1923, it marked the site of a Packard car dealership in automobile-addicted Los Angeles.

Although Claude was celebrated as "the French Edison", Thomas Edison's incandescent bulbs were meant for indoor use – they were praised for their domestic mellowness, an advance beyond the wispy, sinister flicker of gas lamps – whereas Claude's tubes carried light over longer distances and, when the glass was bent into all the letters of the alphabet, made it verbal or vocal. Electricity had already turned Broadway into "the Great White Way". Neon made that description seem anaemic: the journalist Meyer Berger renamed it "the Rainbow Ravine".

Cities such as New York were now able to banish darkness or to use it as a screen for the projection of slogans. In the 1920s, GK Chesterton shook his head at the kaleidoscope above Broadway, which had harnessed "the two most vivid and most mystical gifts of God, colour and fire" and used them to sell "everything from pork to pianos". Unable to forget the prophetic writing on the wall in the Bible, Chesterton found this writing on the sky sacrilegious.

In fact, looking back at photographs of Times Square in the heyday of neon, the spectacle seems tame, banal, laughably wholesome. Gillette touted its razor blades in ruby and turquoise, Pepsodent blazed as whitely as freshly polished dentures, Planters Peanuts promised that "A Bag A Day Gives You More Pep", and the collars of Arrow Shirts sang the praises of the buttoned-down life. What now look mildly sleazy are the neon signs advertising cigarettes, which back then were not thought to be toxic: a penguin on an ice floe smoked a mentholated Kool and a man who testified to the virtues of Camel – SLOWER BURNING, as the torrid letters said – puffed out smoke rings with the help of a giant bellows that stood in for his charred, poisoned lungs.

Today, LED panels on the sides of the new skyscrapers have transformed Times Square into a cataract of moving images with which the subdued radiance of neon cannot compete. Light-emitting diodes enable entire buildings to act as signs; more dazzling than daylight, they have no need to wait for sunset. With streets closed to cars and cafe tables set out for rubberneckers, Times Square has become an alfresco, interactive television studio. Passing through on a recent afternoon, I saw a gang of tourists on what used to be a traffic island madly waving at an apparition in mid-air: they were saluting a gigantic replica of themselves on a screen a dozen storeys above the street.

Neon has had to take refuge in dimmer, quieter corners of New York. But an antiquated technology is likely to become an object of sentimental regret, protected by those who balk at the pace of change. There is already a Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, with the acronym Mona: at its previous location – it's currently closed, awaiting new premises in Glendale – its figurehead was a neon Mona Lisa, her smile reduced to two labial squiggles, her hair pyrotechnically exploding in an outburst of yellow, blue and hot pink strands.

Lacking any such institution, neon in New York has acquired a feisty champion in Kirsten Hively, an architect who since last year has been photographing the signs that still iridescently fizz and sizzle in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. She publishes her photographs, with fond anecdotal commentaries on each sign she adds to her inventory, on a witty, sassy blog at Her beguiling slogan, an invitation to fellow-travellers, is: "Follow a girl as she follows the glow".

Hively – whom I met at a rowdy bar near Union Square, chosen, of course, because she loves the fuzzy conviviality of its neon sign – is a flâneur whose wanderings are a course of self-administered therapy. Her architectural career stalled after the financial collapse in 2008. She compromised by taking an office job that supplied her with health benefits and enabled her to keep her apartment, but required a new outlet for her creative energy and her ambition, the forces that propel all New Yorkers. "I needed," she said, "to find a reason to go on loving New York. And last year I was looking for something to get me through the depths of the winter, during all those blizzards."

Hively grew up in Alaska, which taught her to regard the months of depressive darkness as a psychological ordeal. She responded to the gloom by picking up her camera after she finished work and tramping through New York's snowdrifts and slushy bogs or slithering on its glassy, iced-sheeted sidewalks as she tracked down obscure neon signs. "My friends used to say, 'You're going out tonight? It's sub-zero!' I was always glad when I saw the sign for a pharmacy, because I could stock up on cough syrup. In Alaska, we don't stand around in the street with our feet in puddles like I did; we go everywhere in heated cars."

Like every other self-respecting New Yorker, Hively is a tireless and determined pedestrian. "I'm motivated," she told me: that's as good as being motorised. "I started just following a random trail; after a while, it got more systematic. If I saw some beautiful colours a block away, I'd head for whatever it was, then notice another sign a block further off. Before long, I was in neighbourhoods I would never go into on my own even during the day – but if you have a purpose you don't think about being safe. A lot of the little stores that still have neon signs close early, so many times I'd see something wonderful up ahead and then by the time I'd trudged through the snow and got there, they'd have turned the sign off. Now it's August, it's sunny until late and I'm impatient because I want to see the neon. I must be the only person from Alaska who's really keen for the days to get shorter."

We waited until the arrival of what she calls "the gloaming", then set off on a neon-seeking ramble through SoHo, the Bowery and Alphabet City, the dodgy precinct east of First Avenue where the thoroughfares are identified by letters, not numbers. After a day of stifling humidity, it had begun to rain: imagine a sticky shower of sweat. But the oppressive atmosphere flattered the signs, which blurred in the pearly air and leaked reflections on to the slick streets, as if the gas inside them were turning moist all over again.

Hively is a connoisseur with an acute eye, eclectic sympathies and a few strict prejudices. "Yellow neon is kinda weird," she said with a sniff as we passed an Italian cake shop. "I don't like pink generally in life – I mean, for clothes and stuff. But I love pink neon, especially when it's combined with lime green. Look how they've painted some of those tubes black so you won't see the connections between the letters. It's like kabuki, where you have actors pretending not to be there."

With Hively striding on ahead, I found a succession of treasures, all of them invisible by daylight. The Heartbreak Bar is a shadowy den in which you can doctor your misery with a drink: Hively pointed out that HEART and BREAK, both in bleeding red neon, were split apart at right angles on the street corner. She then led me to Katz's Deli, which advertises its salami and frankfurters inside a red neon map of the United States. "Beautiful apostrophe," I said, admiring the curly punctuation mark in Katz's name. "Ah, just wait," said Hively. "There's a great ampersand just up ahead." The logogram belongs in the neon sign in the window of Russ & Daughters, a family catering firm whose shop is known, because of its cured salmon, as "the Louvre of lox". Russ's "&" resembles a mermaid with a slippery green fin, and on either side of the salmon-pink subheading APPETIZERS two aquamarine neon fish frolic, diving towards the door as if anxious to be killed, sold and eaten.

Our tour concluded outside a Ukrainian church, with a Russian Orthodox cross jutting out from its facade and fastened by an onerous rusty chain. The crucifix is outlined in white neon, as cold as a corpse and as thin as a skeleton. "Don't you love the chain?" said Hively. "Maybe they think it's gonna fly away back to heaven. When I published my photo of this one on the blog, the priest or deacon or whatever emailed me to say he was glad I liked it. I get lots of feedback like that."

Her expeditions through the frozen streets have led to the convening of an online community that is not entirely virtual. Hively has overcome her shyness about soliciting donations for Project Neon and in her post about a restaurant called Lobster House she suggests, after descanting on the ingenuity of the neon crustacean's animated right claw, that fellow enthusiasts might consider buying her a beer or – better yet – a lobster. What began as a solitary pilgrimage has ended by creating a companionable forum where the city's eccentrics foregather.

Hively made me notice things in New York that I had always overlooked and started me thinking about homages to neon, in film and the other arts. No one is more responsive to its baleful commandments than Alfred Hitchcock, who read the messages written on the sky as prophecies of doom, like the curse inscribed by the disembodied hand at Belshazzar's feast. A neon sign, smeared by rain as if seen through tears, beckons Janet Leigh to her doom at the motel in Psycho. In Rope, two men murder a friend and stow his body in a chest in a corner of the room where they then play hosts at a cocktail party for his family and friends. Outside the window of their New York apartment, the separate letters of a neon sign for a warehouse, at first seen only partially and at odd, unintelligible angles, finally come together to utter a secret that none of the characters has guessed: the unheeded clue to the whereabouts of the corpse is STORAGE. And in Vertigo, in a cheap San Francisco hotel room, James Stewart makes love to a woman whom he thinks has arisen from the dead. They embrace in a luminous fog breathed out by the neon sign clamped to the window; green here is the colour of decay, the sickly exhalation from a tomb.

But neon is not necessarily so irate or morbid. In Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart, it saturates the air of Las Vegas with sensation. Colours pulse and throb, like blood beneath the skin. In a lingerie shop, a titillating pink sign blushes as it alludes to INTIMATE MOMENTS. Nastassja Kinski, playing a trapeze artist, visits the boneyard in the desert where junked neon signs that belonged to the casinos are sent to die. They all jerk back to life when she appears, glowing as they sketch silhouetted palm trees and fan dancers with feathered head-dresses; gas canisters abandoned in the sand are a sad reminder of the chemistry on which the illusion depends. "This is the garden of the Taj Mahal!" says Kinski, who climbs up a pylon, dodges high-tension wires and does a tightrope walk with sparklers in her hands, like an electrified fairy.

Neon always was an incitement to this kind of hedonism, which is perhaps why Tracey Emin, in her show at White Cube in 2009, thought of using it to confide the sodden regrets of the disillusioned morning after. Across the clinical white walls of the gallery, Emin scribbled a maudlin love note in pink neon tubes that looked like extracts from her tangled intestines: "Oh Christ I just wanted You/ to Fuck me/ And Then/ I Became Greedy, I wanted/ You to Love me". In response to a commission from David Cameron, she has been a little more discreet in creating a neon missive for Number 10. Her sign, installed above the door of the Terracotta Room, says: "MORE PASSION". Not good advice for politicians, I'd have thought, but the neon is incorrigibly excitable.

Neon is a medium for public pronouncements; Emin the exhibitionist made it broadcast a private confession. Jenny Holzer has done something braver and more altruistic, employing neon to denounce the commercial orgy of Times Square: her installation there during the 1980s re-educated the signs, curing them of their consumerism. "PROTECT ME," said a devout revolutionary prayer that blazed on the side of a skyscraper, "FROM WHAT I WANT."

Bruce Nauman's neon slogans manage to have it both ways. One of them advises us to RUN FROM FEAR, while a variant beneath tells us the opposite by reversing two letters: now it cheekily advises us to derive FUN FROM REAR. Three capitals, lit up one by one, first raunchily semaphore RAW, then reverse the order to bellow WAR. Nauman also makes mysteries materialise in neon. Coiled inside a red snailshell, blue letters testify that "the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths". Or are those truths inflammatory lies? A blitz of words arranged like an asterisk or a hurtling asteroid flashes on and off, naming the impulses that drive us to follow the commands of the signs: HOPE DREAM DESIRE NEED. Nauman's small glossary sums up the reasons why, like Kirsten Hively, we follow the glow. God, creating nature, said: "Let there be light." But when darkness arrives in the city, the world belongs to the Devil and he spells out his temptations – whether they're alcoholic, erotic or merely commercial – in neon that gives off heat like the burning fiery furnace. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 25 2011

Street art is dying – and it's our fault

David Cameron poses in front of it, old folks own books about it … has graffiti's entry into polite society come at too high a price?

Street art is so much part of the establishment that when David Cameron spoke about this summer's riots, he was photographed in front of a bright and bulbous Oxfordshire graffiti painting. Contradiction? Of course not. The efforts of Banksy and all the would-be Banksys have so deeply inscribed the "coolness" of street art into the middle-class mind that it is now as respectable as the Proms, and enjoyed by the same crowd – who can now take a picnic basket down to watch a painting marathon under the railway arches.

No wonder an event described as "the UK's biggest street art project" (60 artists from all over the world decorating Nelson Street in Bristol last week) went down fairly quietly in the national press. It's not that new or surprising any more, let alone controversial. Nowadays, doing a bit of street art is as routine as checking your emails. There's probably an app for it.

Visitors to London buy Banksy prints on canvas from street stalls, while in Tripoli photographers latch on to any bloke with a spray can near any wall that's still standing. Graffiti and street art have become instant – and slightly lazy – icons of everything our culture lauds, from youth to rebellion to making a fast buck from art.

Is this how street art will die – not with a bang, but with a whimper? Maybe there was a time when painting a wittily satirical or cheekily rude picture or comment on a wall was genuinely disruptive and shocking. That time is gone. Councils still do their bit to keep street art alive by occasionally obliterating it, and so confirming that it has edge. But basically it has been absorbed so deep into the mainstream that old folk who once railed at graffiti in their town are now more likely to have a Banksy book on their shelves than a collection of Giles cartoons.

I find 90% of this art form to be boring, banal and unimaginative. Images far too ordinary to be exhibited in art galleries are admired because they are on the street. Then dealers and curators collect them as masterpieces of street art and they do enter the gallery after all, without being any more interesting than they were to begin with.

Meanwhile, young people find their culture has been stolen by the middle-aged and old. Punk? Fifty-year-olds were there. Facebook? Fortysomethings are all over it. Street art? The prime minster is so down with that. At least young people can still shock their elders by attacking the Cenotaph or looting shops – until those activities, too, become fashionable in polite society. I await Grayson Perry's looting bag (convenient for carrying electrical goods, and ecologically responsible) with interest. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 17 2011

Pablo Delgado's small world

Tiny figures are popping up all over London's East End thanks to this Mexican artist

If you don't look down, you could miss them: the little people skirting the pavements of London's East End. Down at the bottom of walls, they are walking with elephants, cycling, carrying a cane, eyeing up a panda. Sometime last year, little doors appeared around Spitalfields and Shoreditch, promising Alice in Wonderland mystery. Then dozens and dozens of tiny figures turned up, each of them different – a man walking a giraffe, women in burqas carrying shopping, Benedictine monks, waiters, joggers – all just inches high.

These "little people" are the work of Mexican artist Pablo Delgado, 32, who lives in Whitechapel, east London. Delgado began with the doors – there are around 50 of them on the streets.

"I started downloading images of doors from around the world and I worked with them and pasted them on to some walls," he says. "It began because I felt claustrophobic at home. I live in a small place and see doors as an exit to a different world. These little doors give you more space for your imagination, the chance to wonder what's behind them."

Each of the paste-ups is different, but he does have recurring figures, not least the sex workers or putitas who lurk on the walls of Spitalfields, which until recently was one of Europe's oldest red light districts. Delgado says: "The prostitutes represent what is happening in East London – with the Olympics everyone is trying to sell themselves and there will be so much money and people coming here. They are not really a comment on prostitution itself, though there is a history of that in this area."Now Delgado has moved on from the sex trade. "I think of random concepts and characters, universal things like doors, chairs, gentlemen, animals," he says.

Each of Delgado's figures casts a shadow on the pavement. "My figures are two-dimensional but I like to think the shadow suggests something else."

Some of the figures have vanished, as people have tried to pull them off and take them home. Delgado doesn't mind. "It's nice that the little people change with the rain and the dust. They are ephemera. And when some of them have been pulled off, you still see the shadow on the pavement and the silhouette of where they were and they are like ghosts." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 22 2011

A working life: The graffiti artist

Graffiti artist Olivier Roubieu may look like a gangsta with an airbrush gun but his commissions range from bank boardrooms to body painting

The whiff of aerosol paint lacquer and stale urine hangs over the entrance to Leake Street, a murky tunnel below the platforms of London's Waterloo station. "THE TUNNEL. Authorised graffiti area," proclaims a billboard spelling out the rules of painting etiquette, including one barely legible beneath multicoloured layers of name-tagging: "You don't have to be a gangster to paint here, so please don't behave like one."

This is hardly reassuring as I venture into the tunnel where I have arranged to meet Olivier Roubieu, a graffiti artist known professionally as Mr Shiz. His website features several photographic self-portraits in louche, gangster-like poses – including one in which he is stripped to the waist, exhaling smoke and gripping an airbrush gun like an automatic weapon. So it's a surprise to find him, halfway along the tunnel, cheerfully spraying arcs of aerosol paint on to a wall like an orchestra conductor. Behind him, a dozen or so teenage Italian tourists are watching with fascination, the atmosphere more like an international summer school than a hotbed of underground delinquency.

"Look! I just got a rose!" he says delightedly, pulling off his face mask and showing me a cut flower left on top of his paint box by a lady in a wheelchair who had stopped for a chat. Having adjusted my eyes to the gloom, I realise there is a steady stream of pedestrians having a look at the walls plastered with graffiti lettering and murals of varying colours, sizes and quality. "It's a free gallery; you get legends painting here sometimes," he says.

Judging from the evidence, Roubieu is no stranger here either. On the opposite wall is a cartoon-face mural, tagged extravagantly by Mr Shiz, alongside a "throw up" – the fatter, more stylised form of graffiti lettering – painted by a friend. The mural was one of his many professional commissions, this one for a music video. "My character's not so good, my friend did a really nice piece," he says modestly. "But people connect more with a face."

Roubieu has been making a living primarily as a graffiti artist and body painter for five years. For an hour and a half prior to my arrival, he has been working on a three-metre-wide photo-realistic reproduction of a nude girl, tastefully posed on a bed. Half-finished, the girl has a ghostly quality with outline and skin tones formed, but face and body left blank. When finished, he wants the picture to go into an instructional book he is making about graffiti art, so he is keen to get it right: "Today I'm following a photograph because I want it to be right, but normally I'd just work off the top of my head."

Perfecting the body shape is always his priority. "A lot of people start by doing the eye perfectly, and the hand is not even in place. I'm always telling my friend that! You build up in layers, but the way I work is to work on the feet, the hand, the face and everything, and keep going back and adding detail. If I was to do the arm perfectly and the rest is not in place, I will get it wrong."

Roubieu – genial, open, with a soft, continental accent that I struggle to place but which turns out to be Parisian French – is nothing like what I'd expected from the gangster-macho image. As he cheerfully admits, it's one that comes with the hip-hop music influence on many graffiti artists, and one that, he points out, conceals a close sense of community among street painters.

"You don't really have a rivalry among graffiti artists," he says. "If you do street art maybe there's some, you know, 'friendly wars' going on. But I can honestly say that of all the people I've met in the graffiti world, 99% are cool. It's not like with models or these industries where everybody's trying to shine from the crowd. Everybody's just helping, it's a big family."

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Roubieu came into the graffiti world from an art school background, having studied in France where he grew up. "I was really, really bad," he recalls, laughing. "I just used to sketch all the time and draw graffiti letters and stuff, and I wanted to start a business making T-shirts." Having moved to England, he did just that, setting up a stall in Portobello Market, then began experimenting with more bespoke artwork when customers started asking him to customise their clothing designs.

More commissions followed, but he found it hard to make ends meet until, a couple of years ago, he decided to throw all his energy into graffiti art. "To be an artist you have to be so dedicated and it came to the point that it was so hard, I was contemplating quitting," he says.

Inspired by a visit to a trade show in Las Vegas, his response was to start painting "like there was no tomorrow, whether it was really cold, really hot, it didn't matter. My friends kept telling me, 'you're always painting, painting!' But I wanted to get up to standard."

The gamble paid off and Roubieu's various commissions now range from the boardroom of a bank to the wall of a restaurant, to airbrushing a design on to a car. One of the most unusual came from a pub wanting a life-sized sculpture of a camper van smashing out of a wall. He pulls out his smartphone to show me pictures, and I notice the words "MR SHIZ" on the van's number plate. "I made it all from foam balls and filler," he tells me proudly. "So much filler …"

Body painting is another area of his professional expertise, which he seems to practise mainly on scantily-clad women. Again, he produces pictures on his phone, some rather eye-popping. "I got into it because I wanted to advertise, and body painting is a great way to do that," he says. "Whether you're painting on a man or a woman, it draws people in and they want to see what you do."

Now, he says, it is all about the artistic challenge. "It's a lot harder to paint on the skin than on a wall. A person can sweat, a person can move and I just push myself." Does it not get a little embarrassing, painting all over people's private parts? "It did at first," he admits, "but you can't be too shy. That really wouldn't work."

Most of that work gets done at Roubieu's studio in Stratford. Having lived in London for around 10 years, he seems settled in England, despite a poor first impression. "My parents wanted me to come here to learn English, as a lot of people do," he recalls. "I had a horrible time with an exchange family, it was a bad experience."

But after art college he returned and, as he recalls it, "had a blast, stayed for a year, went travelling to Norway and Italy, then back to France and thought, 'Don't like it'. So I came back here and stayed. I've been here ever since."

I mention my impression that graffiti art often seems much more visible in continental cities such as Paris which, interestingly, he attributes to the lack of surveillance. "In London, with all the cameras everywhere, it's quite hard to paint anywhere," he says. Even so, Roubieu has no regrets. "It's great to be an artist in England, it's much harder in France. Most of my clients are here anyway, and I like the way people are."

While many people attribute the growing commercial market for graffiti art to the success of Banksy, he is not necessarily flavour of the month with many graffiti writers. Roubieu does not share that view: "Some people don't like Banksy because he does street art, as opposed to graffiti, and he does it for a living. Some people have an issue with people earning money with graffiti. But thanks to him, a lot of people became aware of graffiti as an art as opposed to just vandalism. And he opened this tunnel."

Neither does Roubieu take issue with illegal graffiti artists who scrawl their tags along railway lines and the likes. "The good thing about painting down here is it's legal, so the police come and see me and, as I paint legally, it's fine. But a lot of people don't realise that I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for illegal writers. Some people say they saw some illegal writing on the trackside and they didn't like it, but because it's not legal, and you don't want to be caught, you have to be quick."

As we talk, a van draws up behind us, ominously marked "South Bank Graffiti Removal". Its occupants peer at us for a few moments, then turn round slowly and retreat back up the tunnel.

Roubieu still has a couple of hours' work before the painting of the girl will be finished: it's a legal wall, so he has no need to worry about it being removed, in theory at least. He gives the van a half-glance over his shoulder and smiles.

"Actually, one of those guys wants me to paint his bedroom for him," he says, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "But you know, I'm not sure if he has the cash."


If there's one thing that annoys Olivier about England, 'it's that everyone always calls me Oliver'. He misses French cooking but regards English food highly: "As a foreigner myself I know how a lot of them don't experiment, so they'll never know proper English food. It's a shame because it's so rich. My favourite? Ah … shepherd's pie!" His favourite holiday destination is "America. I really enjoyed Las Vegas. Everything is different." He loves watching films: "If I had to choose one, it'd be Inside Man with Clive Owen. Love that actor."

Curriculum vitae

Pay "Your guess is as good as mine. It can be a lot, it can be a little. Honestly, no idea. I live off it, put it that way." For a large wall mural, Roubieux says he might charge £400-£1,000, "depending on the level of detail".

Hours "Sometimes it can be work, but mostly it's not. Sometimes I'll do a 16-hour day and when I go home I'm dead. But you've got that satisfaction that you've made people dream."

Work-life balance "When you're really pushing it, it doesn't allow space for anything or anyone. You don't really have a social life. But once you start getting more recognition, you can relax a bit."

Best thing "When you pick up the phone and someone says, 'Hi, I want something.' And you think, 'Uh huh, what's it gonna be this time?'"

Worst thing "Health. I'm really cautious. It makes me sad to see my mates painting without masks, without gloves. They know it's gonna harm them. But it's a choice." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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June 12 2011

Kabul's graffiti guerrillas put the writing on the walls

Subtle spraycan art attack on public spaces in capital is trying to prod Afghans into asking questions

Some time this week Qassem will slip through the dark streets of a sleeping city. Well before the morning traffic starts to build up, the 24-year-old office worker will be home. But several street signs will have been subtly altered, roads will have slogans painted across them and a prominent wall will bear in large letters the words – "Why are we here?"

Qassem is one of a small band of graffiti artists in the Afghan capital who, encouraged by a group of western "art activists", are set on bringing tagging, wall-painting and graphic stencils to public spaces across the city. "I'm going to edit a few traffic signs. Write slogans in big, funky script. Even paint across whole streets. The idea is to make people ask questions," Qassem said.

Previously Qassem's efforts have been limited to spraying the name of a Swedish death metal band on the wall of the British cemetery, where casualties of previous interventions are buried.

Many walls in Kabul are already covered in advertising slogans or fly-posting. There are also rare political slogans.

"You can see 'troops out' and similar, but nothing creative or artistic. There are also massive public information campaigns, many funded by the government with money from the west. So we wanted to see the reaction to something different," said a member of Combat Communications, an anonymous Kabul-based group of international artists encouraging the movement.

Eighteen months ago the group sprayed designs inspired by the British graffiti artist Banksy on walls of ostentatious new houses believed to have been built with the profits of the £3bn a year Afghan drug trade. A video on the internet brought an international response. Then images of an Apache attack helicopter, a Taliban insurgent, a tank, and poppies appeared in the city. Last December, Chu, a British artist, ran a week-long workshop on wall-painting in a disused industrial area on the outskirts of Kabul.

"It was very good for us," said Ommolbanin Shamsia Hassani, 23. "We learned many new things."

The interest in graffiti is part of burgeoning contemporary art scene in Kabul. One of the leading local artists is Amanullah Mojadidi, 40. Like most, including Qassem and Hassani, he was raised overseas, and came to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. One recent work involved mounting a fake police checkpoint at which, instead of taking bribes as is habitually the case, cash was returned to bemused motorists "as an apology from the Kabul police for previous misdemeanours". The resulting installation, using film of the event, is called Payback and has been shown in Cairo, New York and now Mumbai, India.

Mojadidi also created posters parodying former leaders of the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s – many of whom have subsequently become extremely rich. The images, posted around Kabul, showed him dressed as a cross between a local leader and an American gangster rapper, complete with a gold-plated gun, emerald-tipped bullets and girls in burqas and bikinis. "Most were ripped down in days," said Mojadidi. Current work includes a project on suicide bombers and beards.

But Mojadidi is planning to leave Afghanistan. He said space for independent contemporary art is being squeezed as international donors exploit the new creative activity. His own attempt to encourage graffiti led to disillusion.

"I was trying to generate some genuine street art, but before it had even taken root I was contacted by a contractor for the American government working on a gender awareness project who wanted to use graffiti to raise consciousness of women's rights," Mojadidi said.

The problems facing aspirant street artists in Kabul are many. Though security has improved, the Afghan capital remains chaotic and often lawless.

"Everybody is scared of doing this [graffiti]. So I'm going to try to give them a bit of courage and go first," Qassem said. "Maybe when they see what I have done it will be a kind of breakthrough."

Hassani – who paints as Shamsia – said women artists faced additional problems in what is still a deeply conservative society. "At the moment I do graffiti and wall-painting at home. [To do it] in the city is still a bit difficult, especially for girls," she told the Guardian. "This is not Europe."

• This article was amended on 13 June 2011. In the article above we misspelled graffiti on two occasions. This has been corrected. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 09 2011

Letters: Art of pointlessness

I should like to defend Daniel Halpin (or "Tox") against the charges of certain establishment figures – police, popular artists, and prosecutors – that his work amounts to nothing more than trivial but pervasive vandalism, lacking in skill or merit (Tox tagger faces prison, 8 June).

I have enjoyed Mr Halpin's work since I started to travel to London extensively and would see "TOX 06" emblazoned on mile after mile of train carriages, railway sidings, bridges and buildings. Its ubiquity, regularity and apparent pointlessness is what makes the work a powerful critique of the monotony and triviality of the many signs and notices put up by the state which bear instructions, prohibitions and statements of the obvious.

When I walk down a street and see in the space of half a mile 20 metal plaques bearing all manner of petty injunctions – "No drinking in this area"; "No parking on matchdays 6.30pm–8.30pm"; "Dogs to be kept on leads in the park" – I feel, to borrow vocabulary from Detective Constable Livings, the state has committed a selfish vandalism which scars the environment and contributes to a sense of oppression, anxiety and lack of personal agency.

As artist Ben Flynn says, Mr Halpin's work is indeed "incredibly basic" and lacking in "style". I think that's the point.

Dominique Hurle

London © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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