Over the past couple of decades, Europe has experienced a cultural rebirth in the form of street art. Cities once associated with classical architecture or drab buildings are now filled with art. Big names such as Banksy, Blu, Vhils, and Stik have invaded European streets. All of them have largely been welcomed by appreciating passersby. Not long ago street art represented outcasts littering city centers with graffiti and vandalism. Nowadays, street art is regarded as a means of mass communication. Among visual arts, street art is the most accessible, breaking through all social barriers.
The French artist JR once stated that the streets were “the largest art gallery in the world,” and he has a point. It’s also a free art gallery, where people from all walks of life occupy the same space every single day. “Culture” is becoming more and more available to the masses. How the audience members perceive and understand the art, however, varies greatly.
JR Through the Eye of Liu Bolin – Image source
By nature, street art is interactive and blends into the urban landscape. People may interpret it any way they see fit. In areas riddled with unemployment and deprivation, it has become a tool for venting anger and frustration. Artists use “guerrilla art” as social or political commentary and often provoke a reaction. They choose to bypass traditional exhibitions to communicate directly with the public. These artists free themselves from the confines of the formal art world.
Guerrilla art by Banksy – Image Source
Street art is now considered a legitimate form of art by most people. Of course, some critics and politicians still view it as pure vandalism and seek to cut it out. Many governments disapproved of it, fearing the message spread and received among disaffected citizens. In times of unrest, it can be a voice for change, as seen in Berlin and more recently in Istanbul and Athens. Plenty of contemporary street artists have earned support from curators and galleries.
“Hidden Street” at Hong Kong – Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO – Image Source
On occasion, urban art has been painted over or erased, causing public outrage. Politicians have had to acknowledge these facts and act accordingly. Cities such as Copenhagen, Prague and London, have assigned areas where artists can paint. The authorities are at least feigning interest in the importance of street art. Being seen to encourage creativity casts them in a positive light with young voters.
Street art takes many forms and is not just the domain of spray paint and stencils. These days you can find sculptures, sticker art, mosaics and installations using different materials. The French artist, Space Invader, drew inspiration from the popular arcade game “Space Invaders”. He is famous for his pixelated mosaics of characters from the game. His works now adorn much of Paris and other European cities. Meanwhile, Banksy uses a variety of media, including the creation of huge installations. One such example is Dismaland: Bemusement Park, resembling a dark version of Disneyland.
Space Invader in London – Image Source
The art isn’t always political or thought-provoking. Sometimes it’s just fun or used to brighten up the locale. One such example is Banksy’s satirical Well Hung Lover, on a building in Bristol. It depicts a man looking out of a window while his wife’s lover hangs naked from the window sill below him. Bristol remains one of the most important locations for street art. The city hosts the largest free street art festival in Europe.
Well Hung Lover by Banksy – Image Source
Urban art can be found all over Europe, but the street art scene in Berlin is possibly the most active. It also has one of the most compelling histories of the medium. Here, a long tradition of art as an expression of political freedom started in 1989. When the Berlin Wall came down and the East Side Gallery was established a year later. The open-air memorial to freedom and reconciliation covers 1.3 km of the Berlin Wall.
East Side Gallery, Berlin – Image Source
The same spirit of creativity as part of a counterculture movement lives on all over Europe today. Artists saw the wall as a focal point and painted inspiring and controversial works. Their works still attract locals and tourists alike. Even long after those artists left, the art scene continues to thrive. The city has become a mecca for street art and has inspired many other cities in a similar way.
East Side Gallery, Berlin – Image Source
The popularity of street art in Europe looks set to continue in the foreseeable future. It’s an ever-changing and evolving means of expression. More so because it allows the viewer to interact with it on a personal level. Despite its celebrities, urban art is a universal art form available to the masses. It is a platform for artists to reach audiences traditional galleries hardly allow. There will always be people who perceive street art as crime. Yet, more and more people now see it as a legitimate way to experience quality art. The number of smart phone apps, festivals and tours involving street art, attest to that. Artists have found an enduring way to use public spaces as an outlet for artistic expression.
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