A piece by Kobra at West 25th Street, Chelsea, New York City. (Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)
Graffiti is arguably the most accessible form of visual art, as colorful murals and tags are an integral part of the urban landscape. Some superstars in the genre have successfully made the transition from the streets to fine art galleries — making hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. Whether you think graffiti is fine art or one step above vandalism, there’s no denying the skills and creativity involved. The best street artists have an impressive ability to communicate their message in the grittiest of environments.
Here are eight of the most noteworthy graffiti artists in the world and the cities where you can see their best work.
Banksy (identity unknown)
Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, near the River Lym. (Photo: banksy.co.uk)
The owner of the business where Banksy stenciled the image above in Toronto had it painted over shortly after it appeared, not knowing its origins. The piece below, on a hotel wall in Torquay, Devon, England, was destroyed when someone poured paint stripper on the stencil of the boy. (Photos: banksy.co.uk)
Banksy is probably the most well-known street artist in the world. He is as famous for his ability to hide his true identity as he is for his often-satirical murals, which usually have political and social undertones. His skillful use of stencils and dark sense of humor make Banksy's work easy to recognize. He has become a worldwide artist, creating images in unexpected international locations like the wall that has been erected between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. His most recognizable works appear in London and other English cities such as Bristol, which is thought to be his hometown. His stencils have also popped up in American cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Banksy's graffiti is so well known that his pieces sell at auction for up to half a million dollars, and some people have even removed walls that he has painted on so that they can put them up for sale. Banksy has sold his own work at gallery shows and auctions, though he does so through an agent to protect his anonymity.
13th & Champa streets, Denver, Colo., in cooperation with Arts & Venues Denver. (Photo: miahsix/Flickr
The Kitchen restaurant in Silverlake, Calif. (Photo: davidchoe.com)
Artist David Choe is in many ways at the opposite end of the spectrum from the secretive Banksy. The flamboyant Los Angeles resident — a graphic designer, muralist and graffiti artist — is famous for asking to be paid in company stock when he painted a mural at Facebook's headquarters (he subsequently sold the stock and became a millionaire). Choe has done work for film sets and album covers and also painted a now-well-known portrait of Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign. His graffiti and murals are scattered around Los Angeles, and can be found as far away as Japan, England and France. Choe's more formal mural works feature the use of multiple layers and colorful shading.
Copies of "Diana and Angel" (above) and "Man Who Walks Through Walls" (below) are available from art galleries. (Photo: fabbio/Flickr)
Photo: Bruno Girin/Flickr
This legendary Parisian graffiti artist is considered by many street art aficionados to be the father of the type of stencil-based graffiti that has been used by some of the most well known in the world, including Banksy. Born Xavier Prou, Blek is another successful street artist who has enjoyed a good relationship with the gallery and museum worlds. He has also published books featuring his artwork. His pseudonym comes from the rat images that he painted all around Paris early in his career. Despite his success, Prou is still active in the graffiti scene and his recent street works can be seen in London, Paris, Berlin and New York City.
Hollywood Boulevard and North Western Avenue, Los Angeles. (Photo: anarchosyn/Flickr)
Retna is a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist and muralist who has created an impressive collection of murals characterized by exotic lettering that brings to mind hieroglyphics, Asian calligraphy and other types of classical scripts. He often puts his trademark lettering and color patterns around lifelike portraits to create distinctive murals. His work can be seen throughout Los Angeles and in cities from New York and Miami to Taipei and Barcelona. Retna has also enjoyed plenty of mainstream success, selling his works to celebrities like Usher and creating works for successful gallery shows.
Moose (Paul Curtis)
English artist Paul Curtis, known in the graffiti world by his street moniker Moose, has developed a unique approach to graffiti. Rather than using spray cans and stencils, Moose actually uses tools that are more likely to be found in a car wash or a hotel maid's cleaning cart. He has been at the forefront of a niche called “reverse graffiti,” a style of street art where images and lettering are scrubbed out from dirty surfaces. Some other artists have adopted this approach, with many using it to communicate an environmentally friendly message. This form of graffiti is more temporary than traditional spray-can work and occupies a kind of legal gray area when it comes to vandalism. Some advertisers, including the BBC, Starbucks and Microsoft, have used reverse graffiti in lieu of billboards. Unlike many street artists, Curtis has done a lot of advertising and commercial graphic design for the likes of Smirnoff, another company that has dabbled in reverse graffiti advertising.
La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles. (Photo: Lord Jim/Flickr)
Sao Paulo. (Photo: Blog do Mílton Jung/Flickr)
This Brazilian muralist has made some of the most impressive works of public art in recent times. His large, colorful and realistic murals can be seen on buildings and walls all over the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo, which is his hometown. One of his most-recent Sao Paulo works was a 180-foot portrait of the late Brazilian-born architect Oscar Niemeyer. Kobra's style is characterized by colorful patterns seemingly projected onto very detailed paintings. He has occasionally worked in the U.S., and his color-filled take on Mount Rushmore can be seen in Los Angeles. Kobra also creates unique 3-D chalk pictures and paintings that, when viewed from the correct angle, seem to emerge from the sidewalk or street on which they were created. His mastery of these different styles makes Kobra one of the most well-rounded street artists in the world.
Ash (Victor Ash)
Bunker in Bremen, Germany, and astronaut in Berlin (below). (Photos: victorash.net, miss.libertine/Flickr)
This famous street artist, whose full name is Victor Ash, got his start in Paris, where he painted graffiti during the 1980s. Over his long career, Ash has gradually changed his style from rougher street painting to more aesthetically pleasing, thought provoking pieces. His recent work can be seen on the sides of buildings in France, Germany and Denmark. One of his most impressive recent efforts is a painting of four figures on a 25-foot-high World War II-era German bunker. Along with Blek le Rat, Ash is an early French street artist whose style influenced many of modern graffiti's best and most creative painters.
If you have ever spent time in Valencia, Spain, you might recognize the somewhat-abstract work of the Spanish street artist and muralist known as Escif. His paintings are found on walls all over the city. They are filled with political and social themes, and sometimes seem to deal with hyper-current events. One of the most interesting things about Escif's style is that it carries the same whimsical approach and dark feel that has characterized Spanish painting in past eras. One of Escif's most well-known works outside of Valencia is a picture of a giant light switch, which covers the entire side of a building in Katowice, Poland.
Related stories on MNN:
- 6 living, growing pieces of art
- Idiots with spray paint and cameras force closure at Joshua Tree park
- Street artist Shepard Fairey to design space mission emblem