blu painting in nyc

Blu Bio

In 1999, the Italian city of Bologna’s historical district was inexplicably covered in murals and street art. It was mostly crude, using the standard spray paint of many street artists, and was limited in scope and size. Who did them remained a temporary mystery, but soon they were attributed to an artist known only as Blu. Soon, similar spray paint murals began showing up in Bologna’s suburbs, and people began to take notice, and came to recognize Blu’s work as it appeared on the sides of buildings most other street artists, or at least people with Blu’s level of talent, became more and recognizable.

blu-007

But in 2001, Blu’s work became more intricate and even more show stopping. Swapping in his trusty spray cans for rollers on telescopic sticks, Blu’s work was instantly larger, more pronounced, and began displaying a definitive style that the world is now even more familiar with. Huge human figures, sometimes drawn with sarcasm or sincerity, all borrowing from classic arcade and comic book styles, were becoming his mainstay, and they were everywhere. The increased output had a lot to do with Blu’s approach: he was interested in artistic collaboration, getting other street artists together to do late night raids in spaces. It wasn’t long after that Blu began experimenting with digital shorts, all released for free on the internet.

But Blu couldn’t keep his feet still and soon took off around the world to paint and make videos. His work has since shown up in places as diverse as Western Europe, Mexico City, Guatemala City, and even the West Bank. Blu moves around the world, looking for opportunity to create, not the chance to be seen by the art world. And in this rejection of the standard street artist practice, Blu has tapped into something much more interesting.

blu massive mural

Blu, like many recent street artist, has gone the Banksy route when it comes to his identity: who he is remains a mystery to the general public. Basically, the only concrete fact we know is that he’s Italian. Everything else, including the fact he may actually be a she, is up for debate. This hidden identity idea may be because Blu’s work is actually simply a question of staying hidden as most of his work has been illegal and classified as graffiti. But it could also be because his identity is inconsequential and part of a larger rejection of the regular art world.

Blu’s approach to street art is that it’s for everyone, not just for people who can or do pay for the privilege. And in a world where many talented artists go into the gallery scene to make some money, Blu has rejected such endeavours, instead selling only prints of work he does in the world. It’s for everyone and, if anyone wants a piece of Blu’s work for themselves, they have to pay for it and know that others have it too. The work moves against ownership and exclusivity, instead thinking of art as a collectively owned piece. And while we’re all sure Blu’s income has taken a hit, it seems Blu isn’t so much focused on the pay as the art.

What Blu’s approach and style shows is a genuine interest in art as a collective. Not only in approach and actual labour, but in who gets to enjoy it, witness it, and interact with it. Overall, the effect is incredible, and the world can also access Blu at any given time. If the internet is for everyone, Blu is proving that, no matter where your art is, it can reach millions of people and not have to deal with the politics or gold star from the arts community. And yet, they’re still scrambling for his work. Perhaps talent, at least in Blu’s case, is enough.

pejac working on painting

Pejac

Like many artists, the Spanish street artist known only as Pejac started on his artistic path because of dissatisfaction. Not with his childhood growing up, but with his art teacher’s own opinions of what art is, and who should be able to appreciate it. For Pejac, art belongs to everyone, and while his work appears in galleries as well as public space, he’s always sure to give to people who can’t or simply don’t want to walk through a stuffy art gallery.

pejac outdoor art

In an interview with Spanish magazine 20minutos, Pejac discusses that “both melancholy and humour are the locomotive of my works. They create a poetic language whose essence doesn’t rely on simple beauty, but on the hidden side of everything.” It makes sense when you see his work, as much of Pejac’s interest is in this playing with perspective and appearance to both capture attention and spread his messages. Sometimes these messgaes are simply to entertain, other times, as he says in his interview with The Huffington Post, “It’s like I would like my work to produce the same result as when you whisper into someone’s ear. Gentle and discrete – but right into the brain… a whisper in the form of a question.”

pejac girl magnifying glass ants

Much of Pejac’s work breaks outside the confines of the space to move work beyond its normal boundaries. Some of his gallery work, for example, literally breaks through the frames to create something visually striking but also challenging. Such a convention is a logical extension for a street artist, however, and much of Pejac’s work outside the gallery uses the breaking of normal limits to attract attention and challenge viewpoints. One such piece would be Pejac’s gutter paintings, which feature a stencil of the world getting swept down the drain. The image moves past the frame, as it were, and literally down the drain. The commentary is an immediate one, but the use of space is essential to its message.

pejac doorway art

But Pejac doesn’t push boundaries in urban spaces, galleries and building walls, he also breaks out into some more unconventional spaces too. The latest and perhaps most ambitious of these projects is Pejac’s recent painting of a boat. No, not a painting of a boat, but painting a rusty and abandoned ship. The piece breaks all manner of convention that fans have come to expect from Pejac, from the playing with perspective to the breaking of frames. The piece is located in Northern Spain on a barnacle-infested old ship. Abandoned to rust on the pier, Pejac decided to paint one of Monet’s most famous impressionist paintings on its side. But the trick, and with Pejac there always seems to be at least one, is the tide. Not simply a Monet recreation on the side of a boat, Pejac’s send up to one of the world’s most famous artists is partially hidden depending on the tide. In this case, the ocean itself reveals and obscures the painting.

pejac monet boat painting

Pejac’s work messes with how people assume we should look at art, harkening back to his fateful clash with his childhood art teacher. While most art is made to be appreciated within certain confines, whether that be a literal frame or a more metaphorical frame such as education or class, Pejac seeks to bring art to people by making it look not quite right. And in that, a message and some art for anyone willing to look.

picture of artist jr

JR Bio

JR is a French street artist who’s largely illegal art projects have blurred the lines between art and vandalism, spectator and actor, and expression from activism. Unlike many other graffiti artists, JR specializes in photography and often flyposts his work in places where street art is banned, and sometimes can even land you in jail. In all of his work, he seeks to raise awareness about the problems facing certain groups, and each is a combination of daring and insightful that often leaves people, and lawmakers, in awe.

portraits of a generation by JR

He first rose to prominence with Portraits of a Generation, which took pictures of inner city “thugs” and plastered all over his hometown of Paris, France. Posted in many places where the 2005 riots were at their most violent, Portraits of a Generation challenged many people’s preconceptions about who were involved in the riots, and for what reasons. Many of the posters were removed within a few days as they were illegally exhibited, but the project raised people’s awareness of Paris’ race problems, and their newest street artist.

face2face jr

The success of Portraits of a Generation only made JR more bold, and he decided to travel to Israel and Palestine for his next exhibit. Called Face2Face, the project sought to show both sides of the conflict as people with more similarities than differences. He traveled to both countries, taking closeup photographs of people who were asked to make faces of certain emotions. The pictures were then placed all over Palestine and Israel in the largest unauthorized street exhibit in history, with faces from Israelis and Palestinians placed right next to each other to emphasize their similarities.

women are heroes by JR

But it was JR’s next project that has brought him the most amount of success, and let him travel to the most number of places in the world. JR turned his attention to women with this project, whom he says “play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism.” To bring awareness to women’s roles in conflicts around the world, he decided to create a series of female gazes, flyposting pictures of women’s eyes so that they look out on the world around them, and called it Women are Heroes. He started the project in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, but has since done similar projects in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia.

inside out project by JR

Women are Heroes brought JR even more international attention and allowed him to branch out from activist artist to activist, using money and resources he’s acquired to not only continue to comment through his unique brand of street art, but to be actively involved in change. He won the 2011 TED Prize, which he used to establish the INSIDE OUT participatory art project. Through the fund, JR and his foundation “gives everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and make a statement for what they stand for. It is a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art.” To date, more than 200,000 people from more than 112 countries & territories have participated.

art piece from street stories

Street Stories: How Street Art is Reaching Out to Help Homeless Youth

Youth homelessness is an important and, unfortunately, growing issue. It was one of the focuses of mayoral candidate Olivia Chow here in Toronto when she ran last year, and many major cities around the world struggle with how to reach out and help street youth. In London, a local ad agency teamed up with Depaul charity to come up with a way to raise awareness and money. The result is “Street Stories.”

Street art has always been political down to its very core. It was once labelled as vandalism, and with it it became an inherently political act. Many artists today still follow in those footsteps, spraying walls with art that’s at once beautiful but doesn’t shy away from a message. It’s with that idea that “Street Stories” shines: it takes the political origins of street art and combines it with a call-to-action to combat youth homelessness, all by telling terrifyingly intimate stories.

Each “Street Stories” mural is focused on a real-life homeless youth, someone who was forced to run away from whatever they called home to try and escape their life situations. These reasons, contrary to popular belief, are complex and wildly diverse, so “Street Stories” tries to tell these individual stories.

street stories, katys story

Take, for example, “Katy’s Story,” possibly the most graphic of the murals currently on the streets of London. It juxtaposes a series of eyes with her story scrawled in disjointed lettering at strange angles. It tells the story of sexual violence, of a mother who chose the rapist over her own child, and we already know where the story leads. The eyes become ironic as you read the story: Katy isn’t here, disappearing into the streets because her mother decided to look away.

street stories joes story

Another story, Joe’s to be specific, talks about the limited options available to kids who have nowhere to go. Joe’s story is of a parent who died before his time, and Joe was forced into foster care. Unhappy with the conditions, he chose the street over what little the state provides.

Each of these murals tells someone’s particular story, but they can all have happy endings. “Street Stories” murals each have a call-to-action at the bottom, a number people can call to give to a charity dedicated to helping get kids off the streets and somewhere they can feel safe and supported.

The “Street Stories” campaign is one in a long history of street art’s political uses and history, one that uses the suddenness of street art’s placement in cities to force people to react. These are murals that come upon you suddenly but beg for attention and, more importantly, a call to change. Direct, horrifying, and oddly beautiful, the stories of Joe, Katy and countless other homeless youth don’t all need to end poorly. And maybe these artistic acts can be a step on the path to eradicating a horrifying existence for people too young for such conditions.

ian stevenson artwork that reads this is graffiti

Ian Stevenson Bio

People in London have probably been chuckling on their travels for a few years now, and that’s in part thanks to Ian Stevenson. The Leicester-born graffiti artist has been tagging spots all over England with his own unique brand of political protest. But one Londoner in particular has been taken with Stevenson’s art, and that man is Russell Brand.

The actor, comedian, and writer has lately taken to doing The Trews, a news program that regularly critiques mainstream media, first world nations, and global policy. With Ian Stevenson, Brand seems to have found a co-conspirator for exposing the problems they see lying just under the surface of contemporary society.

Ian Stevenson’s work usually combines simple drawings of familiar figures and characters with phrases that play on mottos and slogans. For example, a famous tag he did in London has Mickey Mouse, a common figure in his work, with his arms stretched out for a hug. The phrase above reads “I want your soul.”

Stevenson met Brand “through a tangled web of connections” and the two decided to team up given their similar political leanings. Stevenson started by sending Brand some preliminary drawings and, from there, they collaborated on the project until a final draft was finished. Then, Stevenson set to work drawing the mural. Like his other work, the drawings are minimalistic, not obscuring the message: a Mickey Mouse, prostrate with dollar signs for eyes, lies in front of a television advert. The caption: revolution with the letters spelling love reversed and coloured in read.

ian stevenson paint over this graffiti

What Stevenson’s work accomplishes is a return to the politicization of street art, which had it’s contemporary beginnings as a form of political protest. Graffiti in the Second World War was used as a vent for soldiers who missed their homes and pondered the futility of war. After that, street art quickly became associated with the African-American community, mostly by artists who found themselves barred from traditional art galleries. As graffiti headed towards the 1980s, it became associated with hip-hop and, as hip-hop became mainstream, graffiti lost a bit of its edge. Artists like Ian Stevenson remind us that graffiti is a form of protest, a political act with roots in resistance, be it racism, violence, or the political powers that be.

By combining familiar tropes and commercial products, whether its Mickey Mouse, a crucifix, or graffiti’s own Kilroy, Stevenson can tap into a familiarity precisely to make people think and feel uncomfortable. The idea is popular in comics, where visual cues are part of the hidden language of comics, which require people to follow a specific sequence to read the story in order. Often, these visual cues rely on familiar tropes and images that act as a shorthand for what the artist and writer are trying to convey. With Stevenson, the familiar images, often seen with a certain amount of joy or sacredness, are shown to support a large, mechanical profit machine, which is, at the heart of Stevenson’s critique, something that people already know.