website header from the cambridge street art festival

The Cambridge International Street Art Festival

We have covered a number of different festivals that have happened over the years. They’re often in incredible cities, like Hong Kong or Sydney; big cities encouraging artists to come out and beautify the streets. But street art festivals aren’t simply happening in big cities, they’re happening everywhere, including the sleepy town of Cambridge, Ontario.

Situated on the slopes of the Grand River, Cambridge is perhaps most famous for sharing its name with a well-known English university, and as a growing place with a great sense of history. What many people don’t know is that it has an amazing relationship with the arts and is a natural fit for its own street art festival, which celebrated its second anniversary this year.

graffiti style street art mural painted at the cambridge street art festival

The Cambridge International Street Art Festival had its start in Florida, of all places, where the festival’s founders came across the Lake Worth Street Painting Festival. The two were instantly inspired by the thousands that had attended and, to put it in their words, “the magical abilities of truly amazing artists creating art, with chalk (or pastels) on the streets.”

The festival has many of the activities and events that you would expect from a street art festival. The city has set aside spaces where artists can create beautiful murals, some of which will become more permanent fixtures in the already beautiful city. Attendees can come by and see the art being made, go to panels about art and street art, and even screen a couple of cool documentaries.

young boy standing next to chalk board art wall at the cambridge street art festival

What makes the Cambridge International Street Art Festival unique is its encouragement of artists of any level to come out and participate. Their chalk art program provides free chalk to anyone who wants it and offers spaces for them to draw up murals, cartoons, or whatever they want. While obviously popular for children, the Festival encourages all attendees who want to draw to come and contribute. And while it gets washed away in the first rain, the pieces people create can be truly beautiful and inspiring.

mural artist sitting next to a perspective mural piece rendered on the street at the cambridge international street art festival

By celebrating local artists and encouraging attendee participation, the Cambridge International Street Art Festival offers a more intimate and unique festival experience than ones further down the road in Southern Ontario. You can see the art truly up close and interact with the artists in a more relaxed environment. Plus, Cambridge is a beautiful city only enhanced by its open embrace of the festival and the artwork it facilitates. Plus, its commitment to participation means you can connect with regular people trying out art, and artists wanting to try something different.

If you live in Southern Ontario, the Cambridge International Street Art Festival is an excellent way to escape the big city and see street art up close. It happens every year in August. Next year’s festival is still taking applications for artists and volunteers, so there’s still a chance to participate.

Artist Feature: Yusuke Asai

Street art is an incredibly important aspect of the art world for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is its openness. The modern idea of graffiti is based on the fact that great artists, often from marginalized groups, couldn’t get their work into galleries and other traditional places where people show off their art. Faced with no place to showcase their skills, these brave artists took to the streets and created a more open and inclusive art community.

Over time, the established art scene and graffiti have melded together: Banksy is shown in galleries around the world while people with classic artistic training, often from expensive schools, have started painting on the streets. The collapse of this binary is almost complete, but there are still people who cannot break into traditional art because of their class, gender, or race.

One such person is Japanese graffiti artist Yusuke Asai. Asai grew up in the Japanese city of Kumamoto and studied ceramics in high school, but his dreams of a higher arts education were dashed based on simple finances. Faced with alternative ways to express himself, Asai started painting murals with literally anything that he could get his hands on, including mud, rice, leaves, and discarded pens. As his skills progressed and his work became more widely-known, Asai switched his entire focus to using earth-like materials, creating murals from soil, straw, and even cow dung.

Asai grew up, like many people in Japan, in a very urban environment, separated from nature by the sheer force of urbanization. His use of discarded objects, specifically dirt, is based both on his approach to class and his upbringing. “I choose to use the earth as a medium because I can find dirt anywhere in the world and do not need special materials,” Asai says on his website. “The collection process and digging in the soil is so much fun, and they strengthen my feeling of connection to a place.”

rice gallery artwork by yusuke asai using texan soil

Since 2008, Asai’s popularity and notoriety has only grown, partially because of his close connection to the Rice Gallery, the world’s only art gallery that focuses on “site-specific” art like Asai’s, but also because of his work around the world. Asais enjoy using the materials from the area, collecting dirt and mud specific to where he’s creating to give it a localized feel. In Houston, for example, he dug up earth that’s unique to the area. In India, his room-sized mural was made up entirely of dirt and mud found in the local area.

Asai’s humble beginnings and insistence on using free, local materials proves that great art shouldn’t depend on class, access, or where you were born. All it should require is a drive and desire to create something with which people can connect. For Asai, that means literally getting your hands dirty and creating beauty from literal dirt. His process is an incredible metaphor and a reminder that art doesn’t require a degree or a gallery.

sten & lex painting a mural

Artist Bio: Sten & Lex

Stencilling is one of graffiti’s most popular methods, raising to new heights thanks to Banksy, but Banksy was hardly the first person to use stencils in their street art. The technique has been popular in street art for decades for a couple of reasons. First, it cuts down the actual amount of time painting the graffiti, which is pretty advantageous when you don’t want to be arrested for making art. The second is the high level of detail that stencilling provides, which can help with the generally imprecise tools of spray paint that graffiti artists generally use. And while Banksy may currently be the most famous stenciller in the world, he owes a great debt to two Italian artists who go by the name of Sten & Lex.

Sten & Lex were both born in Italy and grew up in Rome and Taranto. Their work has been showcased around the world and currently is on the streets of New York, Madrid, and their hometown of Rome. As one of stencil graffiti’s most prominent artists, they have become famous for their detailed work that has, up until recently, almost exclusively dealt in stencilling.

fantastic stencil mural from sten & lex

Stencilling is a form of art that uses cut outs of a design, the stencil, to paint without the need to do the lines by hand. An artist creates the stencil, which is an inverse of the design they wish to make, and puts it over the surface they want to paint. They then spray over the stencil and remove it once they’re finished, leaving the intended design on the surface with little to no spillover.

Sten & Lex were one of the first Italian street artists to use stencilling in their work, but they also pioneered the “halftone stencil” technique, which is when “the greater part of their stencil portraits is composed of thousands of lines,” leading to more complex stencils that can contain a greater amount of detail.

sten & lex stencil artwork

Sten & Lex’s art has traditionally focused on portraiture, choosing anonymous individuals or people they’ve found in their own family photo albums as subjects. Thanks to their methodology, the portraits have a level of detail that many artists envy. Their works have varied from near-photorealism to abstract, but they have also recently turned their attention to other subjects beyond that of portraits. In 2013, they started creating very abstract works, again using stencils, that ranged from plants that also look like fireworks to optical illusions on the sides of buildings. While the artwork remains detailed and still uses stencils, Sten & Lex have also moved it past their usual styles.

sten & lex stencil of man on building with tie

Sten & Lex are an important moment in graffiti art, not just in their home country of Italy, but around the world. Their pioneering work in halftone stencils brought a new level of detail and sophistication to the art style, and their continued exploration of different subjects continues to push the envelope. Banksy may be the world’s most famous stenciller, but Sten & Lex laid an extremely important foundation and continue to develop the techniques that others have drawn from.

Peeta's completed mural in the HKwalls festival

HKwalls Festival Paints Hong Kong with New Murals

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most modern cities, a place of great technological advancement, financial importance, and artistic development. As an independent city-state, it has made a name for itself on the world stage in many different areas, including the arts. For muralists and street artists, Hong Kong represents an exciting place to see amazing work, and there’s no better time to check out Hong Kong’s art scene than during HKwalls.

HKwalls is an annual street art festival, held in the springtime, that attracts thousands of art enthusiasts to Hong Kong. This year, the festival moved to the Sham Shui Po district in Hong Kong. Sham Shui Po is the city’s poorest district, yet it’s also one of the oldest settled places in the area. Scientists have found evidence that people have lived in the area for at least two thousand years. Today, the district is very much part of a new world. It’s famous for its electronics street markets and, thanks to HKwalls, its beautiful public art.

HKWalls artwork being painted by Peeta

At the latest HKwalls festival, artists and people came to Sham Shui Po from around the world, taking in the sights and creating beautiful, intricate, and fascinating murals, films, and other forms of street art. Plenty of famous artists appeared at the festival, including Parent’s Parents, Faust, Alana Tsui, Ryck, and Okuda. With so many talented people creating public art, it was hard to take it all in, much less decide on a favourite, but one piece has stood out above many others: a piece by Venice-based artist Peeta that tricks the eye into thinking his graffiti is popping off the wall.

Peeta's completed mural in the HKwalls festival

The piece covers a large facade of an arcade called Golden Computer Arcade and blends Peeta’s knowledge of sculpture, graffiti writing, and design into one large-scale and beautiful piece. Peeta created the mural with a colour scheme that matches the surrounding district, emphasizing its place in the neighbourhood rather than attempting to stand out with loud colours.

The piece uses Peeta’s now signature writing style, which doesn’t actually emphasize clarity or communication, but style over substance, as it were. Rarely are Peeta’s writings actually legible, but that doesn’t matter, the pieces speak for themselves without the need for distinctive letters. As Peeta says about his own work: “In my own work, I endeavour to realise the sculptural quality of individual letters… I break them from their generic typographical form, stylizing them with shape and volume beyond mere semantic function.”

new mural by artist okuda in the hkwalls mural festival

HKwalls is an important festival that not only helps create beautiful murals in some of Hong Kong’s poorer districts, but gives artists the space to make beautiful, lasting impacts on the community. Armed with little more than their paintbrushes and a designated canvas, many artists at HKwalls have made some of their largest and most impressive works, pieces that have lasted for years after.