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Global Street Art: The International View on the World of Street Art

Graffiti and street art has often been viewed as an American tradition, something that came about with the rise of hip-hop culture in the late seventies. And, in some respects, this assessment isn’t entirely untrue. The early hip-hop movements certainly popularized street art and kickstarted its integration into the rest of the art world, but it’s never been an American invention. Street art existed long before those times, and it continues to pop up all over the world. And while many people and places are dedicated to showcasing the international community of street artists, none do it quite as well as Global Street Art.

Global Street Art is a site based out of London that showcases art and murals that are happening around the world. Using a global community of writers, photographers, and street art enthusiasts, the site is dedicated to showing off just how international the world of street art truly is. Not content simply showing off what’s happening in its own country, known to some as the land that produced Banksy, the people at Global Street Art look to the furthest reaches of the globe to see how street art is used elsewhere, and how these trends affect the global community.

By showcasing international artists, the website has become a fascinating study in how influence moves and changes throughout the globe. For example, while many street art experts have been able to trace the influence of American hip-hop in Brazilian art, especially in Sao Paulo, you can look at Global Street Art to see how Sao Paulo’s distinctive style has moved to other parts of South America, including its neighbouring countries and even up into Central America. It’s also an amazing glimpse into how local styles can morph these influences into something wholly new and entirely their own, not unlike what Sao Paulo did decades ago.

Global Street Art goes beyond paintings on walls, however, and even looks at art styles that show up in commercial work and more. They even provide street art tours in Camden, and have a book showcasing their hard work. And by looking beyond street art in the traditional sense, they also show how this particularly type of art has influenced other types of media.

Constantly updating and ever-changing, Global Street Art is one of the best sites out there for anyone who wants to look at how diverse and wide-reaching the world of graffiti and public art has become, and continues to be. Rather than simply looking inwards, as many sites in England and North America do, this collective of talented individuals look at how diversity and cultural influence can impact and improve the art and the culture surrounding street art.

old deteriorated sign on a very old brick building

Ghost Signs

Many people like to look at the history of street art exclusively through graffiti. It gives the whole art style a certain edge that, while not unwarranted, ignores a large portion of its origins and influences. Street art, after all, didn’t start in LA and New York sometime in the seventies, it’s part of a rich history that stretches back to the ancient world, when it was similarly used for anything from commerce to protest.

But we don’t have to head back to Rome to see one of the primary influences on contemporary street art and graffiti. We can instead head out into the world around us and look at what many people call “ghost signs,” those old advertisements that are still hanging around, faded with time, on the sides of old buildings, or even on old billboards that people no longer use. It’s an easy way to see how street art has been a part of daily life since long before many people choose to see it, and it reminds us that art and commerce needn’t be enemies.

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Ghost signs are the old painted signs from the late 1800s and early 1900s that were used for advertising long before printers made that scale and size much more possible. They often followed similar stylings of modernism, but variations occur everywhere, as space and weather and supplies made unique demands on the artists. The work was often difficult and meant that many of these talented people lived a life on the road. But the testament to their work is still all over North America and much of Europe, from buildings in the heart of Manhattan to barns in rural Saskatchewan.

And a surprising micro-economy has sprung up as a result of the fascination with these old signs. One such company is an aspect of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT), which offers a host of different resources and experiences, all related to the fading advertisements of old. One of the most fascinating aspects of this trust’s interest in ghost signs, however, is its ongoing database of ghost signs around the world. Made entirely using the volunteer efforts of people with a similar interest in these signs, HAT host hundreds of pictures of these old signs that anyone can peruse and enjoy on the website.

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And for the more intrigued, a company in England has sprung up that’s entirely dedicated to London’s many, many ghost signs. Ghost Signs is probably most known for its walking tours of London that includes many old signs that still exist in England’s capital.

Learning about street art is also a way to learn about history from an entirely new perspective. While most of out history is told through things that can be pinned down and put behind glass in museums, there is large parts of the human experience that simply cannot fit in such a place. That’s why it’s important to learn about these other parts, and to see where the daily experience perhaps differed from the gallery life we’re often shown. Ghost signs are a perfect example of such a part of life, and their history stretches back centuries or more, and has had a definite influence on the world around us.

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.