Colossal Media and The Commercial Artist: Are Big Advertising Firms Helping or Hurting Street Art?

The difference between art and advertising is often a lot blurrier than people think. Especially as the world gets more transparent, we have better glimpses into the background lives of artists, the influence of producers on movies, songwriting collectives on music, and much more. We sometimes favour the people who haven’t “sold out,” the ones who can now live off their own artistic pursuits without relying on a day job, but this is no longer the type of world we live in. The fact is many artists come out of school eager for work but find very few opportunities, clutching to the romantic ideal of the starving artist is not only silly, it gives you stomach pains.

When we turn this romantic gaze to street art, worrying about the relationship between public art and private business, things get very complicated. Graffiti has an underground feel to it, like the rebellious cousin of art gallery paintings, and graffiti is in turn persecuted for its existence. Governments wash graf off buildings, set increased limits on where and when artists can write, and sponsor professional street artists for beautification pieces around town. This all contributes to an underdog feel of street artists, a persecuted underground community just waiting for their chance in the spotlight. What people forget is modern street art started as advertisements, not tagging, and that street art is literally everywhere, and that is something to celebrate.

You’ve seen evidence of the old street art all around town, on old brick buildings pointing to the local pharmacy and old glass windows with Coca-Cola ads. Street art was a prominent way to advertise. Before massive printed billboards, hand-painted ads on buildings were the easiest way to use some wall space to drum up business. And while many artists are wary of the commercialization of street art, eager to “legitimize” their trade with tags, gallery showings, and by bringing their graf sensibilities to other art forms, the relationship between ads and graffiti has always been around.

So it’s hardly a surprise that companies like Colossal Media exist, advertising companies that specialize in hand-painted ads, and they’re a great place for young artists to get practical experience while getting paid, something difficult for anyone with an Arts degree, especially a Fine Arts degree. As North America’s largest hand-painted advertising company, Colossal is at once a sign of the times and a harkening back to graffiti’s beginnings, skipping the romantic idealism in between to help painters get some practical experience and explore their art in a new way. Sure, they’re told what to paint, but the in-between space between expectation and result is a fun playground for any artist willing to learn and explore.

In a way, Colossal Media is a paragon of the debate on whether constraints encourage art or discourage it. On the one side, we have genre artists, people who find inspiration in re-packaging familiar tropes rather than starting fresh. On the other side, there’s the ideal artist: someone with a unique vision who is recognized for their obvious talent and free to create when and how they want. They push the world forward, exposing new ways of looking at our surroundings for a change. And while it’s easy to put artistic people on opposite ends of a spectrum, rarely are they mutually exclusive.

2014 Roskilde Graffiti Camp

For a graffiti artist, there’s little better than friends, paint, and an endless supply of surfaces to write on. It taps into everything that makes street art great: companionship, artistic collaboration, limitless potential, and, naturally, fun. Nothing quite makes street art as good as doing it with people and getting plenty of space to do it. In many places around the world, this is simply impossible. Laws condemn graffiti, keeping groups small and disconnected while removing any tags and writing they find. In some cases, this makes dedicated artists seek new, more dangerous canvases to write on. So when an event like the Roskilde Graffiti Camp comes along, artists tend to sit up, take notice, and create.

The Roskilde Graffiti Camp was started a couple of years ago by a small and dedicated group of people in Sweden. It’s a place where artists could come and hang out, paint some graffiti, and grab some cold beers after a hard day’s work. It’s only been happening for a couple of years, but the 2014 Roskilde event was easily its biggest, most ambitious, and best attended event. The organizers managed to snag an entire sea container’s worth of shipping cans, each their own different colour, for the event. That adds up to literally kilometres of blank canvas for artists, not a bad way to start a festival.

Past that, the event featured musical performances and more to keep artists and other attendees occupied when not painting or looking at graffiti. Of course, the most fun to be had was during the day, where artists could get involved in collaborative projects and large-scale solo efforts. Watching these pieces unfold over the day was in itself a treat. The end products, as you can see, are absolutely incredible.

Roskilde invited artists from around the world to join in on the fun, including Tizer, Vans the Omega, Sket185, Karski, Beyond, Soten, Rasko, and many more. In all, over 40 artists were there to paint the thousands of feet worth of containers. The results were a mash up of great ideas and distinctive styles, each more interesting and intricate than the last. The friendly competition pushed these artists to prove themselves, but also to absorb other styles, techniques, and approaches. Some of the pieces stand as a testament to the power of cooperation and, in some cases, are some of the best work these artists have ever produced.

The Roskilde Graffiti Camp is yet another example of what can happen when artists are left free to create, collaborate, and engage with each other. Not only did attendees have a chance to look at some international talent as they were writing, getting a behind-the-scenes look into their creative processes, the artists had the opportunity to learn from each other. Friendly competitions and multi-artist projects left us with some of the most unique street art we’ve ever seen. And when an event like this is run by experienced and professional organizers, the energy and excitement is tangible.

Street Art View

I saw a quote awhile ago about the internet: “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.” From Twitter spats to Buzzfeed lists on our Facebook walls, this is kind of true, but the first part of the quote, the “accessing the entirety of information known to man” part is what makes the internet so exciting. Thankfully, Red Bull has decided to put that idea to good use for street art.

Described as “Google meets graffiti,” the Red Bull Street Art View is like a Google Maps of street art, showcasing, collecting, and cataloguing the best street art from around the world. Basically it asks users to upload pics of their local street art into a Google Maps-style database for people to easily explore street art around the corner and around the world. It proves that street art is not only pervasive, but it’s a global phenomenon, and its enthusiasts are all over the world.

The database is searchable by location and artist, so if you want to see where Banksy’s graffiti was in New York, you can find every known piece with a quick search. Or, if you want to see the extent of Os Gêmeos’ impact and prevalence in São Paulo, then you can search for them on their home turf. Plus there’s the added benefit of archiving these pieces. Since street art is continually erased, either by governmental departments or individual property owners, the Street Art Map keeps a digital archive of a city and artist’s work. It’s like a portfolio, both for an artist and city, that anyone can access at any time.

One of the most interesting parts of the map is looking at how different style have impacted different parts of the world, which areas seem to breed unique visionaries and others that are still under specific artists’ shadows. And the mood of any given city can be captured in just a few pictures. In Halifax, for example, a beautiful large painting of a bridge is right next to a scrawl supporting civil labourers. For a classically blue collar town with a long artistic history, these two pieces side-by-side make sense, and speak to the city’s history and values.

So what the street art map shows us is not only individual pieces, but another way of looking at a city, it’s history, and how and what it finds appropriate for expression. It helps document pieces in the eternal erasing of beautiful street art, keeping digital records of different pieces, but it lets us walk through the city with its underground arts scene at the forefront. And it also shows that the relationship between artist and corporation isn’t necessarily employer-employee, but companies can take an active step in preserving and encouraging an art form that’s everywhere but also transient, recording and celebrating the ways street artists make art that can beautify and challenge.

Stephane Jaspert

About 5 years ago, I briefly stayed in Montreal for a program to learn French. The entire course was filled with people from across Canada. By and large, it was unsuccessful as we were much more interested in Montreal and the various intoxicating substances we could ingest in the city, but I do remember one instance where we went to Old Montreal. My group were excited, I wasn’t as much, and they tried to convince me one of the great things I could see was cobblestone streets. As someone who lived in Scotland for a year, I can tell you this: cobblestone streets are annoying. They’re uneven, almost always poorly maintained, and they’re just a pain to walk on. Old Montreal was filled with cobblestone streets, but thankfully there was a lot more interesting things to do than wait to roll my ankle.

But I think if Stephane Jaspert had been in Montreal before I arrived, I would’ve been psyched to see cobblestone streets for the first and only time in my life. You see, Jaspert makes these uneven ancient streets interesting by doing something most cities refuse to do: replacing the stones.

Stephane Jaspert takes old pieces of cobblestone and repaints them with pictures of anything from iPad screens to blocks of Swiss cheese. These replacement stones turn old, dilapidated streets into something interesting again, less an obstacle and more a hunt for something new to experience. And while history buffs and my friends heading to Old Montreal may see this as some kind of desecration, I see it as making the most of a bad situation. Jaspert’s cobblestones encourage you to walk the streets, to take in the town as you hunt for small, almost throwaway art hidden in the cobblestone streets.

The project started in 1999 when Jaspert, already with a decade of professional artistry behind him, decided to start painting cobblestones. He made contacts at the local public works department and soon after set about painting the stones and replacing old ones. In general, he starts working on the pieces without a clear idea of what he’ll do, taking in the shape and size of each stone to see what he can make. He then uses gouache or tempera that is sealed with an oil varnish spray, giving the pieces an extended life. After all, they’ll probably have cars and people walking all over them. Depending on the piece, Jaspert will use just one side, as is the case in his iPad screen or recreation of Picasso’s “Guernica,” or more sides, like his piece that resembles a very thick encyclopedia.

To date, photos of nearly 200 of Jaspert’s cobblestones exist, which may or may not represent his output in the 15 years he’s dedicated to the project. According to him, he’s found his life’s work and plans on painting cobblestones “until my death.” The potential does seem nearly limitless, and it certainly makes for an interesting and mobile experience for the audience. Hopefully, he’ll keep leaving little treasures for people for years to come.

Saltworks: Motoi Yamammoto, Memory, and Mazes

We here at MuralForm love art, not just wall murals and street art, so when something truly inspiring comes across our path, we have to share. Today, that thing is an item in everyone’s home turned into incredible art. It’s called Saltworks and it’s an ongoing project by Japanese artist Motoi Yamammoto that uses only one ingredient: salt.

Traditional Japanese funerals sometimes feature salt. Funeral goers will throw salt as an act of cleansing, which is where found his inspiration for Saltworks. Yamammoto grew up in Hiroshima and worked on the docks until he was 22 years old and able to support himself on his art, but it was six years later that a traumatic death in his family inspired him to make something beautiful. His sister died when he was 28 of a complicated form of brain cancer, leaving him devastated. Now he uses only salt to create beautiful patterns and incredible sculptures and each one can be seen as a method of cleansing himself, a way to grieve and think about life.

Most of his sculptures are extremely intricate labyrinths that takes hundreds of hours to complete, but each starts with Yamammoto thinking about his sister’s cancer. He takes 3-dimensional brain scans for his inspiration and flattens them for a floor exhibit. From there, he improvises the design as he works, leaving in imperfections and mistakes as a way to record the experience itself and, after the piece has been viewed for several weeks, he invites patrons to help with the cleanup. Together, they sweep up the salt, put it all in jars, and throw it all into the ocean, leaving a clean slate for Yamammoto to start anew.

For Yamammoto himself, the salt mazes are a connection to memory. In a recent interview, he explained that “drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory. Memories seem to change and vanish as time goes by; however, what I seek is to capture a frozen moment that cannot be attained through pictures or writings.” The art itself becomes a lived experience, one that is pushed away when it’s moment is over.

What makes Yamammoto’s art so powerful is its stunning complexity using an extremely mundane medium. We all have salt in our homes but unlike many common items, salt has a dense history and cultural significance around the world. By harnessing salt’s unique qualities, both in its own makeup and cultural importance, Yamammoto blends the mundane with the mystifying, tapping into an audience’s awe at his talent but also the materials itself. A perfect blend of talent and artistic beauty, form and content, and in doing so, he connects to other people’s memory, whether that’s the shared wonder that salt takes up in our cultures and practices, or deeply personal matters of grief, memory, and time.

Ghost Signs: Remnants of Days Gone By

If there’s one singular truth about street art is it fades. No matter what you do, how you preserve it, or how often you come to touch it up, murals and signs will eventually disappear. They’ll be cleaned up, removed, the building may be bought and demolished or renovated, and the art moves away. Sure, we can try to make it more permanent, like when someone removes an entire wall to sell a Banksy graffiti, but by and large street art fades.

But while paintings fade, they sometimes won’t disappear entirely and that’s where Ghost Signs comes in. The idea of a ghost sign is fairly simple and something we’ve all seen: those old painted advertisements on old buildings. Ghost Signs, with capital letters, is an online database that collects snapshots of ghost signs for people to look at. The signs come from around the world from New Mexico to Portugal and are most often advertisements and shop names, sometimes for things we can no longer even advertise, like cigarettes or chewing tobacco. The paint has peeled away, but the trace of old street art remains, almost like a shadow or shade of what was once there. It takes us back to older times, when billboards were painted, not printed, and they were made to last. As writer Rebecca Solnit once said, “Ruins are the unconscious of a city.” Ghost signs are the literal writing of the unconscious in our cities’ histories.

The next time you’re strolling around your town, look for old signs. They’re usually higher up, often painted on brick, and harken back to at least the 60s, before regulations and bans made this particular style of painting nearly impossible. It’s like flipping through old issues of Punch magazine or stepping into the early days of Mad Men. The rules weren’t the same and advertising was less a science and more an abstract attempt to connect. You’ll find the signs in the least likely places and you may find yourself in neighbourhoods that still like the idea of a brick building instead of a skyscraper made of steel and glass. Chances are there’s a great coffee shop nearby as well, which makes for a fun weekend activity.

Ghost Signs gives us small snapshots of the paradox of urbanization and urban decay, the fact that things can fade but still remain. Many of these old signs are attached to condemned buildings, places that no one has bought up or felt the need to remodel or remove. So instead they sit there, a testament to days gone by when the signs and the buildings were newer, when the world operated just a little differently, when sign painting was a way many artists paid their bills. As sign painting becomes more and more a lost art, Ghost Signs documents the history around the world for everyone to see. Perhaps it may even inspire people to take up a brush once more and make beautiful street signs again, ones that in the future will remind people of our present.