self portrait of mbongeni buthelezi rendered in melted plastic art

Meltings: The Environmentally-Friendly New Way to Paint

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ve probably noticed that street art is not limited to a single idea, medium, or material. It can take many different forms, from Banksy’s painted stencilling to other artists using abandoned doors, fake street signs, or even coffee grounds to create something new, beautiful, and eye-catching. These experiments get to the heart of what street art and public art represent: a chance to innovate and change. After all, street art began as a way to use public space to show off artistic skill and express something new. It often started as something illegal, but as a way for people who weren’t allowed into the galleries to make their own galleries, as it were, and try something that those who only saw art indoors wouldn’t even recognize.

Two artists have recently taken the idea of something different into a completely new direction, one that takes one person’s waste and literally turns it into something beautiful, unrecognizable, and yet strangely familiar. The technique is colloquially known as “melting” and it’s a way to use plastics for something other than cheap trinkets and food containers.

Taking abandoned plastics, melting involves just that, melting them down into a liquid form, and then applying it to a traditional canvas. The results are a textured and colourful paint that looks and feels dramatically different from usual, latex-based paints or even textured paints. The process itself is better for the environment as well, as paint-making can be incredibly dangerous for the environment, even as companies continue to create new, more environmentally-friendly ways of creating it. But the results can be just as inventive and creative as traditional paint, even as colour selections become entirely dependent on what’s available. And it hasn’t stopped at least two artists from creating beautiful art that’s a little easier on the environment.

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In South Africa, artist Mbongeni Buthelezi has taken to collecting plastic bags from around the streets of Johannesburg to create what he calls “plastic fantastic.” Despite the country having a bag levy for over a decade, bags are still frequently found all over, and Buthelezi has decided to put them to good use.

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Similarly in England, sculptor and painter GRR West (Short for “Glenn Robert Ross West”) has been combining his two loves with the textures provided by melting. The unique properties of the melted plastics help his art literally pop off the page and create a new feel for traditional painting projects. One of the best examples is probably his Nutcracker series he’s released during the holidays, which have a distinctly textured look that helps bring these traditional Christmas staples to life.

Plastic melting is another example of how street art can innovate and change with the items available. It isn’t restricted by convention, only access, which is why it started in the first place. And artists like Mbongeni Buthelezi and GRR West are proving that with their economical, environmental paint alternative.

dismaland by banksy

Banksy’s Dismaland

Appearing suddenly in the cold, blank canvas of an English seaside resort town, Dismaland Bemusement Park caught international headlines when it opened its doors. A pop-up art exhibition by international superstar Banksy, the installation was heralded for the usual political targets: corporate greed, unsubstantial cookie-cutter entertainments, and a blind consumerism. The piece was open for a few days this year, attracting international guests like Run the Jewels (who participated by performing at the venue), Jack Black, and others.

When you walk through the doors, past the “optional” security team, you are immediately greeted with a complete sarcasm. A statue of an Orca jumping out of a toilet and into a splash pool, a rusty version of the Disney castle, angry and even gruff staff who’s enjoyment is squashed by instructions to perpetuate an ironic dissonance.

What was once a series of clever political stencils has since broadened into an almost underground media empire. Today, Banksy is just as famous for his theme parks, videos, and surprise sales in Central Park as he (or she, or s/he, or even they for that matter), as the graffiti that pops up around the world. And as the world’s most widely-known and popular street artist continues his extremely prolific, and extremely profitable, artistic career, we are forced to ask questions of the art, the artist, and the overall aesthetics.

After all, Dismaland is an obvious, sarcastic, and genuinely juvenile attack on the media empire that is Disney (also famous for theme parks, videos, and art). It plays on common targets in today’s world: media saturation, security theatre, even the treatment of low-level employees and the almost necessary dehumanization of contemporary economics. But it’s all performed with the tongue firmly in the cheek, an eye-roll that picks on people more than it picks on companies. And there is a certain irony of the entire spectacle. Dan Brooks probably put it best in his New York Times critique:

“When you see bad expression praised as good — when your Facebook friends share a sarcastic news report, or a millionaire street artist puts mouse ears on an actress and tells her to frown, you must also feel some injustice has been done. Kitsch should not get away with exploiting people’s desire to feel the art. How wonderful it must feel to go to ‘Dismaland’ and see through society! But how awful to see society embrace art that makes you feel nothing, that makes you think only about the vast chasm between you and everyone else.”

If the purpose of art, which itself is a dubious prospect and idea, is to evoke a feeling or moment of realization (a sort of epiphany), then Dismaland must be an intentional fail. After all, nothing presented appears to make a comment beyond “this sucks” and “that also sucks.” The targets seem to be families who save up thousands to enjoy a family vacation, people with fond memories of childhood entertainment. But here, those people are constructed as straw men consumers, as if the estimated £20m boost to the local economy was somehow apart from such a process.

Indeed, if Dismaland is a sound comment on anything, it is Banksy himself. In an effort to appear political, his broad strokes here, so apart from the precise incisions found in his street art, is a disregard of humanity to make a point everyone already knows, but with an teenage disregard that supposed to be legitimizing.

artwork by rime

Artist Spotlight: Rime

New York has always been seen as one of the starting points for graffiti. Indeed, it’s embedded into the everyday experience in that city, seen on the rooftops as you take the train from into Manhattan, scribbled on the subway. Graffiti is everywhere in that town, especially when you cross the East River and head into Brooklyn.

Brooklyn-based artist Joseph Tierney loves graffiti, you can see it almost every piece of work he does. It draws heavily on New York’s definitive style, and he sees the work as something that fights back against gentrification, a problem that’s been plaguing Brooklyn for decades. And while Brooklyn has plenty of amazing street art, he’s quick to call out the difference between it and graffiti.

Rime doesn’t mince words about the difference, either. His website describes street art as “Privileged motherfuckers flock to “hot spots” and commutable convenience. Digestible. The urban adventure… Art without soul. Surface high. Flat excitement. Commercials.” By contrast, he describes graffiti as “Full bodied application. Complicated motherfucker’s sport. Interaction. Force play. Passion… Handmade master of your craft. Contradictive self.”

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The binary is clear for Rime. One happens in spite of development, it calls out and challenges. The other happens as a result, which is why his most recent claim to fame is so important to not only his approach to art, but to him as an artist.

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Rime is perhaps most recently famous, unfortunately, for plagiarism, as in someone stealing his work for their own benefit and leaving him without proper compensation. The controversy arose in the early months of 2015, when Italian designer Moschino debuted a dress by their designer Jeremy Scott that featured a mural Rime had done in Detroit. The mural, called “Vandal Eyes” was a commission piece that Rime did on the side of a building in Detroit, the same place where Jeremy Scott hosted a Fall Fashion event in the late parts of 2014. By May, superstar singer Katy Perry was roped into the controversy when Moschino allegedly paid her to wear it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Gala. Rime, never one to shy away from controversy, stated that “his credibility as a graffiti artist was compromised by inclusion in such a crass and commercial publicity stunt.” The lawsuit, at the time of writing this, has not been settled.

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In many ways, Rime’s art is representative of the history of graffiti as a whole. Unapologetic, working outside the normal bounds of gallery space constraints or legal loopholes, his work is against coopting, turning mainstream, and being hung in coffee shops. And it is especially ironic that it ended up on a high fashion dress at one of New York’s most famous, and famously exclusive, art museums. But like his now-infamous mural, Rime’s work watches and is unashamed of its extra-legal status. There is art for those who want to pave over, and there is art for those who want to fight. At least, that’s what Rime’s art expresses.

artist j3 on scissor lift painting mural of man jumping

Artist Bio: J3

When it comes to the world of street art, some artists enjoy the mantra of “Go big or go home.” There are very few artists, however, that take this to heart as much as J3, the American graffiti artist who’s wall paintings have graced public spaces around the world.

J3 was born James Bullough. Growing up in the Washington, DC. area, he learned his craft by studying classical painting, specifically oils, from people as varied as Rembrandt and Picasso. You can immediately see the influence in his own work, where larger-than-life paintings show a mastery of human form and a close eye for perspective in the unique environments that J3 chooses as his canvases.

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J3’s wall art is almost exclusively in a realist style that, when combined with their size, makes for truly awe-inspiring pieces that catch viewers off guard. Each is made with a careful reproduction of a human without exaggeration or over-stylization. From there, J3’s pieces change and move according to his vision, settling the eye on the naturalness of his characters. Indeed, his pieces seek to express emotion through the beauty of composition rather than placing his subjects themselves in extremely emotional poses and situations. They can range from the thoughtful to even the funny and quirky, like a giant face peeking at your from behind a bridge.

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J3’s art has also changed as his skill has progressed, and his latest pieces have started to play with perspective and continuity while still maintaining a realist bend. For example, recent pieces will split the image into pieces, like looking at it though a series of mirrors. It plays with the eye but also allows his chosen style to bleed into the distinctly uncharacteristic or abnormal without alienating the audience through extreme abstraction. The result is something at once beautiful and unexpected, two characteristics that many forms of street art should aspire to have.

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What makes J3 so different from many of his contemporaries is his influence from traditional sources rather than within the street art community. By drawing from outside yet familiar sources, and combining that with his obvious incredible skill with a paint brush, J3 has been able to infuse his work with a familiar look that pushes beyond general graffiti. To look at his pieces is to see skill at the forefront, and it makes for an experience that is both intriguing and unforgettable.

Since getting his start in street art, J3 has moved to other forms as well, including directing, illustration, and even traditional painting. While these certainly don’t have the scale of his murals, they do display the considerable skill of an artist in his prime.

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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.

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Brooklyn Street Art

One of the best things about street art in the digital age is its ability to disseminate throughout the world. Pieces are no longer confined to simply the city, or even the single canvas, on which they were created. The thought, the image, can be spread around the world at the speed of light, depending on your internet service provider, and shared with people around the world. It has given many artists a new platform in which to share their art and build careers. Even the extremely aloof Banksy has managed to use the internet to draw awareness, build his (or her, or their?) portfolio, and make a substantial amount of money, something which wasn’t even possible even just a short decade ago.

Of course, the shift to digital has also brought with it another aspect of street art: appreciation and community building. Each of these are an essential part of street art as a whole, and the internet has allowed the fast-spreading images of the world’s street art to meet the eyes of rabid fans and suave critics, all of whom express their love of the art form, in all its many iterations, in their own ways. One such way is by Steven P. Harrington, Jaime Rojo, and their fellow writers, artists, and photographers at Brooklyn Street Art.

The website, originally a way to catalogue and discuss Brooklyn’s diverse and wonderfully elaborate world of street art, murals, and more, the site has expanded to include the world over, and does an amazing job of not only connecting art to fans, but artists to the public, and work to admirers all over the world. The site features interviews, criticism, a beautiful range of photography, and more, all designed to showcase the many artists in the world, and the good work they’re doing in their hometowns and around the globe.

But Brooklyn Street Art, lovingly referred to as “BSA,” is more than just a hype machine, it’s also interested in pop culture’s place in street art, and the inverse, and frequently publishes articles focusing on how the many different mediums interact with each other. As trends develop in the street,” Harrington writes on the site, “We watch to see how they affect popular culture and the rest of the art world.”

And BSA isn’t focused on simply graffiti, or even street art that’s on the actual street. The site also explores different forms of street art. Or, as they put it: “New hybrids, new techniques, and new mediums are expanding the definition of public art, street art, graffiti, and urban art.” By considering more than just graffiti, the site is able to keep up with the changing face of public art as a whole.

What BSA proves is that street art can and does benefit from a critical discourse and enthusiastic fanbase, one that’s both passionate and intelligent. It helps not only the artists, but the entire community bond, build, and create.

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Wall/Therapy

Art can serve multiple functions, ones that we can often take for granted. When it comes to street art, we mostly think of it in two ways: as community projects and as beautification Measure. For the first, grants and privately-funded art projects are constantly going on all over the world. They can help young artists see their work somewhere important, and it can give paying jobs to artists, youth, and other members of the community. These projects can strengthen neighbourhoods, and even cities, all thanks to the power of art. And, of course, it usually doesn’t hurt that the art makes wherever it is a little nicer to look at.

But researchers have been looking into how art can help people as a therapy for decades. Indeed, art therapy courses are becoming more and more common, particularly with the elderly, people recovering motor control, and even those who’ve suffered brain damage. The combination of soothing creation and necessary fine motor skills make art the perfect therapy for many people, and it’s only getting more popular.

It’s from this standpoint that the Wall/Therapy Festival was born. Knowing full well that art has the power to heal, and help people recover, the festival was created to celebrate and encourage the link between art and health.

The festival started with Dr. Ian Wilson in Rochester, New York, a city that he felt deserved some giving back. So he decided to start a “community-level intervention using mural art as a vehicle to address our collective need for inspiration,” according to the website. That first festival was simple: Dr. Wilson gave eleven artists, whom he called “therapists,” the means to “rehabilitate” walls around the city. The festival not only beautified 16 walls throughout the city, it also sparked a community dialogue about the city and the role of art in its identity and everyday workings.

Since then, the festival has happened every year, getting bigger and bigger while touching more and more people. Soon, Dr. Wilson created a secondary initiative to help the city. Called “IMPACT!” (IMProving Access to Care by Teleradiology), the program sets up diagnostic imaging sites in developing countries. Basically, the idea of imagery as an important aspect of healing comes not just through creative art, but through the very images of our bodies that can tell us something about what’s happening inside. Together, the festival and initiative have helped not only the citizens of Rochester, New York, but people around the world.

Wall/Therapy recognizes that art is not completely disjointed from ourselves, but an integral aspect of how we interact, communicate, and even heal. It’s not simply something done as a release or side project, but is intrinsically tied to the very core of our being, as a society, and as individuals. Wall/Therapy recognizes such a powerful connection, and takes it to a wholly different levels, and the street.

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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.

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Artist Bio: Ghidaq al-Nazir

The coffee industry has exploded and completely changed in the past fifteen to twenty years. Some blame Starbucks for the increased interest in coffee as a certain type of fancy treat, moving it away from the utilitarian beverage held in large metal vats to the single-brewed delicacies found in the fancier shops. Others point to gentrification of neighbourhoods. After all, fancy, boutique coffee shops are the first sign of a neighbourhood changing. But no matter the reason, or reasons, behind the increased popularity of coffee as more than a caffeine injection, it has become a different part of the cultural landscape, and its attracted artists.

Baristas around the world have long sought ways to bring the “artist” out of “artisanal coffee,” and it has usually manifested in latte art. Made in quick yet subtle movements as steamed, foamy milk is poured over espresso, people have taken this art to new heights and levels over the years. Its a wonder to watch and, for anyone who’s tried to replicated even a simple leaf or flower, it’s not exactly an easy task. One artist, a former barista, has taken those soft, subtle movements that are required for delicate latte art, and his love of coffee in general, to new heights. His name is Ghidaq al-Nizar, and he’s started using coffee to make beautiful and delicate works of art.

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Ghidaq al-Nizar, who was born in the coffee capital nation of Indonesia, has taken to another aspect of coffee that many of us actually loathe: staining. Using the leftovers of his morning brew, the artist has taken to carefully and delicately staining small leaves, paper, and other objects. The results are incredible.

Coffee painting, as this particular type of painting is called, is growing in popularity, probably in direct proportion to coffee itself getting popular. But Ghidaq al-Nizar takes it to an entirely different level. By incorporating the actual grinds into his work, he can creates greater contrasts within the work, widening out the colour palette from more than shades of brown to include extremely dark, near-blacks.

Subjects of Ghidaq al-Nizar’s work vary, as do the shapes and designs that he gives to the various objects, but they often play with intricate designs set against simpler backdrops. Natural settings are a favourite, often adorning leaves with other trees, branches, and more to create something that’s natural and beautiful. Other times, he’ll stain paper directly with simple abstract compositions: a child in a fingerprint, a family playing around music note symbols, or a city growing from his own handprint.

The coffee watercolours of Ghidaq al-Nizar’s work swirl and intoxicate, not unlike the substance from which they’re made, and it gives his work a certain delicacy you rarely find in such small works. It also shows us that art can come from almost anywhere, so long as the artist takes the time to create something within the confines they set for themselves. In the case of Ghidaq al-Nizar, that means playing with a limited amount of space and colour in new and interesting ways.

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Artist Bio: Herakut

We often think of street art as an individual event, one where a person comes up with an idea and paints it onto the surface on their own. Artists, after all, generally want to be known for their work and achievement, and will take credit for their work when people discover it. That’s a simple business move, and even artists have to eat occasionally. But street art, especially murals and large-scale paintings, are rarely the efforts of a sole individual. In fact, many of the world’s most famous murals are collaborative projects. Perhaps a singular artist created the original piece, but many artists and labourers took the idea and did the work of putting paint to wall, and that labour can often go unnoticed, mostly because people want to think of art as something done by a single artist. Very few people have actually considered the fact that Banksy, for example, may actually be a collective of people, all operating under the same name.

But there is strength and celebration to be found in collaboration, and there may not be a better example of such collaboration in the world of street art today than Herakut. The German-based duo of “Hera” (Jasmin Siddiqui of Frankfurt) and “Akut” (Falk Lehmann of Schmalkalden) joined forces over 10 years ago. Since then, they’ve mixed their unique styles together for projects around the world, from the streets of Toronto to government housing buildings in London.

While many collaborative efforts between artists, and indeed their helpers, usually relies on a certain similarity in style or approach, but the thing that makes Herakut unique is their ability to blend seemingly disparaging aspects together. Akut’s style is a self-described “top-level photorealism” while his partner’s look is decidedly more whimsical, fantastical or simply absurdist. The blend, however, allows them to create spaces that tell whole stories based on the juxtapositions, and this narrative quality is apparent in most of their work.

Herakut’s topics and focuses are usually on children, or at least use child-like characters to convey a meaning and story. Akut’s ability to create moments of grounded realism in amongst the very expressive children and exaggerated adults painted by Hera lets things unfold in interesting ways that are also easy to digest. The paintings are almost always accompanied by some sort of beautifully written text as well, which add to the ideas conveyed and give the audience something far less abstract, or at least thematically complementary, to the piece overall.

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For example, in one piece, a woman holds her baby, a real-looking mask sitting on top of her head. The text reads “There is something better than perfection.” The piece immediately conveys the beauty of having and holding a child, all while giving the audience various ways to grasp and interpret the piece.

Herakut’s collaborative efforts have taken the world by storm, and given people plenty to think about at the same time. Through their differing styles and approaches, audiences around the world have been gifted not only with beautiful art, but a moment to stop and consider what that art means.