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Culture

Art Guerillas Reclaim the Streets

Graffiti is so yesterday. These days any self-respecting metropolis has stickers and other types of "New Street Art" plastered everywhere.

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Helsinki, Finland: Art or a misdemeaner?

If you've happened to walk through one the world's leading cities recently, almost inevitably you've noticed there's been some serious redecorating: stickers and posters made of printed, sprayed or painted paper, seem to have spread like a bad rash all over electrical poles, walls and lamp posts. Dubbed "Post-Graffiti," "Urban Art," or "New Street Art," the idea is to not just take a can of spray paint and leave your name somewhere.

Sticker Straßenkunst, Stockholm, Schweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Most culture gurus would agree that avant-garde art is meant to provoke, annoy, amuse or at least cause some sort of reaction. Inasmuch, Street Art couldn't be more effective. Some city dwellers see stickers, as well as spray-painted graffiti, as simple defacement -- or often as property damage that has to be removed at great expense and passed on for the police to follow up. But for practitioners of Street Art, it's a (sub-)cultural freedom movement. "Reclaim the streets" is the classic slogan, tinged with a dash of anarchistic pathos.

Accordingly, most urban art guerillas believe their work shouldn't just lie dormant in museums and galleries. Instead it should be in public and freely accessible for everyone -- and create a contrast to the images and messages of the advertising world. Whether it's illegal is secondary.

Finding enlightenment in the loo

Sticker Straßenkunst Russland

Moscow, Russia

German graffiti researcher Axel Thiel has concentrated on the constantly changing medium of Street Art for nearly 30 years. The 55-year-old observes the scene with "interest from above," as he put it.

"I hit on it when I was sitting on the toilet at the University of Kassel and saw all the graffiti." Since that scatological epiphany he has been documenting, archiving and trying to "objectivize" the Street Art discussion.

Sticker Straßenkunst Ghent, Belgien

Ghent, Belgium

Thiel vehemently opposes "criminalizing" the "young, highly-creative" Street Art scene, whether the people pasting stickers or spraying words or images. In the end, it only serves the "paint industry." Thiel reckons that $70 billion per year are spent on removing graffiti worldwide.

Cheaper than spraying

Thiel also sees the turn to stickers as a reaction to pressure from criminal prosecution. Graffiti sprayers have faced claims for compensation of up to €250,000 ($300,000). "Someone who gets caught gluing can expect much more harmless prosecution," Thiel said.

Christian Hundertmark

Christian Hundertmark, otherwise known as C100

One of these artists is C100, alias Christian Hundertmark (photo). In 2003, he published the first book about the new enthusiasm for pasting posters. "The Art of Rebellion" introduces portraits of the work of 70 of the sometimes publicity-shy artists, most of whom work under a pseudonym. They are between 29 and 35 years old, and most are former sprayers who searched for a new form of expression and found one.

Hundertmark, 29, is one of these "grown-up" graffiti artists himself. He's even a sort of prototype of the sticker artist: He studied graphic design, works for a Munich graphic design agency and has few ideological fears of the "serious" art scene. "Those are perhaps the main differences to graffiti -- that everything is seen in a much more laid-back way and the people can do more than just spray their names," he said.

Welcome success

Sticker Straßenkunst Freiburg Deutschland

Freiburg, Germany

Despite the proud subversiveness, commercial success is also welcome. Recently "Obey the Giant," one of the scene's stars, was arrested for pasting stickers. But the American's work long ago found its way into upscale -- and expensive -- art galleries.

"Since the Street Art people are mainly already a bit older than 19, they know how to brand themselves," C100 says. When it comes to success, Hundertmark isn't entirely atypical either. The first edition of his book has long been sold-out; he has assembled a worldwide network; and he's now organizing an exhibition for galleries in London and Munich.

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