Once clandestine and illegal, street art has gone mainstream in recent years, even making its way into galleries and art fairs. Berlin is particularly fertile ground, say the artists.
Spray paint evokes mixed reactions among the general public
For decades, urban art forms involving spray cans, stencils and paste-ups have been executed under the cover of darkness. Often merging social commentary with urban beautification, artists needed to work quickly - and stay one step ahead of police and security guards.
Now, street art is wandering from the alley to the art gallery - thanks to star underground artists like Britain's Banksy, who auctioned a piece for 288,000 pounds (around $460,000) in 2007 and raised the eyebrows of gallerists the world over.
Recently in Berlin, galleries representing street artists have popped up across the city. With the significant leap from outdoors to indoors already accomplished, street art fairs were bound to follow - even though these have traditionally been the domain of mainstream art forms. Street art's answer to Basel and Venice is Stroke.03, held in Berlin this past week.
"Most of the [street] artists represented here can't do illegal work, or they don't want to do illegal work anymore because they cannot finish a piece in five minutes without having any lights," Marco Schwalbe, a co-founder of Stroke.03, told Deutsche Welle. He added that moving into galleries was simply a practical step for many street artists.
British artist Banksy has been instrumental in "legitimizing" street art
Schwalbe also runs the Intoxicated Demons urban art gallery in Berlin's alternative Kreuzberg district. As a gallerist, he saw the need for an art fair dedicated to the worldwide phenomenon of urban art and also affordable for smaller up-and-coming galleries.
Gaining legitimacy indoors and out
Danish street artist Morten Andersen, whose work is represented at Stroke.03, learned the art of graffiti as a hip hop-obsessed teenager in the late 1980s. After spraying illegally for 10 years, he now only works at locations where he has permission, but has also moved indoors to work on canvas.
"What I like about painting inside is you can take the raw vibe that you have from the street and put this on a canvas," he said. "And you can take this canvas a lot of places. You can take it to LA for a show. You can take it to Berlin for a show. This you can't do with a wall."
While his lines, forms and colors clearly reference his graffiti background, the works themselves are an abstract form of urban expression.
Emess, a Berlin-based stencil artist, appreciates the dialogue that occurs when artists paint in public spaces, rather than on canvases in isolated studios.
"Something I love about the street is when you put something out there and it's trashed the next day you know it wasn't worth it," he said, "But if people paint around it, like even house owners painting the facade around your piece - that's cool."
Stencil art - like this work by Snik & Finbarr - is an alternative to the old-school spray can
Emess was inspired when he saw figurative works that communicated a message by well-known street artists like Banksy and New York-based Swoon.
"When I saw the first Banksy show, I started cutting stencils the next day," said Emess.
Street art is for everyone
Compared to many more conservative cities, the street art scene in Berlin is more tolerated by both the authorities and the residents, said artist Morten Andersen.
"There's always been this thing with spray cans. You know when people see it they feel like, 'Shall we call the cops or clap our hands?'" said Andersen, who added that the hype around artists like Banksy has helped legitimize urban art among the general public.
But with this sudden hype have come collectors and others wanting to cash in by cutting works by well-known street artists out of fences, gates and sides of buildings in order to sell them for inflated prices.
Stroke.03 attracted street artists from around the world, like American Chor Boogie
According to Stroke.03 co-founder Schwalbe, "If you put something on public property, then somebody might take it. I think that's part of the process and I would never sue anybody who's doing that."
But Berlin-based artist Emess disagreed. "It’s a little bit like a lawn full of flowers. If everybody collects one flower, in the end it's empty," he explained. That's one of the main reasons Emess also sells his work in a gallery.
"If you really like it, then pay the artist and the gallerist and buy something in a gallery and then you have it," he said. "And then you're supporting the art form and the artist."
Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Kate Bowen