Is street art an act of vandalism or an act of art? It really depends on your own perspective. Street art is a powerful and growing artistic medium in today’s society with new pieces appearing on street walls every day.Andrew McLeod tracked down street artist ‘Trollz’ who speaks out about street art.
Some 30 million years ago, when T-Rex’s approached domestication, Dodo’s flew free, and homosapiens were beginning their rule on the animal kingdom, neanderthals gave birth to a concept that shaped the world as we know it – imagery.
It was Lucius the Hunter who, upon defeating an elusive wildebeast, decided to draw a life-size image using nearby chalk, at the entrance to his humble abode. Lucius’s tribe were originally bewildered by the hunter’s installation, but before long adjusted to the image and thereafter referred to Lucius as the tribe’s best hunter.
The following 30 million years saw the imagery develop from a stick wildebeest to the finer arts that now grace our collections, our galleries and our streets. The burning questions in the minds of historians – was this abstract depiction a selfish drawing or did it have the intent of education?
In New Zealand we are blessed to have a plethora of talented street artists – O.D, BMD, Drypnz, Mr. G, the list goes on. But if people from the future were to discover the artwork that is created in our era, what conclusions would they draw? In modern society, corporate advertising is a large factor in how our lives are shaped, considering they use similar mediums, but does art have the same power? Would street art as a forum for freedom of speech help our society to be less … fucked up? Does the increasing commercial interest in street art start to render the art meaningless?
In the beautiful city of Paris, fines for tagging on public property can reach up to the equivalent of NZ$95,000. Nevertheless, in the early 80’s, returning from a trip to America and seeing the artistic tags that covered the underground in New York, a young Parisian native by the name of Xavier Prou (Blek Le Rat) helped shape a culture that would later spread around the world by running the risks and projecting his characters around the city.
His satirical pieces, including ‘Television Head’ which creatively exaggerated the premise that those who watched too much TV would evolve with square eyes, quickly boosted his reputation as an artist, and before long he had gained the title of Godfather of the stencil. He would go on to be considered one of the artists that helped the movement get to where it is today. When questioned on his motives behind his art, his response was “I had a desire for recognition—that people know who is Blek.”
To help me address some more of the street art scene in New Zealand, I managed to track down the anonymous Auckland artist Trollz, whose artwork has started to spread across the Super City, and he was willing to share his views on what street art is.
“For me, street art is art created without rules or guidelines,” he says. “I guess it’s really anything created, usually non-commissioned, in a public space specifically outside in the open.”
“The idea for my Trollz initially came from my willingness to explore some art that shared the views I have on the current state of the world. During my day job I create art of a very different nature – it’s fun and I totally love it, but it doesn’t allow me to really ‘say anything’ or share ideas of a conscious nature.”
Trollz clearly has an appreciation for artists of any creed: musicians, painters, poets and filmmakers, especially those who have the ability to communicate social or political ideas.
“I have always had a fascination with any art that has a message, especially music and street art. And since I can’t play an instrument in any way and love to draw, I thought it’d be a cool way to finally share some of the stuff that’s been floating around my head for so long.”
In the early years, the culture of street art consisted of the ‘under-appreciated’ in our society, where talented individuals took to the streets to do what had previously been done in the confines of their bedroom. No one did it for recognition, or money; their motives were purely to reach an audience, be appreciated and gain cult status, albeit through an anonym.
Then along came Banksy.
Here was an artist with the desire to take his society-doubting messages to an international audience. His work in the Gaza strip, the eye of international media, provided that boost, and almost overnight Banksy translated his cult status into a household name. The attention his work warranted would see him in 2006 front an art gallery showing in a Hollywood warehouse that boasted a star-studded guest list, complementary wine and single prints starting at $500.
The exhibition, a first for the street art movement, would later cop criticism from the purists. It was defined by some to be pretentious and commercialised, with Banksy taking away the title of a “hypocritical sell-out”. When later asked about Banksy, Blek Le Rat lashed out, defining the integrity of an artist by their desire “…to be seen. Not be sold or to be recognized in a museum”.
Regardless of the critics, Banksy has an amazing ability to create art that causes people to question society and educate the generations on a new perspective. In rebuttal of Blek’s definition, Banksy is an artist who managed to capture the entire world as an audience, and if that is achievable as well as making some money is the meaning of his art really lost?
The irony and pinnacle of Banksy’s so-called commercialisation was encapsulated in one of his pieces that features a pompous art auction where the piece for sale reads ‘I can’t believe you morons buy this shit’.
“I think anybody who labels somebody else, especially an artist, a sell-out is doing it purely out of jealousy,” Trollz adds. “I personally really dig his stuff and his approach to art, and there are no rules when it comes to getting an idea out there or commenting on the hypocrisy in the world. Artists are supposed to evolve and change. What’s the point in remaining stale? You’ll just become irrelevant!”
As for selling his artwork in galleries, Trollz defends Banksy’s ability to sell his art, saying everybody has to eat and put a roof over their head. The fact that some pieces sell for millions of dollars is probably affirmation of how fickle the art world is and hardly the fault of the artist that he is apparently paid too much.
“If some pompous rich idiot wants to spend that much money on some art because somebody told them it’s good, that’s hilarious and probably something Banksy laughs his arse off at! If somebody is good with cars or has a passion for engines, they should be a mechanic. People who are good at packing bags should work at a supermarket. People who can draw and be creative should also be able to make money off their talents!”
Art in a gallery is one thing, but street art is usually painted on canvas supplied by the unsuspecting public. Buildings, screen doors, stop signs, and even railway cars are all accessible under the light of the night. For many members of public it is easy for the message within the art to be lost, and the piece described as selfish vandalism. So what do artists like Trollz feel when people label their work so simply?
“WELL, EVERYBODY IS ENTITLED TO THEIR opinion, that’s the point of art, really. You can’t help people taking art at face value but it’s a shame because, for the most part, those are the sort of people I’m aiming my stuff at. By its public nature, street art is, in my opinion, open to opinion more than other art forms. You’re not putting paintings up on a wall in an exclusive gallery for your friends and rich people to come check out – it’s there for anybody and everybody to judge.
I think that’s what’s fun about it, too, especially stuff that’s ‘saying something’ – getting ideas out to as many people as possible. But at the end of the day I don’t care what people think … they can love it or hate it … if they’re talking about it at all then I’m happy!”
Following the progression of street art to mainstream channels, corporations started to see it as an opportunity as a fresh medium for advertising.
Recently, the New Zealand Police commissioned Otis Frizzell, a well-accredited New Zealand street artist, to create stencilled pieces featuring Police officers in action. The irony of the work stirred up mixed emotions, some loved the work, most thought it irrelevant, some condemned the fact that the artist had agreed to help street art be used as advertising.
“Obviously, advertising at its core serves a purpose,” says Trollz. “A business, whatever, its size, needs to make people aware of its products in order to be a business, [and] to do this some of them need to employ artists/creative people to help come up with a good way to do such a thing. Where things become a little immoral in my mind is when some companies/advertisers exploit people’s insecurities to sell products. Also when big companies/corporations use advertising to distort how they actually are … banks pretend to be your mate in their TV ads but in reality all they want is you in a lifetime of debt … BP says they are trying to be green/eco and getting away with murder in the Gulf Of Mexico.”
With the international boom of street art as an advertising medium came stories of ruthless artists hijacking the artwork to backfire on the corporation commissioning the piece, and probably the most prolific would be Above’s piece in South Africa.
Around the same time as Banksy, Above was another audacious and extremely talented street artist, a young California local, who was also starting to make his mark in the street art movement. His artwork gained a reputation for strongly displaying his opinion and refusing to compromise his morals and meaning of his art for financial gain. In early 2012 one piece in particular seems illustrate this perfectly.
Following a year of being commissioned to create artwork for corporations seeking a fresh advertising medium, Above was approached by a collective of diamond traders in Johannesburg named Jewel City, who were responsible for exporting the majority of rough diamonds mined in South Africa. An agreement was reached to decorate a previously humdrum wall with the phrase ‘Diamonds are a woman’s best friend’. As the piece came close to completion, the owners of Jewel City approved of Above’s artwork, then headed home for the night just as Above was getting started.
The next morning, Jewel City employees arrived to see the final product. He had completed the piece but, intent on addressing the societal flaws ingrained in the diamond industry, had made slight additions. The mural now read ‘Diamonds are a woman’s best friend, and man’s worst enemy’. Above had disappeared, his job complete. This piece highlighted his refusal to forfeit his values. Instead, his reward came from the inherent reaction from the public and his targeted commissioners.
“I guess my message isn’t super focused but my hope is just to make people think outside their normal boundaries, to think about the current mess we’re in and how we got here,” says Trollz.
But any reaction is a good reaction. Even if that reaction is just tearing the message down! “It makes me smile when people go around just ripping off the messages and not taking the whole piece down. It means what I said actually got to them. I also dig it when people write their own messages over them, even when they tell me to ‘shut the f**k up!’, Stuff like that only makes me want to do it more!”
ALTHOUGH CLEARLY UNEDUCATED IN ART history, I have a deep admiration for the inspiring art-work these talented artists have produced. My kinship with silent crusaders created by Trollz initially started in Auckland central where the picket ‘Respect existence or expect resistance’ caught my eye. However, during a time where our city’s Square had been transformed into a free-of-charge camp site, I assumed it was a part of the soon-to-be redundant occupy-Auckland protest.
It wasn’t long before the trolls set their sights on bigger targets, migrated north and, with vengeance, spread their propaganda around the so-called affluent northern suburbs surrounding the university. This time their messages were a little more restive – ‘It’s time to unfuck the world’ and other messages that poked fun at the status-quo of ‘consume, deplete, repeat’, making me reason that these lippy creatures were smarter than originally credited, realising that if people actually gave them a chance then the fog that covers society’s eyes may eventually lift. Which, to my mind, is a small success for my vicarious alter-ego, because many who surround me appear to be preoccupied with a state of satisfaction and a reluctance to question society. And if nothing else is to come from Trollz’s campaign, the awe-inspiring irony of watching a subordinate employee diligently removing a ‘Think for yourself’ and ‘You can’t stop us now’ from his employer’s facilities would easily suffice.
● As expected, it was a real pleasure to talk to Trollz regarding his own art and his opinions on others. I would like to thank him for agreeing to talk – he’s an interesting guy. Head over to his Tumblr trollzbtrollin.tumblr.com to check out more of his work, as well as checking out his instagram at #trollz_b_trollin for some more insights from him.