Art Basel Miami Beach has come and gone, the tents are down, the collectors have flown back to New York or to their next destination and the convention center halls are empty. But the art on the street remains. In one weekend, every wall in Wynwood, the slightly more underground and artsy counterpart to Miami Beach, was painted over. Not just with a fresh coat of paint, but with art.
Photo: 2Alas - Artist duo Andrew Antonaccio and Filio Galvez
Although Art Basel is only a week long, and Wynwood is just a small neighborhood, it shows what is happening in the art world on a global level: an incredible explosion of street art and its inevitable integration into the art market. But with every art movement, giving it a name comes with controversy and reaction. Nobody likes being labeled, especially not artists. So use the term “street art” or “graffiti artist” with care (a new term being thrown around is “independent public art”), most artists will have some sort of qualm with the terms or not identify with them at all. Call it what you like, but it is undeniable that there are some true artists working on the street and they are becoming the art world’s rock stars.
Photo: Chor Boogie is a world-renowned artist based in San Francisco
Having a press pass is a golden ticket at events like Art Basel, but out on the streets it’s pretty useless, which is refreshing. No matter how big an artist gets, when he or she is painting on the street they are completely accessible, there’s no need to fight for a backstage pass. They are on a stage that is at the same level as the audience, which is undoubtedly part of its appeal.
Traditionally in art history the artist is referred to as a secluded genius living a monk-like life in a lonely studio with only their creations to accompany them. Although that notion has been long thrown out the window, street art takes it even further. Artists are completely exposed in the vulnerable moment of creation. This takes guts. Their process is out in the open for the world to see and so are their mistakes. Besides this complete exposure during the intimate process of making art, the pure physicality of street art is extremely challenging. One thing is painting a canvas in an air conditioned studio and another thing is painting and enormous uneven wall with the Miami heat on your back. It’s a long and grueling process, which is what makes it so exhilarating for those who undertake it and so awe-inducing to the audience. Haven’t we always worshipped our favorite rock stars for having the guts to go on stage and be unapologetically themselves, give it their all, break some instruments, maybe do some stage dives, oh yeah and sing some good songs?
Photo: “I Remember Paradise” by LAKWENA, a graphic artist from London
It’s easy to understand why the artists who started off writing graffiti and now have sustaining relationships with galleries, keep coming back to paint on the street. It's the same reason why artists who've working in the traditional studio-gallery world are now taking to the streets- the thrill, the direct connection to your audience, and the power to alter public space.
“I started out as a graffiti writer, which became the portal for becoming an artist,” says WERC, an artist who made the pilgrimage to Miami this year for the first time, “I do as much work on the streets as I do in the studio and I love that balance.”
Photo: WERC is an artist who was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico but grew up in Texas
Alexis Diaz is a Puerto Rican artist known for his incredibly detailed, cross-hatched murals of anthropomorphic figures. He’s working on a huge mural in Wynwood, but he also had pieces for sale at a gallery. They are both genuine expressions of his art, they just communicate differently depending on the context and the scale of the mural.
Photo: Alexis Diaz “La Pandilla” is a Puerto Rican artist and muralist
Having to use one form of art to sustain the other has been around forever, just think of Michelangelo. He considered himself a sculptor. Painting was a lesser art form in his mind. But, even Michelangelo had to take a commission to paint a mural every once in a while to sustain his true passion, for example, the Sistine Chapel. Hundreds of years later, that tension is still very much alive in artists. It’s just different for each individual, some are more passionate about their studio work, others live to paint and work on the street. Speaking of Michelangelo, big brands (the Catholic Church for example) have been using the arts to advance their message for as long as well…forever. Point is, we can complain about the current media hype and corporate involvement in art, but it’s not new and it won’t destroy it. The good ones speak for themselves, even if there’s a logo at the bottom
Street artists, graffiti artists, plain old artists, or rock stars? Walking around Wynwood watching some of these men and (badasss) women at work it is undeniable that there is some rock n’ roll involved, albeit it to the tune of house music (sigh…) Rock N’ Roll in the sense of the lifestyle of rebellion, endless travel, the oozing cool and yes, fame.
“Street Art” is hot right now and Corporate America has taken full notice (Microsoft, Whole Foods, KIND bars, Absolut, are just a few of the brand names that sponsored spaces or events in Wynwood this year) So is the cool gone when big brands get in on the fun? When every media outlet (including baby Fusion) start writing about it? Are we, the media, the enemy?
The enemy, of course, refers to the title given to journalists by the band “Stillwater” in Almost Famous. If you haven’t seen that movie, it follows a 15-year-old journalist as he tours with a rock n’ roll band on the brink of fame. Throughout the movie Jeff, the lead singer, clashes with Russell, the guitarist, on how to deal with their rising stardom. You get a sense when you meet these artists that there are two general reactions to all the hype surrounding street art. You have a lot of Jeff characters- people with some talent, but mostly with ambition for fame and glory. They are lead singers, there’s a good voice in there but there’s also a lot of stage theatrics and studied appearance. The Jeffs both love and hate the enemy. They need the enemy for their plan of becoming a star to work, but they need to use it wisely and craft their image carefully in order to avoid the much feared fate of becoming a “sell out.” Then there are the Russells, the mysterious and unreachable Russells, the insanely talented genius guitarist. Talent just overflows out of the Russells pores and they are coolly unaffected by it. This is their passion and they couldn’t really live any other way, but creating. The enemy doesn’t really cross their mind. They don’t need the enemy and no matter what we say, their work breaks through the noise and shines for what it is: some damn good art. Walking around Wynwood, you’re listening to a lot, but you definitely get the sense that you are in the midst of a lot of true Russells.
Photo: Txemy is an artist from Spain, known for his bright splashes of color
Txemy, an artist from Spain, has been coming to Wynwood for the past three years and says he prefers to paint on less busy streets to avoid the craze. Similar to WERC and Alexis Diaz, he has found the balance between gallery work and murals.
If this is all rock n’ roll then Wynwood, Miami is the premiere venue. Although the brands have sneaked in, the artists still have positive things to say. Looks like we haven’t lost our street cred just yet. MRKA of Pillas, and artist duo from Spain, but based in New York, says “Wynwood has become like the new mecca of contemporary art. It’s graffiti, it’s street art, it’s whatever you want to call it. And it’s historic and beautiful.”
Another artist duo, Hollis & Lana from Colorado, say “Miami embraces and welcomes street art, allowing everyone to benefit from the work of the international creative community. A blank wall is a canvas not just a wall in Wynwood.”
Photo: Hollis & Lana are an artist duo from Colorado who aside from murals, work on paper, canvas and in sculpture
A lot of the great art movements began as a reaction to the mainstream. Those reactions eventually become mainstream and that can make them lose a lot of followers that were originally there just for the rebellion. And when that happens, out come the purists and the “it’s not the same anymore” people, but something in us can always recognize a sell out. It’s a “je ne sais quoi” (oh god the art world is here) in the work that speaks to us, we feel that it’s genuine and then we don’t give a shit what label it has on it (ok bye art world.) Look at Grunge, angry youth in Seattle started making a statement against the music industry, similarly in the 70s in New York, graffiti writers started making their anger heard through tagging up walls.
Eventually both evolved, became cool and grew their audience. You may think grunge sold out, but the good records still hold true. The same is true in street art. Sell outs abound, but you can remain true like MRKA says “you have to be very careful with who you work with and how you do it, but it doesn’t mean don’t do things for big names or big companies. It means do it at the right time, well and with confidence.” Hollis says “the only way to sell out is to do something that you yourself don't truly believe in.”
Photo: Pillas is an artist duo from Spain comprised of MRKA and NKONE
So now we’ve agreed that there will always be people trying to cash in on art, but there has also always been the true appreciators, the patrons, the loyal band managers, and yes the gallerists. So the art world may be an elitist impenetrable world of white walls, white wine and well, white people, but there are people trying to bridge this gap or create a new art world that is more attainable. Street art, along with the democratization power of the internet, has helped this trend. Beginning with the fact that having art so prominent in public space in the faces of people who might have never set foot in a museum or a gallery, opens up their mind to realize they too can be an artist. It gets them in the door. With this new class of aspiring artists comes art appreciators and hopefully collectors?
That’s where the new gallerists come in. The ones who are making the idea of buying art a less “I’m filthy rich” venture. There are countless new ventures trying to bring affordable art in non-intimidating environments to this new creative class. Create Collect is a perfect example. They were in town with a pop up gallery that featured several artists including the aforementioned artists, Pillas. Although their work hung in the Create Collect show, they prefer to be painting outside.
“Pillas may have started with graffiti, but it’s clear to me” says Laura Cartagena, a founder of Create Collect, “that they have evolved into something that is much more than that. Their work, whether it be on paper, wood, or wall, continuously breaks down the boundaries between street and fine art.” An artist’s career is always a process of evolution. It may take them from the streets to the gallery or vice versa. Similarly, art movements evolve and street art has come a long way. From being considered a crime, to getting cool, getting sponsors, making careers and becoming an established part of the art world.
Photo: Retna is an artist who has reached enormous success through collaboration with big companies and galleries
At the Art Basel fair you may have recognized a lot of the art that you saw on the streets of Wynwood, but now it’s on a canvas and now it costs $20,000. You can have your opinions on that, but it is just another piece of evidence that confirms the art market has fully accepted this movement as ART. So with that, comes all the art world’s snobbery, money, criticism, labels, and vernissages. But hey, as long as the art is there, we can block all of that out right? Just listen to the records. We may be the enemy, but these artists have us feeling more like Penny Lane, a real fan that is here for the music.
Video: Social media film director Danilo Lauria
Elisa is a designer & illustrator that writes (and doodles) about pop culture, women, diversity and all things art. She is the human behind Fusion's Instagram account and Elvis Presley is her spirit animal.
Fer Gonzalez is a creative associate at Univision, a pixel wizard and surf rider.