Street art has a wide array of subject matter. Some street artists, such as Andre and Barry McGee, focus on putting goofy, animated characters on the walls of buildings. Other street artists like the Toasters, Shepard Fairey, Invader, etc. put multiples of the same images up all over cities almost like marking their territory. Roadsworth is a street artist that spray paints images on the road that might make a drive around town a little more entertaining. With the exception of Shepard Fairey, and perhaps Invader, none of these street artists are widely known; they are known well enough to get in a book but are not as prominent as JR or Banksy. Both street artists incorporate a little bit of politics into their art. Perhaps the public simply likes JR’s and Banksy’s styles or maybe these street artists are so well known because of the messages behind their art.
JR began when he found a camera in the Paris Metro and started taking pictures. Since he found the camera in a public place he felt that it was fitting to put his photographs in a public place.[i] When JR started his photographed images were small, he had to use a six by four inch format.[ii] However, JR figured out how to enlarge his photographed images to cover the side of a building. JR’s work would clearly be hard to ignore. Imagine walking down the street and seeing a black and white image of someone pointing a gun covering the side of a building, that would be pretty difficult to miss.
JR’s work is meant to provoke; he wants to touch people. He humbly admits that his work cannot change the world but “…it can only make a difference to how a few people look at the world.”[iii] JR has achieved this through his travels to slums, shanty towns, and troubled places. In Kibera, Kenya, JR used waterproof materials to paint the roofs of houses. He painted portraits of people, a subject matter he tends to stick with, focusing on eyes and mouths. He chose to use waterproof materials to give to the community. He said that Kenyans do not understand art for art’s sake; they focus on essential needs. By using waterproof materials he made their roofs waterproof and therefore his art developed a practical purpose.[iv]
JR decided to tackle possibly one of the largest political issues of today’s world in his Face 2 Face project. In an interview JR said he was discussing the issue of the Middle East with some friends and he asked if anyone one knew any Israelis or Palestinians. Clearly no one did and JR decided that he wanted to go to the Middle East to find out for himself. He was under the impression that Israelis see Palestinians as terrorists attacking marketplaces where women and children are as well as men. And Palestinians see Israelis as humiliating, occupational soldiers who shoot children and ambulances. When JR went to the Middle East he realized that a Palestinian taxi driver is pretty much the same as an Israeli taxi driver. That is when he pasted a humorous image of the Rabbi, the Priest, and the Imam.[v]
While JR was working on his Face 2 Face project people would come up to him and ask what he was doing. JR would tell them that he was working on an art project and the particular part he was painting was “two taxi driver…one is Israeli and one is Palestinian.”[vi] The person who came up to him would be taken aback because “…the enemy was in one of those portraits.” JR would then ask if they could tell which portrait was of the Israeli and which was of the Palestinian and of course the person would be so sure they knew their “own brother” but they would always guess wrong then laugh about it. A special “moment” was unintentionally created between the people who came up to JR and JR himself. JR admits that the idea of how similar Palestinians and Israelis are might have only momentarily been impressed onto some of the people who came up to him, but maybe it is a moment that will last as long as the people who shared it are alive.
Banksy has also traveled to troubled places to do art. In order to draw attention to the slow recovery of New Orleans after Katrina, Banksy paid a visit and give his support to NOLA Rising, an art activist group started by Rex Dingler. NOLA Rising was started to lift the morale of New Orleans.[vii] Banksy’s focus is not to go to slums and troubled area like JR. Banksy has a different agenda; he focuses on opposing war, Big Brother, corporate capitalism, and hypocrisy.[viii]
Supposedly Banksy believes that the United States is the “belly of the beast” as far as war, corporate capitalism, and hypocrisy goes.[ix] Images of Charlie Brown smoking a cigarette and tipping over a gas can express his distaste. A young innocent American boy, Charlie Brown, has been corrupted by American culture. In another attempt to deface American culture, Banksy “tagged” a billboard of a woman with a bra and jeans on. He added two Disney-like mice; the male mouse was drunkenly grabbing the woman’s chest, and the girl mouse was wigging out on cocaine.[x] How this politically attacks America has yet to be determined, but Banksy could be making a statement on exploiting women in America.
Banksy did travel to Bethlehem, Palestine. Instead of trying to show how similar Palestinians and Israelis are like JR, Banksy paints an image of a soldier feeding a Donkey. The donkey could be a symbol of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem, as the bible tells it. Here the religious donkey is being hand fed by a soldier. Banksy did not see anything wrong with putting up his street art on the wall. He asks a pretty interesting question, “how illegal is it to vandalize a wall, if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice?”[xi] Banksy did manage to make this place that is thought of to be so incredibly dangerous appear a little less terrorized and a little more “Bandalized,” if you will.
Street art that is frequently looked down upon, and maybe the authorities have a right to think badly of street art. However it street art might look, it has done good things. Banksy has captivated millions with his witty attacks on government. JR has literally helped suffering communities with his art. Shepard Fairey has helped prove how influential street art can be. Street Art itself has given artists a voice that is hard for the public to ignore especially when the art deals with political issues and the public now has the opportunity to look at art for free at any time. Street art can be a really positive influence, if it is looked at in the right way.
[i] Eleanor Mathieson and Xavier A. Tapies, Street Artists: The Complete Guide (London: Graffito, 2012), 108.
[iii] Eleanor Mathieson and Xavier A. Tapies, (108).
[v] (JR, interview by Kristie Lou Stout).
[vii] Banksy: You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat (Great Britain: Carpet Bombing Culture, 2012), NOLA Rising.
[viii] Ibid, Belly Of The Beast.
[x] Ibid, Banecdotes #6.
[xi] Ibid, Oh Little Town.