What is Urban Art?

14 November 2022  |  Admin

Is it art connected with urban architecture, made by city dwellers, painted on the walls of the city itself? Originally it referred to art made by ‘Street Artists’ or ‘Graffiti Artists’ who moved to painting on canvas and paper and hanging it in galleries as a way of making some money out of their hard work. Street artists would typically use spray paint and stencils, a technique pioneered by Blek Le Rat in Paris and Banksy in Bristol, or they would paste up artwork they had produced beforehand, also called wheatpaste because of the homemade glue recipe. Graffiti artists typically paint freehand with spray cans and first came to prominence on the subway trains in New York in the early 1970s. Street art differs from graffiti in that a street artist is trying to engage in a dialogue with the viewer, perhaps just to make them smile but sometimes try to make them consider an issue of concern to the artist. A graffiti artist typically doesn’t care what the average viewer thinks, they probably can’t even read their convoluted lettering, the work is there for other graffiti writers ,’Look how high up my name is, how big it is!’

The term Urban Art now means much more, encompassing sometimes very twee images indeed. Perhaps this is because there are many urban art collectors interested in buying prints or paintings as collectible objects rather than things to hang on the wall and appreciate everyday. The enthusiast who might once have collected training shoes or toys and kept them in mint condition, is also possibly the kind or person who might buy prints and keep them in an archival portfolio under the bed and never look at them.

Unfortunately framing a print or artwork can prevent it being legitimately described as mint condition, but good framing is reversable and should not deter a serious buyer. No doubt this sort of collector was moved to invest in art when they saw the kinds of prices that Banksy pieces started achieving in the 2000’s, and perhaps they actually had little interest in the images themselves, otherwise why would you not want to look at them? Perhaps this may be the reason that there are now many highly priced artists who are making very anodyne and safe paintings that would not be out of place on greetings cards. What is there to dislike about them? Well just that... but I am getting subjective.

To us at Atom Gallery ‘urban art’ is a very loose term that suggests art that meets some of the following criteria: it has a political message; it uses images from popular culture; it takes a recognised image or brand and twists it in some way to subvert its meaning; it has an affordable price tag; it contains humour; or it is a contemporary form of Pop Art. We at Atom love Urban Art and have many pieces in the gallery which could be described as such but also have many works which would never be described as Urban Art.

The urban art scene is extremely lively at the moment and while that is very healthy for artists and collectors alike, it does mean there is a lot of second rate stuff around as well. A list of the things we are bored of seeing when they are not used in an original way are: Disney characters; dollar bills; drips; spray cans; angels; skulls; fashion logos; and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo, Audrey Hepburn, Albert EInstein, The Queen, David Bowie, Elvis, Freddie Mercury, Andy Warhol, Kurt Cobain, Debbie Harry and Amy Winehouse. Of course there is terrific work that includes some of the above but just because some images are included does not make it any good at all, or in the least bit relevant.