Street Art: Prints and Precedents

Fig. 6. Ben Eine, Scary (2008), screenprint, 30 x 80 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. E.319-2010, ©Eine.

Fig. 6. Ben Eine, Scary (2008), screenprint, 30 x 80 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. E.319-2010, ©Eine.

Graffiti, street art, and their printed progeny, now ubiquitous, may appear to have sprung fully formed from the spray cans and stencils wielded by a new breed of artist, operating outside the system and eschewing the traditions. But like any other art form, street art has a rich vocabulary of sources and precedents. Its motifs, graphic styles and references are drawn, wittingly or otherwise, from sources as various as skateboard culture, album covers, comics, film, protest posters and ‘60s psychedelia, Mexican Day of the Dead ephemera, Renaissance vanitas and danse macabre imagery, printed ballads, broadsides and caricatures, and the work of artist printmakers down the centuries.

Fig. 1. Robert Dighton, A Windy Day—Scene outside the shop of Bowles, the printseller, in St Paul’s Churchyard (c.1785), watercolor, 32.5 x 25 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. D.843-1900.

Fig. 1. Robert Dighton, A Windy Day—Scene outside the shop of Bowles, the printseller, in St Paul’s Churchyard (c.1785), watercolor, 32.5 x 25 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. D.843-1900.

It is not only older print imagery and styles that serve as precedents, but an earlier print culture itself. Print has a long history as a public art, infiltrating the public arena and playing a part in the information exchange of the street. In the 17th and 18th centuries, itinerant sellers of ballads and broadsheets offered their wares on the street; such things were part of a public dialogue about newsworthy events, religious belief, morality, and politics. Cheap, accessible and topical, such prints were also disposable. Political and social satires in the form of cartoons and caricatures circulated in much the same way, and were also available from print-sellers. In 18th and 19th century London, the shop windows where newly published prints were displayed were a source of public entertainment for those who could not afford to buy, and even for those who were illiterate but could nevertheless recognize the monarch or politician lampooned in exaggerated guise. The interaction of prints and their audiences can be seen in George Woodward’s Caricature Curiosity of 1806, which shows a plump clergyman and a skinny volunteer officer studying their own caricatured portraits in the window of what is probably William Holland’s shop (Holland published the print)—the former is outraged, the latter is flattered.1 An anonymous caricature (attributed to Bartolozzi) shows the window of Matthew Darly’s shop in which prints were under violent attack from the drawing master, printseller and caricaturist William Austin, who was offended to find himself the subject of a print mocking his ambition.2 Robert Dighton’s charming watercolour of a windy day in St Paul’s Churchyard shows a crowd tumbled and tossed by gusts of wind, against the backdrop of Bowles’ print shop, its window plastered with rows of prints (Fig. 1).

In the 19th century, with the appearance of letterpress posters and notices and the rise of lithographic advertising posters, print enjoyed an increasingly dominant presence in public spaces. By the later 20th century this presence was perceived to be oppressive as advertising sites multiplied in number and size. This period also saw, alongside the proliferation of corporate advertising, a subversive, unsanctioned colonization of public space by flyposted posters. These came from varied sources—the indie music scene, political campaigners, countercultural groups, artists—who perceived fly-posting as an effective strategy for the anonymous, the impoverished, or the illegal. The tactic has been adopted by those who have no public voice, no public forum, and by those ranged against entrenched economic or institutional power. Some artists have resorted to flyposting precisely because gallery spaces are closed to them, or because they want to subvert the values and assumptions of the institutional space, or because they wish to thwart private or individual ownership of their work.

Fig. 2. Jenny Holzer, from Truisms (1977-79), posters installed in windows of Printed Matter, New York, ©2011 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), image courtesy Jenny Holzer/ Art Resource, NY.

Fig. 2. Jenny Holzer, from Truisms (1977-79), posters installed in windows of Printed Matter, New York, ©2011 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), image courtesy Jenny Holzer/ Art Resource, NY.

In the 1970s and 80s, artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger deployed printed matter in public spaces in ways that are clearly precursors of contemporary street art strategies and rationales. Both Holzer and Kruger adopted the language – verbal and visual – of commercial graphics and public signage, and both, in their different ways, set out to critique the admonitory language of government and corporations as well as the seductive language of advertising. Both chose to put their work into the kinds of spaces usually occupied by conventional ads, and in the beginning both got their work into the street by fly-posting around the New York (Fig. 2), using the cover of darkness to put out their subversive, enigmatic and confrontational messages. Holzer—who has worked in formats from LED screens to till receipts and stickers—acknowledges that it has always been important to have her work in public spaces: “It’s necessary for me to continue to practice outside. This is where my work went originally, and where I still feel it operates best.”3 Kruger has likewise explained her attachment to the street (literally and philosophically), saying, “I wanted my work to enter the marketplace.”4

Fig. 3. Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989), posters on city wall, ©Guerrilla Girls, image courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com

Fig. 3. Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989), posters on city wall, ©Guerrilla Girls, image courtesy http://www.guerrillagirls.com

Some flyposting is done with specific political or social ends in mind: the New York activist group the Guerrilla Girls (Fig. 3) began their campaign against bias in the art world by fly-posting their messages around the city, as did the less well-known PESTS in a similar protest against the exclusion of African-American artists from mainstream galleries and sponsorship. Presaging contemporary street art, the PESTS devised a distinctive logo—a wasp-like insect whose armoury was enhanced by a pair of serrated pincers and a scorpion’s tail—that featured not only on their flyers, but also on a series of stickers.5 (Stickers have remained a popular format for contemporary street artists, enabling random acts of subversive collage and tagging.) For other artists, flyposting is a strategy for disrupting the routine public consumption of information. Flyposting printed material with enigmatic or provocative messages can work like the teaser campaigns employed by corporate bodies to build interest in a new product or an event. Whether the content is a graffiti tag or a product launch, the effects are cumulative and build to a critical mass of curiosity and awareness. Ben Eine, best known for his super-sized single letters on shop shutters and his prints and paintings of words and phrases, enjoys this tantalizing approach. When he first began to paint the single letters, he anticipated the questions they would invite: “Why? Who? What does it mean? Is it an advert?”6 Like many contemporary street artists, Eine works both by hand and through simple means of mechanical reproduction like stencils.

Fig. 4. Swoon, Alixa and Naima (2008), blockprint with handcoloring and cut paper on exterior wall, Philadelphia. Building now demolished.

Fig. 4. Swoon, Alixa and Naima (2008), blockprint with handcoloring and cut paper on exterior wall, Philadelphia. Building now demolished.

Swoon, who pastes woodcut and linocut cut-outs on walls (Fig. 4), sees her use of public space as a means of marking the street as territory for dialogue and collaboration, often preferring spaces where the public/private demarcation is itself ambiguous: “The main thing about street work is that the minute you put up anything on a wall, you’re declaring open season on that wall. I don’t know if I can say I’m reclaiming something for anyone, as much as saying we can all participate in it….We’re telling advertisers, ‘Hey, if you have something to say, that’s fine, but if anyone else has something to say, they can also say it’…It’s about opening up the conversation.”7

As Swoon makes clear, an essential tenet of street art is the reclamation of public space “for the people,” a goal with clear roots in the social and political activism of the 1960s. It is not surprising, then, to find in contemporary work echoes of the impact, energy and mordant wit of 1960s protest posters such as those produced by Atelier Populaire in the white heat of May 1968 in Paris. Printed with basic screenprint techniques on cheap newsprint paper, these posters constituted a model that was repeated in confrontations from Prague Spring to American antiwar protests. Inspired by the events of May ‘68, British activists—tenants, workers, anti-apartheid and CND groups, civil rights protestors—used posters in this way, and in Northern Ireland, painted murals articulated the grievances of both sides of ‘the Troubles’, offering up heroes and martyrs on every street corner. Certain iconic motifs from this era, such as the raised arm with clenched fist, emblematic of workers’ power and protest, have been picked up and repeated ever since: it appears in [MoMA’s South African prints exhibition] and can be seen again in Pure Evil’s simple poster image from 2009 captioned ‘your heart is a weapon the size of your fist’.8

Fig. 5. D*Face, L.A. is for Anarchy, (2009) paint and stencil, downtown Los Angeles, www.dface.co.uk

Fig. 5. D*Face, L.A. is for Anarchy, (2009) paint and stencil, downtown Los Angeles, http://www.dface.co.uk

Although street art is characterized by a rhetoric of resistance to corporate values and an implicit desire to subvert existing power structures, many artists operate simultaneously in the street and the gallery or museum. Like Kruger and Holzer, artists from Blek le Rat and Banksy to Eine, Swoon and Sweet Toof have proved to be surprisingly conventional when they have ventured into the marketplace with printed work. In almost every case they have adopted the traditional apparatus of printmaking and print marketing, producing signed and numbered limited editions. For the street artist, printmaking has been a positive development, offering a natural route to a sustainable creative practice. Work inscribed on walls and street furniture is inherently vulnerable and transient—likely to be erased by insensitive local authorities, overpainted, subject to the intervention of rivals, even demolished; prints on paper have a perverse longevity that the stencils, murals and paste-ups do not.

Fig. 7. Poster advertising Jullien’s Concerts d’Ete at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London (November 1855), 49 x 28.3 cm. Published by R. S. Francis. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. S.2516-1986.

Fig. 7. Poster advertising Jullien’s Concerts d’Ete at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London (November 1855), 49 x 28.3 cm. Published by R. S. Francis. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. S.2516-1986.

It is important to note, however, that even while expanding their practice to include limited edition prints, these artists have continued to make work on the street, staying connected to their original motivations, influences, and indeed their audiences. An audacious and provocative work on the street will attract press coverage and blog commentators; images of it will be shared on the web, and it may well—if it survives for long enough—feature on one of the burgeoning tours of street art landmarks. London street artist D*Face, for example, has made the crossover from street to gallery, but he still sees his urban interventions (“subversive intermission[s]” as he calls them) as vital to his practice (Fig. 5): “Putting work into the public domain enables one person’s voice to be heard and seen by hundreds instantly; thousands if the spot’s right. That has appeal when you want the public to stop and question what they’re being spoon-fed.”9

There is often no clear demarcation between the art made in and for the street, and the spin-off prints for the gallery. Many street artists, notably Banksy and the Paris-based French artist Miss Tic, use stencils for their street art and also for prints. Swoon works with linocut as well as cut-outs (which are of course stencils) and pastes these on building walls, leaving them to fade, peel away and degrade over time, but she also exhibits and sells prints made from the same matrices. In an interview she acknowledged that the ‘lost’ street works can be recreated because “I have print blocks I keep that I can work with again and make multiples, so in a way, the images can be thought of as permanent.”10 She also uses screenprint (again, a stencil process) for editioned prints. (Like many of her peers, Swoon comes from a conventional art-school background; she studied Renaissance art and portraiture, and these influences are apparent in her work.)

Fig. 8. Pure Evil, Frost on the Thames 1814 (2008), screenprint, 76 x 56 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no, E.489-2009. Given by the Pure Evil Gallery, ©Pure Evil.

Fig. 8. Pure Evil, Frost on the Thames 1814 (2008), screenprint, 76 x 56 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no, E.489-2009. Given by the Pure Evil Gallery, ©Pure Evil.

Ben Eine’s practice is rooted in graffiti, but his work has mutated into a more socially acceptable manifestation of street art. As well as painting giant single letters in public places, he has made a number of large-scale murals (and also prints) of single words. Scary (Fig. 6) and Vandalism pun on the contrast between his own work, which is essentially decorative and cheering, and the uncontrolled excesses of old-school graffiti. Authorities often claim that graffiti and street art (the differentiation is rarely made in this context) contribute to the fear of crime by suggesting lawlessness and disorder, but Eine’s brightly coloured and neatly painted typography is the antithesis of ‘writing’ and tagging.  His colourful capital letters ultimately derive from the bold and distinctive Victorian fonts used on posters for circuses, fair grounds, and theatrical entertainments. One typical example—an 1855 letterpress poster advertising a series of concerts at Covent Garden (Fig. 7)—shared with Eine’s Scary screenprint the use of 3D letter forms in black and white with an attention-grabbing red ground. Such posters were often produced for dramatic spectaculars such as the illusionist Rubini’s trademark act, ‘beheading a lady’,  illustrated with extravagant relish in a poster of c.1869. Like Rubini’s poster, Eine’s print announces a potentially spine-chilling message in cheerful colours and a jaunty typeface.

Fig. 9. Shepard Fairey, Obey Propaganda Pasting Services (c. 2000), screenprint: 61 x 45.8 cm. Victoria and Albert Muno. E.364-2006, ©Shepard Fairey.

Fig. 9. Shepard Fairey, Obey Propaganda
Pasting Services
(c. 2000), screenprint: 61 x 45.8 cm. Victoria and Albert Muno. E.364-2006, ©Shepard Fairey.

Eine’s work is not alone in its rapport with the 19th century popular printing. Directly or indirectly, many street artists riff on historical print precedents, in some case appropriating the original for incorporation into the new image. Pure Evil’s screenprint Frost on the Thames 1814 (2008) adapts a 19th century wood-engraving with the addition of a giant vampire bunny who strides across the frozen river scattering the artist’s bunny graffiti tags as he goes (Fig. 8). The print also echoes even earlier broadsides and ballad-sheets that were used to announce ‘portents and prodigies’11 to a credulous public, such as The Three Wonders of this Age (1636) (presenting a giant, a dwarf and the world’s oldest man), The Prodigious Monster, or The Monstrous Tartar (1664) and The true effigies of the German Giant (1660).12 Shepard Fairey’s famous character André the Giant (a wrestler) could be seen in this tradition, but Fairey’s uses the figure not as a curiosity, but rather as an emblem of the ‘Big Brother’ society, punctuated by the Orwellian message, ‘Obey.’ Fairey’s goal is to parody the subliminal commands of advertising and the public information emanating from government.13 (Fig. 9)

One motif has been almost ubiquitous throughout the history of popular printed imagery, from the 15th century to the 21st: the human delusion of dominion in the face of death. Traditionally the vanitas and the danse macabre demonstrated that social status—for which read celebrity in a contemporary context—has no power to resist the embrace of Death. One 17th-century example, engraved after Antoine Dieu, illustrates the point through a skeleton, elegantly shrouded in ermine-trimmed robes signifying wealth and privilege, who gestures pointedly to the words ‘dust to dust’ carved on a memorial stone (Fig. 10). More recently Jean-Michel Basquiat used skulls almost as a signature motif in his graffiti and paintings (he also made a series of lithographs inspired by the illustrations in Gray’s Anatomy, a book he had been given as a child and which was a powerful influence on his subject matter and his mixing of word and image.)14 Skulls and skeletons are used by contemporary street artists from The Krah to Kerry Roper and D*Face.

Fig. 10. After Antoine Dieu, Representation de la Mort (18th century), engraving, 28 x 21 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 25247.

Fig. 10. After Antoine Dieu, Representation de la Mort (18th century), engraving, 28 x 21 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 25247.

The acrobatic skeletons of the medieval danse macabre have been revitalized in D*Face’s Superman images, in which the invincible superhero mutates into a zombie, his flesh eaten away to expose ribs, spine, and skull. Feels So Good (Fig. 11) suggests autoerotic dimension as Superman seems to take a perverse pleasure in his decay, surveying his corroding flesh with a kind of puzzled pleasure. In Ha Ha Ha, Not So Superman, his human frailties are graphically revealed, and his super-powers mocked. In No More Heroes, Superman flies to the rescue, but his flesh and his costume trail in tatters. These images have medieval precedents, but also recall prints ranging from 1940s public health posters warning against the spread of VD to CND’s ‘Stop Nuclear Suicide’ poster, or the 1972 parody of a World War I US Army recruitment poster, produced at the height of protests against the Vietnam war, in which the beckoning figure of Uncle Sam is unmasked as a malevolent gloating skeleton.15

D*Face has also brought the vanitas form forward in prints that feature iconic portraits of celebrities—Warhol’s Marilyn, the sanctified freedom fighter Che Guevara (whose hero-ised image surely inspired Shepard Fairey’s noble Obama), John Lennon—but instead of glamour we are shown ‘the skull beneath the skin.’ It is an emblem of the Faustian pact with fame and history in which these figures enjoy an eternal after-life as the undead, endlessly circulated, endlessly consumed, and ceaselessly merchandised. This cycle is literally embodied in D*Face’s ‘collaboration’ with Queen Elizabeth II, in which her youthful face, as printed on banknotes, was reworked, leaving the familiar hair and tiara framing a grinning skull. In D*Face’s decomposing Marilyn we have the archetypal modern ‘vanitas’ in which an icon of perfected flesh, seductive youth and beauty, reflected in the mirror of public adoration, is shadowed by death.

Fig. 11. D*Face, Feels So Good (2008), color etching with nine color screenprint, 138.5 x 84 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. E.589-2009, given by the Black Rat Press, ©D*Face.

Fig. 11. D*Face, Feels So Good (2008), color etching with nine color screenprint, 138.5 x 84 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, no. E.589-2009, given by the Black Rat Press, ©D*Face.

The visual signature of British artist Sweet Toof is an assertive set of ‘pearly whites’, menacing or playful, but eternally grinning. They have been painted across building walls and printed on paper. They float disembodied like the Cheshire Cat’s smile, or leer from haunting faces, but the grin might equally be a grimace.16 Piled high (Fig. 12), the teeth make us smile but maybe wince too, with their allusions to the heaped skulls that memorialize 20th century atrocities from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide.

Precedents for the graphic styles and motifs of contemporary street art abound, but we must resist the temptation to force these resemblances into definitive connections, or to see these affinities as direct evidence of influence. There are clear continuities in the concerns of popular culture across the centuries—a desire to level the playing field, to confront death, to speak truth to power, to enjoy a bit of mayhem. Some street artists are well-versed in art history, others are responding to, and building upon, visual archetypes that are deeply embedded in the culture at large. Street art is sourced most immediately in popular art forms—comics, film, music, urban youth cultures—and only more distantly related to fine art precursors.  At the same time, contemporary artists have five centuries of printed matter available for sources and inspiration. In addition to hoarding posters, and vanitas subjects, there is Pop art, Punk, Surrealism, pyschedelia (and its precursor, Art Nouveau), all of which have made appearances, subverted or overlaid with a new sensibility. Lucy McLauchlan’s compositions with elongated faces and sweeping coils of hair and sinuous lines, predominantly in black and white, have a flavour of Aubrey Beardsley’s fin de siècle decadence replayed through the 1960s Art Nouveau revival.17 Russian Constructivist posters and chiaroscuro woodcuts are just two of the influences behind Shepard Fairey’s distinctive, and now much copied, graphic style.

Fig. 12. Sweet Toof, Pearly Whites (2009), screenprint, 49.5 x 34.4 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, no. E.432-2009, ©Sweet Toof.

Fig. 12. Sweet Toof, Pearly Whites (2009), screenprint, 49.5 x 34.4 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, no. E.432-2009, ©Sweet Toof.

Increasingly street artists themselves work in a number of different arenas, physical and virtual, indoors and out, legitimate and illegal. The use of print as a populist, market-unfriendly device (as in stencils applied to walls, or posters glued to buildings) has been augmented by the use of print as a market-ready device (no glue on the back). Some artists, such as Pure Evil, have taken the next step, and set up as gallerists and promoters in their own right. Indeed street art has been swiftly accommodated by the market, and co-opted by the ‘cool-hunters’ with a product to sell. Through properly editioned, portable prints, what was once an edgy aesthetic has entered the mainstream, and auction sales of what, in market parlance, is termed ‘urban art’ have proliferated. It could be argued that, for all its confrontational energy, subversive intent and counter-cultural origins, street art has been domesticated by the adoption of print market practices: providing a material asset for the collector, and an exhibitable object for the museum. Nevertheless the anger, the wit, and the playful joie de vivre that first found expression on the streets remain a natural fit with the traditions of printmaking, which has always had the power to protest and disturb as well to entertain.

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  1. Illustrated in English Caricature 1620 to the Present, exhib. cat., Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, Pl.II (Collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division). []
  2. Ecce Homo. Illustrated in English Caricature 1620 to the Present, exhib. cat., Victoria & Albert Museum, 1984, Pl.6 (Collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division). []
  3. Bruce Ferguson, ‘Wordsmith: An Interview with Jenny Holzer’, in Jenny Holzer: Signs, exh. cat., Des Moines Art Centre, 1986, p.113. []
  4. Jo Anna Isaak, Feminism and Contemporary Art, The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter, 1996, p.33. []
  5. A small selection of printed matter produced by PESTS has recently been donated anonymously to the V&A. []
  6. Quoted in London’s new street artists by Francesca Gavin and Ossian Ward, Time Out, posted Jan 29, 2008 []
  7. Paper Faces, Paper Cities, Swoon in conversation with Pitchaya Sudbanthad []
  8. V&A: E.488:1-2009. See http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1137438/poster-your-heart-is-a-weapon/ []
  9. Quoted in London’s new street artists by Francesca Gavin and Ossian Ward, Time Out, posted Jan 29, 2008 []
  10. Paper Faces, Paper Cities, Swoon in conversation with Pitchaya Sudbanthad []
  11. Malcolm Jones, The Print in Early Modern England: An Historical Oversight, 2010, p.237 []
  12. All illustrated in Jones, op.cit., plates 243, 242 and 244. []
  13. V&A: E.364-2006. See http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O232799/poster-obey-propaganda-pasting-services/ []
  14. See Olivier Berggruen, ‘The Prints of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, Print Quarterly, March 2009, Vol.XXVI, Number 1, pp.28-37. []
  15. All three posters are illustrated in Margaret Timmers, ed., The Power of the Poster, 1998, pls.109, 121, and 158. []
  16. V&A: E.. For image see http://www.sartorialart.com/Sweet_Toof_PearlyWhites_print2008.html []
  17. For examples seehttp://lucy.beat13.co.uk/products/”> http://lucy.beat13.co.uk/products/ []