Viewed from the wild artistic badlands of NFTs, animated monkey heads, and teenage digital billionaires, the genre of street art might begin to look positively quaint and sweetly anachronistic. Art for the people, created with paint and ink, existing in the real world, for all to see? How cute! How quirky! How very pre-2021! But we’d do well to remember that street art, ever since its rise in the sixties and seventies, has long been a genre of subversion and rebellion — and its almost certainly one that will outlive even the most over-hyped cigarette-toting cryptopunk.
Just ask John Russo, the CEO of Maddox Gallery, who has long been a lover of street art both personally and professionally — and whose brilliant, modern gallery model hopes to make it accessible to all. “I think over the last few years — and the pandemic pushed it even further along — street art became this really exciting genre that goes beyond the perception of simple graffiti,” he says. “There’s a rawness to it, a realness to it, a humour to it, and a real passion to it.”
“It’s coming into its own as a genre. I’m excited about street art. I could talk about it for hours. I think it’s some of the most beautiful art that exists.”
With that in mind, we sat down with John to discuss the street artists he believes are worthy of collection and investment — and whether this exciting young chap called ‘Banksy’ has any legs whatsoever.
“There’s a waitlist, but the work of Jerkface is still accessible, if you get started with the prints,” John says. And it’s worth the wait. The New York-based artist is best known for his clever re-imaginings of pop culture figures, with nostalgic renderings of beloved cartoon characters and childhood icons. Bold, colourful, subversive and full of humour, Jerkface’s work enjoys a strong international critical following, and last summer was exhibited at a breakthrough solo show with Maddox Gallery.
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Russo also mentions STIK, another anonymous artist, this time from Britain. “Being anonymous means its always artwork-led,” says Russo. “And if you commit to it out of the gate, it could really pay off in regards to the storytelling element.” STIK’s designs are characterised by striking simplicity — four lines, one circle, one square, and two dots. And yet there’s powerful emotion in every image.
Hugely community focused, the artist favours the permission of locals over the authorities when scouting locations for his murals, and often places a philanthropic element at their heart. Primary market work is only permitted if all proceeds go to charity, and STIK is particularly animated by homelessness, having spent many years living on the street himself. Powerful, moving and empathetic, his works are street art at its most vulnerable and childlike, somehow. Explaining his art, he once said: “I felt invisible. It was my way of showing I’m here”.
Haring was one of the key figures, along with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who helped street art become “widely embraced” in the 1980s, explains Russo. Renowned for his bright, playful, vivacious murals, Haring used pop graffiti technique and contrasting colours to eye-catching effect. His firm belief was that “art is for everybody” (now a central tenet of the street art movement) and he hoped to make his own pieces as accessible as possible, both via public walls and in affordable prints. Now a household name, his instantly-recognisable style is fondly regarded all over the world, while the work itself is seen as increasingly critically significant to the wider movement.
“Retna is probably one of the greatest living street artists,” explains Russo. “He’s a phenomenal storyteller and a wonderful linguist.” Using typographical figures, the artist explores the underlying unity between different cultures, fusing visual references to hieroglyphics and Arabic lettering with nods to high-fashion and photography. Often powerfully monochromatic, Retna’s pieces were some of the most significant street works of the late 1990s and early 2000s, helping to prime the market for the Banksy wave that would soon follow. Today, he is one of the highest-selling street artists currently working, with numerous impressive auction results under his belt and much-lauded exhibitions in Los Angeles, Miami, London and Hong Kong.
Finally, of course, there’s Banksy. “A Banksy is everyone’s go-to favourite, and everyone’s got a favourite Banksy,” explains Russo. And it’s largely because “he hit this sweetspot”: a cunning middle-ground between social conscience and outright humour; visually appealing imagery wrapped up in the language of graffiti — but with powerful commentary throughout. “Banksy was producing work very much for the community,” Russo explains. “And he immediately realised that scarcity is key. That’s what will make the work valuable.”
Single-handedly transforming graffiti culture in the 2000s and beyond, Banksy is a cultural touchpoint on a rare scale, whose pieces now sell for tens of millions. Needless to say, when prints do emerge on the secondary market, they are hotly contested and ravenously collected — so it takes a safe pair of hands to handle any deal. “I think we’re one of the largest secondary suppliers of Banksy works in the world,” Russo says. “All roads lead to Maddox on the secondary market. And we’ve got a great relationship with the only authentication committee, Pest control.”
An anonymous, subversive and mysterious figure, the myth and ideal of Banksy sometimes threatens to overshadow the work. But in the end, it’s the pieces, and their inherent humour and embedded social commentary, that truly stand out. “People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish,” the artist once said. “But that’s only if it’s done properly”.
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