11 Art Greats Who Started Out as Street Artists

Carl Court/Getty Images
Carl Court/Getty Images

Several iconic artists got their start on the street, and many still put up work outdoors even as they show their art indoors, at some of the world’s most exclusive galleries and museums. Here are 11 of those art greats who pull double duty.

1. SHEPARD FAIREY

60-foot mural in Detroit, Michigan.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 1989, while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Shepard Fairey created a stencil featuring Andre the Giant. Disseminated by and through the skateboarding community, variations of the image in black, white, and red, many with the word “obey,” quickly appeared around the world. Fairey’s Obey Giant posters, stickers, and stencils subsequently became some of the most recognizable street art ever made. In 2008, his poster featuring Barack Obama and the word “hope,” part of the US presidential campaign, became even more iconic. The Smithsonian acquired the mixed media portrait shortly before Obama’s inauguration, and in 2009 Fairey had his first solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. 

2. GAIA

mural entitled 'Spettacolo Rinnovamento Maturita' by Gaia
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

A self-described “white kid from the Upper East Side,” Gaia belongs on this list for the amount he’s already achieved. By the time he’d graduated from college in 2011, he’d gained fame for his fantastical wheatpastes of animals and people, generally exploring themes of gentrification and environmental degeneration, and he’d had exhibitions at galleries in Los Angeles, Portland, and Washington, D.C. Since then, he has twice curated Open Walls Baltimore, a well-regarded festival devoted to murals by such street artists as Chris Stain and Nanook, and opened his first big solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  

3. BANKSY

People photograph a Banksy artwork opposite the French embassy
Carl Court/Getty Images

Probably the most famous street artist in the world, Banksy began creating socially conscious, satirical stencils in his native Bristol, UK, in the early 1990s. He’s come a long way since then: his street art has become so valuable that it regularly gets chipped out of walls or stolen. In summer 2014, Sotheby’s held an “unauthorized” retrospective, with some pieces priced at £500,000. Banksy has surreptitiously hung his work at the Louvre, the Tate Modern, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, even as he has put on authorized shows at galleries and museums. His real name remains unknown.   

4. JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT

Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

No one quite knew what to make of such spraypainted slogans as “SAMO© as an escape clause” or “SAMO© for the so-called avant garde” when they first appeared around Downtown Manhattan in 1976. SAMO stood for “same old shit,” and was a collaboration between Jean-Michel Basquiat and two friends. He killed off SAMO by writing “SAMO is dead” in 1979, then fully turned his attention to the neo-expressionist paintings that made him famous. Boasting vivid colors and human anatomy, and sometimes incorporating wordsa throwback to Basquiat’s days as a graffiti writerthey have been shown around the world, including at the Whitney Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  

5. KEITH HARING

keith haring art
Anne-Christine Poujoulant/AFP/Getty Images

As a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1980, Keith Haring began executing quick drawings in white chalk on the black matte paper found in subway stations. These “subway drawings” helped him hone his signature style of squiggles, figures, and symbols. He had his first solo show in Soho, at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, in 1982. Haring went on to exhibit work at the Venice Biennale, Whitney Biennial, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Hirshhorn Museum, among other venues; to execute large-scale public works projects; and to open his very own retail store before his death in 1990. 

6. JR

art by JR in germany
John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Famous for his way-larger-than-life photographic portraits pasted around neighborhoods, JR started taking pictures of street art after finding a camera in the Paris Métro. But it wasn’t until he started photographing people, including young men in impoverished Parisian suburbs, and pasting the photos illegally in public spaces, that his career took off. In 2011, he used his TED prize money to start Inside Out, a global art project that “transform[s] messages of personal identity into works of art” by letting everyday people take and submit photographs of community members, which are then transformed into posters. JR has shown his work at galleries and museums in Shanghai, London, Berlin, and Los Angeles.    

7. LADY PINK

Lady Pink began tagging at age 15. Along with street artists like Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy, she starred in the 1983 movie Wild Style, about hip hop and graffiti in New York City. In time she moved from doing stylized versions of her name to executing full-scale murals and fine art, frequently featuring female figures and imagery from the natural world, especially plants. In 1984, at age 21, she had her first solo show at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. Her paintings have since been acquired by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

8. BARRY MCGEE

urban street art installation 'One More Thing' by Barry McGee
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Barry McGee plastered the streets of San Francisco, his hometown, and elsewhere with the name “Twist” as a young man in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, he shows multimedia installations, drawings, and paintings under his given name, Barry McGee, at museums like the Walker Art Center and Tokyo’s Watari Museum of Contemporary Art. His work taps into questions of identity and consumerism, often features sad sack men, and contains graphical, brightly colored elements. In 2013, as the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston prepared a mid-career retrospective of his work, McGee told the New York Times that various circumstances have caused him to pull back from the street: “I just don’t have time . . . It’s really hard at a certain age to keep up that lifestyle.”     

9. OLEK

Olek moved to New York City in 2000, shortly after graduating from college in her native Poland, where, she has said, she “grew up in a place with no colors.” Sleepless at a friend’s apartment on Christmas Eve in 2003, Olek began crocheting whatever she found in the refrigerator; she not only gave herself a way to pass the long night but also discovered her artistic calling. Olek has since crocheted a double-decker bus, grocery carts, the results of an ex’s STD test, and the Wall Street bull, among other objects both mundane and extraordinary. A 2012 show at the Smithsonian featured the crocheted contents of her entire apartment.

10. RETNA

You can almost always identify a RETNA piece at a glance, because of its signature blend of calligraphy, hieroglyphics, and historical typography. His work on the street and in galleries plays with the notion of tagging. Much as some tags are only discernible to a select few, his work can be unintelligible unless you know the code of this highly idiosyncratic alphabet. He told The Economist’s blog that his script consists of “names my mom would call me when I was growing up, and some are things I’m talking about, friends who have passed away—they’re interactions with what’s going on with people that I just meet, or a conversation I just had. I hear a word or a phrase or a dialogue, and then that becomes my response. They all say something.” He has put on shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Venice. 

11. SWOON

 mural by US artist Swoon
Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

Caledonia Dance Curry was a student at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute when she started putting up wheatpastes of her friends, family, and neighbors around New York City in 1999. Sensitive without being sentimental, moving without being maudlin, delicate even as they start to decay, these portraits appeared in abandoned buildings and other out-of-the-way spots. By 2005, she was well known as Swoon, and her work was exhibited or collected by such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and Art Basel in Miami Beach. In 2014, she created a site-specific installation at the Brooklyn Museum that included a raft made from NYC garbage along with a 65-foot tree made from ribbon and paper.   

Art

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Florida to Open Its First-Ever Snow Park

Zuberka/iStock via Getty Images
Zuberka/iStock via Getty Images

Millions of tourists flock to Florida each year to ride roller coasters, meet their favorite cartoon characters, and lounge on the beach. The state isn't famous for its winter activities, but that could soon change. As WESH 2 reports, Florida's first-ever snow park is coming to Dade City in 2020.

At Snowcat Ridge, guests will be able to take part in the same snowy fun that's up North. The main attraction of the park will be a 60-foot-tall, 400-foot-long slope packed with snow. A lift will transport visitors to the top of the hill, and from there, they'll use inner tubes to slide back down to ground level. Single, double, and six-person family tubes will be provided to riders.

Guests can also check out the 10,000-square-foot play dome, where they'll use real snow to build snow castles and snow men. The area will even feature a small hill for young visitors who aren't ready for more serious snow-tubing. And because the best part of playing in the snow all day is warming up afterwards, Snowcat Ridge will be home to an Alpine Village, where guests can nibble on snacks and sip cocoa in front of a bonfire.

Dade City is located in Central Florida, an area that hasn't seen snow in nearly 43 years. The arrival of the new park will mark the first time many locals can get a full winter experience close to home.

Snowcat Ridge is expected to open in November 2020.

[h/t WESH 2]

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