11 Art Greats Who Started Out as Street Artists
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
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.
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.
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
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 words―a throwback to Basquiat’s days as a graffiti writer―they 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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.