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The culture of artists decorating public spaces is nothing new. The word graffiti comes from the Italian graffiato (scratched) and the oldest examples in the world can be found carved into pillars in Roman catacombs. The walls of Barcelona are littered with historical graffiti’s modern descendents: murals, tags (a graffiti artist’s personal signature scrawled with spray paint or permanent ink) and cartoons rife with social and political commentary. The Ajuntament technically has a zero-tolerance policy for those caught in the act of ‘redecorating’ the walls of the city, but it’s difficult to stop an art form that’s been around for thousands of years. The game has changed since the days of Ancient Rome (and even since the days of the first taggers), though, in that you can usually find your favourite graffiti artist online. Most of them have their own website, or at least their own Facebook page.
Wait, a website? Someone who paints their name on a wall—while trying not to get arrested—has a site promoting themselves?
Before I started investigating the colourful subculture of street art, I thought the same thing; however, upon talking to the artists—and their managers—I discovered a complex micro-universe that has its roots in the graffiteros of old. Today, graffiti and street art have branches extending into the realms of music, sports and even corporate marketing. The Ajuntament sees this form of self-expression as hooliganism, but others have built a personal and professional life around it.
If you talk to people within this world, they will tell you that graffiti and street art, while connected, are actually two different things, with differing methods, materials and goals. Txemy*, an internationally-known, Barcelona-based street artist, says that while the two are linked, they are also separated by technique and attitude. “Graffiti is a culture, a way of life, whereas street art is the evolution of that way of life to higher levels of technical and artistic ability, and thought.”
He is known for his large-scale pieces featuring a dizzying array of coloured dots and splashes on dark backgrounds that come together to create expressive faces and figures, and is influenced by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Goya and Keith Haring. Txemy has work in Paris, Munich, Miami, Vienna and other cities, much of it commissioned by the officials in each place. He studied fine art and works in illustration while also collaborating with fashion designers, on Converse sneaker ads and children’s games. “It’s all art, I apply the same approach to all of it,” he says.
KRAM is a Barcelona native who, like Txemy, studied illustration and fine art, and has been involved in the local street art scene since he was a kid in the Raval. His character-based, cartoonish improvisational style can be seen everywhere from abandoned walls in the neighbourhood to art and fashion events.
KRAM has his own definition of the difference between graffiti and street art. “Street art as we know it today was born through graffiti. Graffiti is the creation of a visual piece using cans of spray paint. No stencils, no rulers, no tricks! In the Nineties and early 2000s, many visual artists in Barcelona and elsewhere got the idea to use the modus operandi of graffiti to present their work in a more rapid and direct way. But as the movement grew, a new wave of artists with new methods changed everything. Stencils, paste-ups of pre-painted images and other techniques started appearing everywhere [and] captured more attention than traditional graffiti, to the point that graffiti is now considered to be inferior to street art. Technically it requires some skill and lots of practice to paint freehand with a spray can—I mean, really create something interesting, not just scrawl your name on a wall—but the street art and its newer techniques offer optimal results in a shorter time, which is why it’s appealing to both artists and viewers.” As a result, graffiti has gone back to its origins—an anti-establishment, sometimes destructive art—whereas street art has been refined so as to become palatable to art galleries.
BTOY is probably Barcelona’s most famous street artist, known for her use of the aforementioned ‘new’ techniques, using stencils to create evocative images of celebrity faces and scenes that are full of social commentary. She has had several gallery shows in Barcelona, and her major street art pieces can be found as far away as Warsaw. She says that, whether on the street or in a show room, for her it always comes back to the basics of “colour, emotion, sun, walls. That’s freedom. That’s the point. Like any artist, I want to make something that is exciting to me. I do not want to can that emotion and try to recreate it for marketing purposes. Then it becomes empty.” She says that working in a studio is rewarding, but that her roots come from creating in the street, where the experience is “more visceral”.
KRAM says that in 2005, the Ajuntament really started cracking down on street art. “With the new heavy fines and a zero-tolerance policy hanging over their heads, most of the international artists who had come to live and paint here went away. Gradually the town [became] empty of artists. The only ones left were the locals who were here before the Barcelona street art movement was considered to be ‘cool’.” He says that, almost 10 years later, there is an emerging generation of artists who are greatly influenced by the work done by their predecessors.
One of this younger generation using new production techniques with an old-school attitude is SRAM23. He is originally from a small town in France and says that his interest in street art started after he arrived here and started noticing some of the paintings in the narrow alleyways of his neighbourhood.
SRAM23 dabbles in traditional spray-painting, but he and his friends are more interested in some of the new street art techniques mentioned by KRAM. They make what he calls plaquitas, little plaques. “Basically, my friends and I create small sculptures, which we make into moulds that can then be filled with plaster. What you get are these little chalk plaques that can be painted in any colour. We stick these plaquitas on walls in hard-to-reach or abandoned places… while trying not to get caught in the act by the police of course! They’re tiny sculptures, little art exhibitions with a social message, where there was just a blank wall or abandoned corner before. It’s a public service, really.”
He says he was also drawn by the connection between visual artists and musicians, specifically in the world of hip-hop. “It’s not only about sticking your name, or your work, up on a wall. It’s about being part of a complicated and really interesting culture. Underground rappers, DJs, tattoo artists, painters, illustrators, graffiti artists, skateboarders… to be involved in street art connects you to an entire world that exists outside of the mainstream,” he says.
Pielroja is one of those underground rappers, who works in the Boqueria by day and on music videos by night. He talks about moving here from Colombia in the early 2000s and instantly falling in love with the underground culture that Barcelona had to offer. “In the beginning it was all about the message, about social criticism, and everything worked via word-of-mouth. It really was an ‘underground’ culture, there was nothing manufactured about it.”
Pielroja says that today, technology has taken over. “It’s changed a lot since then. The way of creating is different now, whether we’re talking about music or visual art. People think about how it’s going to look on YouTube, instead of just trying to make something authentic.” But he says that doesn’t stop him, it only fuels the fire of social criticism in his music. “The role of the artist is to use his experiences to make people think. That’s what I do. That’s what the authentic graffiti artists do, too.”
That being said, not everyone from within the world of street art thinks that technology is hurting the culture. On the contrary, some embrace YouTube and Facebook as a means to bring street art to the world, without the world having to literally go to the street. Subagora is a management company that represents street artists and musicians from Europe and the US, including Txemy and Barcelona’s Francisco de Pájaro, who is known as El Arte es Basura (‘Art is Trash’). They sponsor street art exhibitions, skate contests, filming sessions for music videos and short films. Originally formed in Paris, in 2010 they opened a division in Barcelona, promoting the local graffiti and skateboarding scene.
One of Subagora’s founders, Adrien Tillman, says: “We promote all kinds of creative people who have a connection to the street art world. By gathering all those artists in the same community we try to create interaction, everyone bringing a little bit of his culture to the ensemble.”
They heavily promote their artists via social networks. It doesn’t matter if the art you’re creating is to be found on the streets or in museums, Tillman says. “The world is different than it was when the graffiti movement started. Being present on social networks is far more important nowadays than being on TV or in magazines. If you do great work you can reach thousands of people in a really short time. We bring Barcelona DJs and artists to other cities, and vice versa, in order to create and encourage cultural exchange. That wouldn’t be possible without the internet.”
Tillman admits that the laws against street art and graffiti are a problem for his artists at a fundamental level, but is encouraged by signs of positive momentum. The public’s increasing awareness of and interest in street art proves that the artists’ messages are getting across in spite of the official resistance to their existence. “We know that this kind of art is considered by some to be visual pollution,” he says, “but for others, street art is a tool for communicating views of dissent, asking difficult questions and expressing political concerns. Whether it is regarded as vandalism or public art, street art has caught the interest of the art world, and the world in general.”
Street Art Barcelona: www.facebook.com/streetartbcn
To find out more about street art in Barcelona, Adrien Tillman recommends the documentary Las Calles Hablan (The Streets Speak) by director Katrine Knauer. It features interviews with KRAM and BTOY, as well as numerous other street artists.
BTOY will share an exhibit with fellow artist N2 as a part of this year’s SWAB, the annual international contemporary art fair. October 3rd to 6th. www.swab.es
* all artists interviewed are referred to by their artistic, rather than their given, names