Interest is booming in art designed for, and inspired by, public spaces
Street art is finding its way off of the sides of buildings—and onto collectors’ walls.
By STEVEN ROSENBUSH
The medium—which, as the name implies, is usually situated in public spaces and is often infused with a political or social theme—has been grabbing a lot of attention among mainstream art aficionados in recent years. In part, that’s thanks to the growing popularity of Banksy, the nom de guerre of a U.K.-based graffiti artist, filmmaker and painter. But there are also bigger factors at play, including an increased focus on social and economic matters in the broader culture.
Art experts say the movement is truly global. Luigi Mauri is curator of an exhibition of 55 street artists from 30 countries at the MdM Museum in Porto Cervo, along the northern coast of Sardinia. He says world-wide names in the movement include JR and Invader (France), OsGemeos (Brazil), Blu (Italy), José Parlá, Swoon, Faile and Shepard Fairey (the U.S.), Evol (Germany) and DALeast (China).
A Piece of the Action
Typically, the rise of a new artistic genre would create opportunities for collectors and investors. Street art, however, creates some obvious challenges.
It is difficult, albeit not impossible, to collect art that is stenciled or painted to a public wall or sidewalk. Still, art experts say, the act of relocating a piece of street art can change its meaning and value.
“I am not a big fan of moving street art to galleries because the context of the art is so important,” says Cristina Salmastrelli, director of Affordable Art Fair New York, which is part of the global Affordable Art Fairs brand.
Collectors who go that route must understand how the change in context will affect the work itself—for example, a work of protest stenciled onto the wall of a bank might lose its power when relocated to a gallery. Buyers should be careful to work with a gallery that understands the medium, she says.
Others think that public art shouldn’t be moved at all. If someone wants a large piece of street art to display at their private home or office, Mr. Mauri says, they should hire a street artist to create it for that site, rather than take an existing piece out of its intended location. “We don’t take street art pieces out of walls,” says Mr. Mauri. “I think gallerists removing street art pieces from the streets should be prosecuted.”
That being said, there are other ways for collectors to participate in street art. The term is broad enough to include the work of street artists created for settings such as galleries, homes or offices. The themes, techniques and motifs—such as the use of stylized text or political messages—can still be employed in more portable media such as paintings or drawings on canvas or wood. Mr. Mauri refers to such street art as urban contemporary art.
Chris Johanson, for one, is an artist who has been associated with the Mission School, which takes inspiration from the murals and graffiti on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco. While some of his work was made on the street itself, it also has included paintings and installations done in a street style.
The Art of Collage
Josh Goldstein, an artist and architect, moved to New York from Indiana in 1994, and started to photograph traditional bodega signs, cutting the photos into pieces, which in turn were used to make collages. The link between the collages and the street is very strong—they are constructed using street images, and are meant to convey the essence of the street itself.
“Instead of each photograph being a work in itself, they were like samples, that I wove together, to create this other New York that was New York but more New York,” says Mr. Goldstein, who maintains a website, bodeganyc.com.
That early work led to a chance to be in a group show in Harlem, “From Motown to Def Jam,” which reflected the close relationship between street art and music. That led to commercial work on a billboard in Times Square. Later, during the financial boom, hedge-fund investors paid as much as $10,000 for his work.
More recently, his collages have employed other elements of New York street life, such as a holiday greeting card that features snippets of food signs set against the local skyline.
How much should collectors expect to pay for street art?
For big-name artists, “you need at least $1 million to start a decent collection,” says Jean-Marc Scialom, founder of the Nukod Gallery in Paris, which focuses on street art. “If a street-art collector doesn’t have this money, he can start with just $99 for a nice print.”
Mr. Scialom advises new collectors to check the number of prints in a series—in general, the fewer the better—and see if they are signed by the artist. He also urges collectors to look into the artist’s biography. That can often include indications of quality and potential, such as how many exhibitions the artist has had and whether the artist is represented by a gallery.
Collectors looking for short-term investments should focus on small pieces by newer artists, whose work often doubles in two or three years. But Mr. Scialom “won’t encourage this type of attitude,” because it could be wrong for artists looking to build long-term relationships with collectors.