John Fekner (US), New York early 1970’s. Photo courtesy of the artist

STREET ART TODAY (and yesterday)


My personal relationship to art, and in particular street art, is a typical story of “from rags to polyester”. An artless childhood steeped in poverty, deprivation, bad schooling, domestic violence and urban blight. For most, the light at the end of the tunnel, being nothing more than a Miners lamp at the local colliery. The predominant industry in the industrial North of England at the time being mining, or for the younger ones, of which I was one, raised on dilapidated trailer trash council estates, a life of vandalism, violence, shoplifting and petty crime. Graffiti was to come a short time later, and anyone too young for Punk, with more than a passing interest in drawing, other than on their schoolbag, would be swept along in this revolutionary new youth culture.

Most communities ravaged by government neglect and a poverty of attention, both public and domestic, contain the seeds of hope that constitute subcultures, they just need adequate water, ironically, the water that nurtured the seed of my own engagement with art, was fire.

Creativity, born from a lack of attention, esteem or simply as an escape from an oppressive reality, will always find an outlet, and the more it’s genuinely needed, as a necessity to survive, the more authentic it will be.

Young working class kids coming of age in a post war culture to create Mod culture in the UK or black youth getting their hands on an 808 drum machine in a post apocalypse Detroit to create Techno, are prime examples of this desire and need for raw expression. But perhaps at the time, the one defining cultural milestone for street kids, was the evening news coverage of the total economic and systemic collapse of the New York borough, The South Bronx. “The Bronx is Burning” headlines flickered nightly across the UK’s glowing valve driven TV’s showing a rioting underclass fighting back against the causes of their oppression. It was an inspiration to many neglected youngsters who identified with the struggle. For many, including myself, the film of the day was “The Warriors” , the soundtrack “Rappers delight”. It was a culture that would coalesce a disparate series of minor personal art experiences, under one banner, a banner of DIY determination that would give voice to the generations that followed. From mindless vandalism born of desperation to Vandalism with style and purpose. To paraphrase Bakunin, the 19th Century Russian radical and founder of collective anarchism, the passion of destruction really did become a creative joy.

It is perhaps no more than coincidence that whilst European proto punks, the Situationist’s, a major influence on the student revolts of 1968 and a continuing influence on Street Art today, stressed the importance of “play”, so the film “The Warriors” adopted a similar call to arms, with the more chilling refrain of… “Warriors…Come out to plaaaay”, both an invitation to self-determination as well as a reclamation of territory.

The eventual self brokered peace between opposing gangs in The Bronx, quickly led to an explosion of creativity in music, art and dance that spawned one of the most powerful and vocal cultural movements of the 20th Century, Hip Hop. Based around “Block Parties” that brought black, Latino and white youth together for the first time, it would soon take root and invent it’s own codes, language and art forms. It would develop a uniquely pluralistic post-modern attitude to creativity, taking inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. The explosion of global influences would see the likes of Germany’s Kraftwerk merging seamlessly with the Bronx’s Bambaataa to popularise Electro, which in turn would sow the seeds for Techno and by default, most electronic music we hear today. It would see graffiti artist Futura 2000 rapping with that most punk of UK Punk bands, The Clash, which amplified the similarities between radical European Punk politics and the struggles faced by Blacks in inner city ghettos. Uptown and Downtown scenes would join forces and create new forms of art, the turntable would become an instrument and the simple act of writing your name, over and over, offered the possibility of escape and even fame. Art house Europe, Anarchy, Hip Hop, Punk, Graffiti, Stencils, Xeroxed Flyers and the wildest of Fashions. Everything went into the mix. The merging of what had been several very disparate cultures, formed the foundations of a new, rich, diverse and truly international movement. A movement that offered a direct physically manifested response to the world in real time.

In 1978, in the midst of this Bronx explosion of radical creativity, Austrian artist Stefan Elns, founded Fashion Moda, a small gallery that helped redefine the function of art in this new post modern culture. Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Mark Kostabi, John Fekner, Stefan Roloff, Don Leicht, Daze, Crash, Spank, Richard Hambleton & Christy Rupp are just a few of the notable artists that exhibited here.

It is the sights and sounds of this generation, born on the waves of post punk and hip-hop’timism that echo on our walls and streets today.

First published in the book Street Art Today” and adapted for Juxtapoz Magazine Sept 2017