Street Art in North East England: Unidentified, Undated, Ephemeral
Street art was born underground. It was born in neglected urban spaces, abandoned buildings and run-down skate parks. It was born from bodies clad in offbeat fashion, swaying to hip hop music. It was born in gangs and as solitary voices. For a long time, before it started emerging into the consumerist modern-day spotlight, humorous or inflammatory social and political commentary in the form of graffiti and murals embodied a movement against authority and tradition. Communities where street art had since become an enlivening aspect of the urban landscape were usually those previously ripped open by conflict, poverty or injustice.
In North East England, it has experienced a slow, diminutive birth. If asked, many regional artists would tell you that there was not much happening. There are less than a dozen prolific street artists producing distinctive works across the region, a large portion of which is commissioned by councils or businesses. What there is far more of and in a far more underground sense is the less accessible, and therefore less acceptable, graffiti art.
“Graffiti is marking your territory … prolifically getting out there tagging and bombing,” explains Bobzilla — a multi-talented street artist and the brain behind Middlesbrough’s Urban Birds. “With street art it is a lot more about the quality of illustration. Street artists get to show off real skill.” He acknowledges that graffiti, like calligraphy, may also involve a similar type of expertise, yet it is normally done in speed and, in the public’s eyes, often associated with vandalism.
Both Bobzilla and Frank Styles, a regional artist based in Sunderland, confirm that it is the dominant form of urban art in the North East. Yet, for anyone with an appreciation of art that is born out of, lives and breathes in the city, whether as graffiti, street art or a combination of the two, there are few pleasures in life as pure and unexpected as walking past a piece of public artistic expression. The true value in these expressions lie in the fact that they are unidentified, undated and ephemeral.
Art without identity
Anonymity is in the nature of the game. This is according to Karl Striker, one of the few street artists active in Teesside and whose work has set itself apart from the usual influx of tags. An obvious reason for remaining anonymous is as protection against the local authorities: a way to minimise risks. It can also be seen as adding amplitude to the anti-capitalist and sociopolitical undertones of the art form. Normally, street art has no directly identifiable creator, which makes it a perfect instance of art for art’s sake — much more so than any traditional art form. From a viewer’s perspective, anonymous art is free from the historical and monetary value that is often placed on names. Names that subsequently overshadow the actual pleasure given by an artwork.
Karl Striker’s stencil technique has led him to being compared to Banksy, and he admits (via email correspondence) that his particular style makes his work easily recognisable. Despite public and press recognition — and probing — he still chooses to keep his identity secret. Few people know who Karl Striker really is. From an artist’s perspective, anonymity is the joy of being invisible and yet not quite. Karl’s own words demonstrate this: “Even when I’m there you cannot see me, well you probably can …”
As street art shakes off its underground character, gaining more widespread cultural support and recognition, it becomes not only another institutionalised art form but also a commodity. If the popularity of a street artist rises, the value of and demand for their work increase. It is at that point that street art stops being anonymous; the moment when the fake identity carved out by the artist becomes an equally valuable component as the work itself.
Art without longevity
Street art is often impermanent. For Karl Striker, and many like him, questions of identity and fame are (at least initially) marginal. It is the thrill of creation that matters more: creating a unique and possibly meaningful object in a transient space. Ideally, it is an outpouring of artistic expression in a moment of time that should only be bound to that moment. After which the artist has to be resigned to let it go. Once a mural is complete, Bobzilla tells me, he has to detach himself because it is at the mercy of getting painted over or defaced. In this way street art cannot be recorded, enclosed in a package, tagged and sold.
The CoMusica Arches opposite the Sage in Gateshead is an excellent example of the transient nature of the art form. As a legalised space for street art and graffiti, artists use it to practise and perfect their craft. These crescent canvases are therefore in a constant state of mutation as one artwork seems to grow awkwardly out of another.
Art without history
An art without identity and without a definite existence is forcibly an art without history. As there are no rules bounding street art and as it is meant to disappear, it becomes more eclectic and so it resists forming part of a clear historical tract. Yet, it is often out of history that it is born. In many instances, street art thrives on instability and a desire for change. Social and political upheavals, conflict and dissatisfaction with the statuts quo breed unconventional artists as seen recently in countries like Greece and the Ukraine.
A peculiar case of street art’s sticky relationship with history can be found in Sunderland, not so much as a way to express historical crisis, but to revive memorable moments from the past. The Grafters Gables project combines street art and storytelling in the industrial area of Hendon. Heavy industry and long streets of rather drab Victorian houses characterise the area. It is therefore rather remarkable to find dabs of colour scattered across the streets: murals painted by Frank Styles to make certain forgotten events come alive on the walls of houses, shops and hotels.
It is a moving example of the insertion of art where you least expect it and this is what it is about: the possibility of art to escape the boundaries of frames and galleries to become part of a community and accessible to the public regardless of social rank or education. The question of whether there is a buzzing scene or not is besides the point. For a viewer to enter into the spread out pockets of street art in the North East carries a much deeper significance: it is in the uncovering of unpretentiously thought-provoking creativity that has the power to bring a street alive.
Special thanks to Frank Styles, Bobzilla, Karl Striker and Stephen Irving for taking the time to share some of their viewpoints with me and pointing me in the direction of some incredible street art.
Of the many impressive murals and graffiti art I found, I could only include some in this post. I will do a follow-up ‘gallery post’ for those I missed out.