Street Art as the Art of Action

According to popular view, street art evolved from American graffiti. But this is incorrect, except for some forms like street logos (where artists substitute their nicknames with logos), which became popular in Europe in the late 1980's. Long before, there was a completely separate process in France, rooted in different forms of illegal self expression on the street, highlighted during student protests in the 60's and by the Situationist Internationale.


Photo: Brassaï. Paris in the beginning of 1960's.

In the beginning of the 1960's, French documentary photographer Brassaï published his book—the result of 30 years researching writings and drawings found on the streets of Paris; what he called graffiti, a primitive and ephemeral form of art. He shows unconsciously how, at that point, artistic activity was visually similar to petroglyphs.

These rare and localized examples of folk (people's) art became the dominant visual language for the 1968 student revolution in France. And were ideologically close to ideas of Marxists philosophers like Guy-Ernst Debord and Raoul Vaneigem.


Situationist graffiti, late 1960's.

Instead of the provocation and aesthetics of other European movements in XX century, the Situationist's main tactic was direct political action. In 1968, situationist slogans, posters, and pamphlets appeared in Sorbonne, while occupied by students. These ideas became very important for the student movement.

Most of the graffiti reflected this rebellious spirit of the protestors. Graffiti demanding the cancellation of work clearly shows situationist influence. Posters, spray painted statements, all this situationist graffiti became a form of poetry on the streets of Paris—rebellious, fair, and ironic.

Situationist methods were obviously a form of political activism, but at the same time they brought aesthetic and artistry to this process. On the edge of serious demands and ironic absurdism, this movement rooted in avant-garde traditions demanded to be more independent and separate from daily life. But, as a result, it stayed elitist and utopian.


Ernest Pignon-Ernest, late 1960's.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest and Gérard Zlotykamien were two of the first street artist of the post-situationist period. Pignon-Ernest placed his first posters on the street in 1970. He worked with social themes and problems of a human existence in the modern world. He often created huge series of so-called dead bodies concerning social problems. In the 1980's he became a very influential figure and an endless source of inspiration to later artists.


Ernest Pignon-Ernest, early 1970's.

Four years before the student revolution, in 1964, Gérard Zlotykamien created his first series of works on the streets. He personally knew Yves Klein, who used spray paint techniques in his late works. Gérard was inspired by this effective and quick way of creating art works on the streets. He created so-called ghost shadows which symbolized the devastation in France as a consequence of World War II. His and Ernest's influence were extremely important to past street artists. As one of the first street artists to use the spray paint technique in the early 1970's, he began to collaborate with Ernest. Working together, they created a small community - the first street artists in Paris.


Gérard Zlotykamien, 1960's.

In parallel to this in New York was evolving a new wave of graffiti that had not reached Europe yet. In 1976, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued about it in his work 'Symbolic Exchange and Death.'  He called graffiti a symbolic system and pointed out that it was a form of sub-cultural attack on spectators, a coded and aggressive message that inaccessible to understand for people outside this closed community.

Later, when american style graffiti expanded to the Europe it changed the situation; but still the most dominant themes in French street art were against capitalism and of 'liberation' from the bourgeois art system built in the 60-70's.


Blek le Rat, 1980's.

The beginning of the 1980's was a time of punk rock and alternative, underground subcultures. Stencils, spray painting, graffiti, all became useful tools for punk-collectives to spread the word. At the same time, more and more artists inspired by Gérard Zlotykamien and Ernest Pignon-Ernest began to share their messages on the streets of Paris. And in 1984, a new generation of street artists posted their statements, performed, and created drawings: Jérôme Mesnager, Blek Le Rat, Jean Faucheur, Jef Aerosol, Speedy Graphito, Daniel Beaugeste, Rafael Gray, and many others.

Active interventionism in public spaces became a phenomenon of this generation. They joined groups and became even more effective in fighting for the city. This made their statements solid and allowed them to create huge collaborations in the city. Frères Ripoulin, Los Globus, Vive la Peinture, Banlieue Banlieu, and punk-group Bazooka—were some of the most active collectives of that period.


Jérôme Mesnager, 1980's.

Almost all of the active street artist of this time were art schools graduates. They protested against the educational system and the commercialization of art, bringing accessibility and freshness to the art. Their interests became increasingly different from the interests of active actors of the art world. They wanted to speak about energy and freedom while others were more and more interested with prices for art. These differences became a key factor in the 1980's, expressed with searching for new forms, happiness and fun, which was not a part of the boring conventional art-world of these times.


Vive La Peinture, 1985.