Staying elusive in the streets

February 20th, 2013 | By | 10 Comments »

Banksy. Photo by Klara Kim.

Being an elusive figure in the graffiti/street art world is slowly becoming obsolete. Artists find themselves making the transition from anonymity to the limelight, for what many think is solely for profit. The proliferation of social media has amplified the audience of street art, and led to increased exposure and opportunities for artists. But what motivates street artists to step away from their elusive lifestyles?

Recently, it seems many graffiti writers have cast away their incognito identities and made the transition towards becoming legitimate artists. What was once considered an act of vandalism is now commissioned by brands and displayed in art galleries around the world. But in order to market themselves as legitimate, recognizable artists they need to step away from their personas and present themselves not as vandals, but as artists.

At one point, street artists in question would mask their voices and hide their faces behind a blurred out lens in order to keep their identities hidden to the general public during interviews. Now, all that smoke and mirrors are gone. Personally, I used to love D*Face. He was strictly recognized by his moniker and nothing else, with his face always blurred during interviews. Then, seemingly overnight, it all changed. He began to create work and appear in interviews under his real name. Suddenly, D*Face became Dean Stockton. His work became mild and denotative. His mythical qualities as an artist were diminished. He just didn’t seem as interesting.

So why make that transition? Why not stay hidden and attempt to make a living while staying private? Artists such as Kaws and Shepard Fairey could easily have stayed elusive, but now they’re the biggest names in the street art world. When Kaws started hijacking billboards and bus shelter ads, no one knew who he was. They only knew him by his name. Now he’s making vinyl toys, taking part in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, and getting interviewed by Pharrell Williams. Similar tale with Fairey: he started out pasting up stickers around his local skate park, nobody knew what Obey meant, but it was everywhere, so it must have been important. Fairey stepped out of the shadows and now, a decade later has his own clothing line and his face is one of the most recognizable in the street art world. Why? Artists realize that in order to market their art, they need to market their persona first. Is this the process of selling out?

But then there are the ones that stay elusive, the purists of the street art world, artists like Dain and Bäst. Born and raised in Brooklyn, the elusive Dain creates sublime works of art the merges old Hollywood glam with new age colors in their composition. This, along with his roots in graffiti, creates a gritty yet delicate street art style that is all his own. There was a weird video that came out a while back about Dain, starring someone other than Dain portraying him. It followed around an old guy as he talked about his life and art and all of his inspirations while answering questions from the camera man. At this point, we know that Dain isn’t really the old man (notice his pasting skills), but one can only assume that the video was meant as a marketing tool, for people to get on the Dain bandwagon and spread his name out to the public without ever being seen. But apart from that video, Dain has never really been a public artist but his works will always be deemed as some of the best of our generation.

Dain. Photo by Sabeth718.

Dain. Photo by Sabeth718.

Bäst plays his part really well. Brooklyn-based artist Bäst has been wheat-pasting throughout New York’s urban landscape for over a decade now. Bäst has remained an elusive character that has rarely been seen in public and whose very existence has been debated. There are very few video interviews where you can hear Bäst talk. The only interview that comes to mind was for the Deluxx Fluxx collaboration with Faile (which is, in my opinion, one of the best street art based collaboration to have ever happened). Bäst manages to frequently collaborate with Faile, who are not anonymous artists, but apart from that, he’s a pretty elusive guy that keeps producing on a consistent basis. Sure, he had this weird, super small scale collaboration with an olive oil company, and the Marc Jacobs collaboration which confused pretty much everybody, since his art being displayed on a sweater for a highly lucrative brand could be seen as an uncharacteristic “sell out” move, but apart from that, he’s always stayed true to form and just stuck to street art.

I bring up Bäst and Dain not only because of the elusive nature, but because they are in fact brothers. One can only assume that some sort of pact was made between them to stay pretty much anonymous to most social groupings. Sure they might have ulterior motives, but as long as they stay elusive, we’ll really never know.

Bast. Photo by Sabeth718.

Bäst. Photo by Sabeth718.

And of course, one has to mention Banksy or as we know him now, most likely Robin Gunningham. Regardless of his moniker, he helped cement street art’s place in the established art world. Street art fans will forever have a love/hate relationship with Banksy. At this point, his work can come off as banal and obvious, but the fact that his identity was questioned for so long, in our surveillance culture, is pretty significant. He got his art up in the Met, or someone posing as him did. He got in and out of Disneyland without getting caught. Banksy’s evasiveness lends him a mystique and fascination, but he still manages to profit from his art.

These are the kind of question that people ask themselves when artists stay anonymous. We question everything about them, not knowing what they’ll do next. Suspense and curiosity will always play a part in their persona. Their anonymity is what keeps us interested; it plays a part in how we perceive them. Take these qualities away, and we realize that these artists are just like the rest. Would Banksy of reached this kind of popularity if he was just Robin Gunningham all along? Of course not. But he’s also a unique case; it’s hard to imagine a street artist will ever achieve what he has in our life time. So why stay elusive? Well, I guess it’s a question at the core of street art. Artists are supposed to be a hooded, hidden characters putting art up illegally, leading people to ask questions. How did it get there? Who did it? Why did they do it? When it comes to people like Kaws and Shepard Fairey, they answer these questions in the interviews that they partake in. But for others, maybe we’ll never know.

Photos By sabeth718 and Klara Kim

Category: Guest Posts, Random | Tags: , , , ,
  • While I like your basic point that artists seem to be shedding anonymity as soon as doing so will land them a show and more PR (except in the case of Banksy who gets more PR by being anonymous), I think you oversimplify things a bit. The world is shades of grey.

    The most important/interesting thing about anonymity IMHO is that it adds a mystic to the artist. Clearly that’s the case with Banksy, and I think Swampy is another good example of that. And as you point out, D*face lost some of his mystique when he stopped being so anonymous. I don’t think that ruined his work, but I can see where you’re coming from. Certainly Banksy would be much less interesting without a mask, and now that anonymity is a part of his art in a sense.

    I have to disagree with your assessment of throwing Fairey in with this crowd. He was never particularly anonymous, so he never really shed it in favor of commercialization of his work. Evidence of this can be found (and I’m sorry I’m just remember this now, not during the editing process) in this article – – where he mentions that a random fan called up his studio in 1994. Shepard was always selling shirts even from the very beginning, and he was selling/practically giving away stickers by taking out ads in magazines. So people knew his name from the beginning. Most people seeing OBEY stickers might have no idea what was up, but anyone who wanted to and was reading the right magazines or in the right shops could figure out who was behind OBEY.

    Also, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that KAWS was in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Would you have preferred a giant inflatable Justin Bieber instead?

    Why should street artists stay in the shadows? Bast and Dain both have gallery careers. We may not know what they look like, but it’s not like they are off the grid and completely outside of the art world. It’s upsetting when street artists and graffiti writers abandon the street, but why do all of them have to stay anonymous and in the shadows? Some, sure. But I don’t see why that has to be the case for everyone. Artists like Ever and Gaia and Jaz could be in their home countries right now painting illegally, but by no longer being quite so anonymous, they can travel the world and paint giant walls at mural festivals. Isn’t that better than having them stay at home in the shadows painting small pieces and risking arrest? Most of the public still won’t have any idea who they are or how their work ended up on a wall.

    That said, yes, there is a mystique about anonymous artists that I find appealing, and it’s sad when artists decide or are forced to shed that anonymity for the sake of their careers. And of course, it’s sad when the art becomes more about the artist’s face than the art itself, although I suppose you could say that Banksy’s art is sometimes more about his lack of a face than the art itself which might be problematic in a different way.

  • The pros ans cons can definitely be weighted out, and of course you bring up great points RJ. The fact that these artists are known in the art world is great for them. As you pointed out, the fact that a kid like Gaia can travel the world is great, sure most people wont recognize him so he gets to sat anonymous that way.

    With Shep and Kaws, they would be so much more interesting in they we’re elusive and anonymous, but then again, they probably wouldn’t have the success the now have because they’re both considered public figures.

    All in all, the importance about it all is the mystic, the idea for the article came from seeing all these graffiti writers stepping out from the shadows and become these public figures that people outside the art world could potentially recognize. Which is just weird since graffiti is in it’s essence an act of vandalism regardless of its artistic merit.

    Creating this sense of elusiveness definitely makes for more interesting times, and that’s pretty much the basis and the point of it all, sure people will use it as a marketing tool and others will simply embrace not being recognized, but at the end of the day if the art is well done, then that’s all that really matters.

    PS; Regarding the Kaws balloon in the parade, not saying that it was a bad thing, but it was totally out of place. It was like this giant inside joke for the street art kids.

  • Darkus Green

    Supremely ironic to see this type of content on a site like Vandalog, which for the past few years has so heavily promoted the commodification (via gallery shows) and sanitisation (via murals) of street art culture.

    It’s like wealthy western tourists going to a supposedly unspoilt destination, then complaining afterwards that the place is now too commercialised, because pastiche rituals of the exotic are being acted out by the locals in a fairground sideshow style for the benefit of ‘authentic experience’ seeking spectators. While all along being seemingly unaware that they themselves are the very people who cause such a situation to exist in the first place.

  • But galleries shows and legal murals do not inherently sanitize street art and graffiti. Reader and Swampy have worked in galleries and their work has not been sanitized. There are many artists who paint legal walls and still also get up without permission.

    I’ve organized a legal wall for Troy Lovegates and Labrona, written about their gallery work, and sold shirts by both of them in The Vandalog Shop. Nonetheless, those two artists are hardly public figures, and they still paint freight trains and get up on the street without permission. They wanted to paint a legal wall, I had the opportunity to help them fulfill that goal. They have wanted to make a living off of their artworks rather than work minimum wage jobs, and I have done what little I can to help them fulfill that goal. I’m sure you could find photos of Troy and Labrona somewhere and their real names too if you went out and searched for all that, but they aren’t trying to become art world rock-stars, turning their artwork into boring commodities or making their fame about their faces and public personas.

    This issue isn’t black and white, and I personally don’t think that the transition to public figure automatically destroys all street artists. I have a lot of love for some artists
    who have transitioned from fully anonymous street artists to having
    public personas and doing legal work. Faile could never have done that
    awesome sculpture on Mongolia or their installation at the NYC Ballet if
    they were totally anonymous. A part of me wishes that they were
    still anonymous, but overall their decision to come out from behind the shadows has been a huge positive for them and their fans.

    I’ll acknowledge a bit of a paradox though, which you allude to. Those of us writing on Vandalog generally promote work that we like because we want to support those artists, but in doing so we risk giving those artists opportunities come out from behind the shadows and make their work less adventurous (but perhaps more valuable). Maybe Nico is lamenting a situation that I helped to cause. But I’d rather be in a world where street artists have opportunities to make a living with their art if they so choose and lament the loss of some of the culture than live in a world where street artists are all anonymous and have to support their street work entirely out of pocket.

  • Darkus Green

    Well, I’d say those things DO sanitise street art in a scenario where they’re promoted in such unequal measure as to exclude alternatives. Through a process of sheer repetition these things become entrenched as the benchmark to aspire to if ‘success’ is to be achieved.

    Unfortunately in today’s street art world ‘success’ is often judged by blog exposure. Thus the culture gets massively skewed by the editorial content agenda of blogs, either intentionally or not. Most blogs seem to have a heavy bias toward commodity value, therefore an unhealthy feedback loop is created.

    Imagine some hipsters move into an area that’s already in the process of gentrification, then after a while start moaning that it’s now full of Starbucks and other establishments that cater to middle class hipsters. So they move ever onwards to the next area in a self-perpetuating cycle. Sure, some die-hards will cling on in the old areas and try to resist the changes, just like with street art. But ultimately, existing in a banal wasteland ruled by commercialism is poisonous for the soul.

  • Splash Adams

    ya well have faith in the future, it’s only a matter of time before someone invents a new kind of “this” and then a quarter century after that there can be a new us and a new them. i mean you’d splash this blog if you coud right now, wouldn’t you?

  • Darkus Green

    Yeah, I’d splash it with a fire extinguisher if I could, in a contrived Kidult-style attack, which I’d then make an animated gif about, and RJ would hail me as the next big thing in internet based street art. Fame awaits!

  • You make a good point that some types of street art may be promoted on blogs to the point of excluding alternatives, and I wish street artists wouldn’t judge their success by blog exposure but I think you’re right that many of them do.

    I guess I would just hope that blogs don’t define the culture on their own and that they only contribute to it. Blogs should play a role, but they should not entirely define success. And I think instagram is helping to change that.

    I hope people know that not all good street art winds up on blogs. Only certain work looks really good on a blog, and I only find out about certain work besides what I see in person because only certain artists submit their work to vandalog or post it on their own websites. That certain work typically falls under the more commercial category of street art, and so commercial street art ends up having a heavy presence on Vandalog and other blogs.

    Maybe I should spend hours every day searching for obscure noncommercial street art to post, but I’m not sure that work would actually look good on a blog, plus I do have a life beyond this hobby.

    I live outside of Philadelphia, where there is a thriving sticker art scene. I like seeing the stickers in person, but they wouldn’t be interesting to blog about regularly. It would be the same tiny logos over and over again in basically the same locations.

    Street art blogs are really good places to photos and videos of the kind of street art that looks good on blogs. The street is a good place to see street art.

  • Some artists are simply shy or don’t necessarily want the personal recognition – preferring that their works speak for themselves – you can find this in the contemporary art world as well. Its the reason that some artists prefer to work with galleries than deal with lots of people who might invade their privacy. Within the street art world – artists know each other personally so know the real names behind the alias’s (Dean Stanton indeed! – that’s rich..). Part of graffiti and street art culture is to create a moniker or alter ego – kind of like a superhero identity. In some ways staying anonymous becomes a bit of cliche when you are no longer a vandal but artists have felt like they had to play this game.

    Its often said that’s its better not to meet your heroes just in case you are disappointed. Artists like musicians have to deal with a certain amount of fame and perhaps don’t want to disappoint their fans by confusing the real person with the art. Take a look at Blu’s official photograph – miles away from the real lovely person! Its my opinion that artists should be afforded a certain amount of privacy if they feel they need it – to either create illegal work or to make the best art.

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