Whether it’s a word sprayed under a bridge, an image festooned on the façade of a building, or an artist’s tag scrawled on the side of a train, the unstoppable rise of both commissioned and unsanctioned street art is a provocative force with the ability to inspire and uplift.
For the people, by the people, street art challenges the viewer to stop, think and engage with the city they inhabit. The best art tells a story, and the best artists compose a narrative with a rhythm that’s not unlike a piece of music.
More jarring work impresses with its sheer audacity. Not destined for the trophy cabinet of a privileged few, street art is a democratized visual feast that serves all and acts as a foil to a landscape littered with marketing, media and government messaging.
Each of the artists The Red Bulletin spoke to has a unique and instantly recognizable style. But although so much separates and differentiates the four artists, they’re united – all contributing to the soul of our streets.
FALKO ONE - The OG
Having spent close to three decades painting as a graffiti artist, Falko One is finally doing the type of work that he wants to do. “You have to realize that when we started hip-hop, we never thought that we could get paid for it,” says Falko One.
“Especially graffiti. Yes, some people would come and ask you to do their shop sign, or paint their girlfriend’s name on a page, and you’d get R5 here or there, but never this.”
Falko One first realized he could live off his talents when, in 1994, he was paid R1,000 to paint a train heading up to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The following year, he toured Sweden with a rap group. Then the commissions and corporate work started rolling in.
“It’s taken 23 years to put my foot down and say, ‘No more dumb commercial work.’ Your artwork is going to have no value if you’re always doing someone else’s stuff.
Now that I’m older, I realize that you don’t express yourself if you’re mimicking what you see. There’s nothing of yourself in your work until you discover who you are. That’s very important. So now I want to push my own cause.”
This is where the Once Upon A Town project comes in. In 2011, Falko One painted the small town of Darling, and since then the initiative has grown into a journey with endless possibilities. “It’s about going into a place – whatever the culture, language, race or religion of the people – and staying three or four days.
No matter how poor, or what we perceive as poor, these people are, their little home is still their cherished possession; even if it doesn’t have windows, it’s where they eat, raise their kids and lay their head. Being given permission to paint these homes is what Once Upon A Town is about: making these people living in the middle of nowhere feel like they belong.”
FAITH47 - The Enigma
In the same way that street art pioneers Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat went from painting directly onto their urban environment to exhibiting in galleries, when Faith47 isn’t working outside she’s channelling the streets to create art in a wide range of media, ranging from graphite, spray paint, oil paint and ink to photography, video and collage.
When The Red Bulletin spoke to her, Faith47 was in New York with her show Aqua Regalia, an exploration of the sacred and the mundane by way of shrines made from discarded objects she collects on her travels. An artist in the truest sense of the word, Faith47 is able to jump from medium to medium and express herself in myriad ways. This approach has attracted international recognition of her work and led to her participation in numerous projects worldwide.
“I allow my visual exploration to bleed into any medium that I’m interested in,” she says. “I don’t subscribe to the belief that you have to categorize yourself – in my case, either as a ‘street artist’ or ‘photographer’. Instead, I’m interested in how all the different mediums I use, which include video, printmaking, oil painting and collage, help to further my imagery as a whole.”
While Faith47’s work is undeniably beautiful, there is always more to it than just a pretty picture. For example, her latest work, Estamos Todos Los Que Cabemos, which she painted on the side of a building in Harlem as part of the Monument Art NYC project, has the theme of immigration.
“For that work, I referenced the symbolic migratory patterns of animals,” she says. “Nature sees no borders, but humans have developed a system of exclusion and segregation, drawing imaginary lines around the planet. When studying nature, we are reminded that the Earth is one living body and belongs to no one. So each person born on this planet should essentially have the same right to travel on it.”
Faith47 aims to create an intimacy and sensitivity within a harsh environment, merging softer visual storytelling within harder, emotive textural backgrounds. While highly personal and reflective of what she’s experiencing and exploring in her life, it’s a necessary and therapeutic way for her to exist.
“I believe that if any of my work resonates with someone else, it would be because we’re fundamentally very similar at a subconscious level,” she says. “And what people resonate with are not my thoughts, but their own, which the visuals I create conjure up from within.”