Rise and rise of millionaire graffiti artists

The writing is truly on the wall for graffiti. Once the preserve of ‘vandals’ these works are being celebrated as multi-million dollar investments.

Amazing how fashionable it’s become to be a vandal these days. If you’re graffiti artist like Banksy, you spray a stencil on the side of a London building and your art gets a preservation order and is valued at US$500,000.

If you’re  French street artist Blek Le Rat you can enjoy numerous retrospectives, lavish coffee table books about your work and be feted as the continental king of graffiti. If you’re like street artists Inkie, Faile, Paul Insect or Adam Neat you can  expect celebrity clients like Brad Pitt or Kevin Spacey to snap up your works for enough hard cash to keep you and your great-grandchildren in spray cans  for the rest of your lives.

So what happened? Has the world gone bonkers? It depends on your viewpoint. Either you regard Banksy’s US$2 million sale of a graffiti-sprayed maid sweeping dust under a ‘dot background’ as inspired and worth every cent. Alternatively you believe that whoever bought it is a sucker sold on contemporary art’s version of the emperor’s new clothes. Whatever your viewpoint, graffiti art is here to stay and it’s being taken very seriously indeed.

Last year New York City council completed an extensive restoration project to restore Lower Manhattan graffiti aerosol works by Fab 5 Freddy, Futura 2000, Nesto and the best known street artists of all Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Don’t worry if you don’t know the names, all you need to know is that these people were the ultimate urban decorators of the 70s and 80s.

What is fantastically ironic is that New York once took a zero tolerance approach to graffiti and prided itself on the removal of all brickwork aerosol the instant it appeared. A lot has changed since then including the concept of artistic value. In May 2006, for instance, a Keith Haring work sold for US$2,8 million.

When a Triplex apartment in New York’s West Broadway was being renovated a Haring mural was discovered on one of the walls. The realty agents said the example of the artist’s ‘more immature’ early work added US$100,000 to the price of the property. On Manhattan’s Houston Street, paint was actually removed to reveal and preserve a Haring wall work in an outdoor handball court. To mark the 50th anniversary of Haring’s birth some of his most iconic street works were recreated on walls of the Lower East siide at a cost of US$30,000.

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