Streetwear and street art have always gone hand in hand, from the use of anarchist symbolism emerging from the '70s punk rock movement in London to the global phenomenon of Che Guevara T-shirts as a left-leaning symbol of revolution, but ever since its humble beginnings, many have associated street art as being symbolic of the decline in society.
Despite what some say about graffiti being the lowest form of art, the importance of street art to freely express a message can not be denied. In volatile times of political uncertainty, socially conscious artists have taken to walls to convey their messages, and it has been proven throughout history to be the medium of choice to publish their work.
One of the most influential artists responsible for the rise of the street art movement and its place in high society is Keith Haring. Originating in New York in the early '80s, Haring created simple drawings which could be easily appreciated by the masses but with underlying themes of deeper meaning. Perhaps his most iconic symbol, the "Barking Dog", is meant to be a representation of authoritarian governments and the abuse of power. Despite his early passing in 1990 at just 31 years old, his influence on the likes of Takashi Murakami and Banksy is a testament to the impact that street art continues to have on western popular culture. Limited edition watches that Haring designed in the '80s with Swiss watch maker Swatch now sell for several thousands of dollars, and in more recent times, fashion giant Lacoste has released a line with several of his iconic designs emblazoned on T-shirts to pay homage to the late artist.
Although many attribute the '80s to the rise of street art’s social recognition, this may have never happened if it hadn't been for Keith Haring's close friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. A leading figure in the 1950s Pop Art movement, Warhol quickly gained international attention for his unique aesthetic which blended photography, fine art and drawings.
The iconic Campell's Soup cans and quirky Marilyn Monroe portraits are timeless pieces which have continued to influence street artists to this day. Even 30 years on from his death, modern day references to his work are extensive, from paintings on walls, to modern day streetwear and presence in hip hop culture.
As the founders of the subculture street art movement make way for the next generation, many now consider the anonymous U.K. based artist Banksy as the "King of the Streets". By following in the footsteps of those who came before him, and by using the walls as his canvas to stencil street art with cunning political messaging, he flies the flag which represents anti-establishment and the freedom of expression.
Banksy's recent prank at Sotheby's, where his Girl With A Balloon shredded in front of shocked onlookers after it had sold for $1.4 million, made front page headlines around many global media outlets, proving just how entwined street art has become with the mainstream.
As the rise in popularity of street art and streetwear continues to blur the lines between subculture and mainstream, it can be easy for art to become more and more distant from its original context. For what may have started as a symbol of a counterculture movement, Che Guevara and Bob Marley T-shirts can now be easily spotted on consumers who may have absolutely no idea who they were or what they once represented. In times of increasing government scrutiny and political turmoil and despite images of anti-establishment and anti-capitalism taking on new meaning to, ironically, become symbols of global consumerism, the importance of art to express subject matters freely should not be denied. That said, it seems for now, that the significance of street art and streetwear as one of the purest forms of expression is here to stay.
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