The desire for people to leave their mark on walls dates back to prehistoric and ancient times, as evidenced by the famous wall paintings discovered at the Lascaux cave in France or the graffiti scratched on walls in the city of Pompeii. During World War II, it also became popular for soldiers to write “Bob was here” to leave a print of their passing on foreign land and a testimony of their difficult times.
In terms of contemporary graffiti and street art, the beginnings can be traced to tagging, or scratching initials or a name on public property, in New York in the late 1960s, then with graffiti artists looking for new places to make art, reacting and rebelling against society’s rules, political and economic challenges in the 1970s and 1980s.
As shared by Adrian Cheng, Founder of K11 Art Foundation, in the newly released book City as Studio, “graffiti and street art have undeniably made an indelible mark on our contemporary urban lives, finding their way on our city walls, subways, bus stops, and even into galleries, phone covers, water bottles (…). Beyond the kaleidoscopic visual aesthetics they bring to our lives, their popularity and success perhaps are in part due to the power of graffiti and street art to speak to us on a very deep, profoundly human level”.
Published in May 2021 by K11 Art Foundation and helmed by legendary art curator Jeffrey Deitch, the City As Studio coffee table book celebrates the dynamic history of graffiti and street art with an extensive combination of historical archives and rare insights. A comprehensive bilingual publication in both English and Chinese, City As Studio delves into the history of graffiti and street art through influential artists such as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Martin Wong, FUTURA, and contemporary street art innovators such as JR, Timothy Curtis, and KAWS.
Containing a vast number of unpublished works and interviews, the publication serves as an enticing sneak peek of the forthcoming City As Studio exhibition slated for 2022 and curated by legendary art curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who brought Andy Warhol to Hong Kong in 1982.
Jeffrey Deitch has been involved with modern and contemporary art for nearly five decades as an artist, writer, curator, dealer, and advisor, and he has produced more than two hundred fifty projects by contemporary artists in his own art gallery. He co-authored a monograph on Keith Haring, published by Rizzoli in 2008, and wrote the introduction to Jean Michel Basquiat, 1981: The Studio of the Street, published by Charta in 2007.
From 2010 to 2013, Deitch served as Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where he curated Art in the Streets, which had the highest attendance in the museum’s history. Deitch has now reestablished his art advisory firm and his art gallery, operating in both New York and Los Angeles.
A showcase of more than thirty artists, City As Studio, helmed by Deitch, includes up-to-date comprehensive artist interviews that reveal how cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco played a significant role in the evolution of the street art movement from the 1970s to now.
What the book helps to comprehend is that contemporary graffiti and street art developed completely apart from traditional and institutionalised art forms. While art history can usually be understood as a succession of eras, there was always in parallel something “outside of the box”, outside of official art history, taking place in the streets and not in churches, museums or galleries. Modern graffiti did not begin as an art form at all, but rather, as a form of text-based urban communication. At the origins was the need to leave a mark, a testimony, and, later on in the U.S., that need became more of a rebelling act by teenagers, revealing the end of the American Dream over the Vietnam War and the stock market decline.
The convergence of street art and graffiti styles that emerged from housing projects, subway yards, and bleak suburban parking lots has become a global phenomenon. In the U.S., it was mostly thanks to “connectors” such as active artists, filmmakers, musicians, performers, writers, gallerists and club promoters who served as platforms to connect artists and helped fostering the artistic movement. After the U.S., the Japan has developed in the 1990s one of the largest and most enthusiastic audience for graffiti and street art. In the rest of the world, the knowledge of graffiti and street art was spread in a more old-fashioned way, through artist-to-artist contact, and it eventually became an international visual language with the street art movement continuing to thrive and evolve fifty years after it began.
Some artworks from street artists KAWS and Banksy have even been sold for astronomical amounts at auctions in 2005 and 2009. But they were painted on canvas, and the products of a studio practice meant to support their work in the public sphere. Not genuine artworks done illegally in the streets, using the “City as Studio”…
The + of the book: a portrait of Hong Kong-born artist Tsen Kwong Chi (1950-1990) and an interview of his sister and executrix Muna Tseng, dancer, choreographer and lecturer based in New York.
Tsen Kwong Chi was a photographer and performer internationally known for his photographic series East Meets West, also called the Expeditionary Series (1979), where he would pose in his stereotypical and provocative Mao suit in front of iconic tourist sites.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he was friend with Keith Haring and other New York artists. He became Keith Haring official photo-chronicler and their decade-long friendship created the world’s largest photo archive of Keith Haring with more that 25,000 images.