No longer seen as a blight on buildings, street art has grown into a global art movement. We meet five artists turning brick into canvas around the world
When Aileen Makin went to sleep in her home in Bristol, on December 9, 2020, it was worth some £300,000. When she woke up, it was worth as much as £5 million.
Overnight, renowned street artist Banksy had painted onto the side of her house an old woman, sneezing so hard that her false teeth were flying out. As crowds gathered, a friend covered the artwork with protective plexiglass and security was called in to keep it safe from vandals.
The success over the past three decades of this elusive British “guerrilla” artist has changed the view that graffiti is vandalism.
"Street art has evolved into a new global artistic phenomenon"
Riikka Kuittinen, author of Street Art: Contemporary Prints, says, “Street art has evolved into a new global artistic phenomenon. Where it was once just about the individual or marking territory, it now has an outward perspective, often commenting on the community we live in.”
The best artists build huge followings on social media—art that’s scrubbed off walls the next day stays on Instagram. They can even make serious money selling prints, T-shirts, or stickers, bypassing the galleries that are the traditional gatekeepers between artists and buyers.
What does it take to excel in this new movement? Five of Europe’s best-known street artists tell us.
Courtesy of Millo. Weave in Estarreja, Portugal, part of the B Art competition in Turin, Italy, in 2014
Millo, 42, from Mesagne, typically starts by painting a simple black-and-white cityscape. He then adds figures the size of Godzilla. But rather than terrorising the city, they perform activities like having a bath or a haircut.
After studying architecture, Millo (Francesco Camillo Giorgino) became disenchanted by its bureaucracy and limitations.
While looking for a new direction 11 years ago, he was asked to paint a wall in the village of Montone for an arts festival. “The brick surface had capers growing on it. So I drew a giant naked character eating the plants. The local old ladies laughed at the size of his penis.”
Soon a family of characters populated the urban jungles he’d been trained to build. “Tall walls without windows make the best canvases for my city landscapes, but I still adapt my work to the surface.”
Millo has been invited to paint around the world. He sells some of his work in galleries; prints are around £500. His work often sells out in minutes—then pops up on eBay for three times the price.
Fin DAC, Ireland
Courtesy of Fin DAC. Magdalena was created in 2019 in Guadalajara, Mexico to honour Mexican artist Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo
Fin DAC, born Finbarr Notte in Cork, paints large-scale murals of modern women in traditional and ethnic garments around the world. His limited-edition prints sell out in minutes as thousands of online buyers compete.
The self-taught artist started his street-art career in 2008, but things really took off when he experimented with “masks” of splattered colour across the eyes of his figures. This quickly became his motif.
"His signature mask 'gives the wearers an air of quiet strength and force within'"
“I needed something that separated my work from others,” says the artist, now 54. “A visual identity.”
He was inspired by the face painting of tribes around the world, the character Pris from Blade Runner and even pop star Annie Lennox. His signature mask “gives the wearers an air of quiet strength and force within.”
All of Fin DAC’s art is bound together with this look. When you glimpse his work out of the corner of your eye, you instantly know whose it is.
Lidia Cao, Spain
Credit: Ulises Ruiz/AFP via Getty. This mural by Lidia Cao was part of the DesOrdes Creativas festival 2018 in La Coruña, Spain
At just 24, Lidia Cao from La Coruña is hailed as one of the most important female street artists.
She favours desaturated colours (rare in street art), and women are the theme of her powerfully narrative work.
For the 2020 Parees mural festival in Oviedo, she painted the 20th-century Spanish writer Dolores Medio, who was censored under the Franco regime. Lidia depicts her at her typewriter, but over each shoulder hover vultures, ready to pick apart her words.
In A Stolen Childhood, painted for the 2019 Rexenera public-art festival in Galicia, a sombre girl holds a birdbox. On it, a bird of prey has a smoking match in its beak. Lidia allows us to connect the dots, but the image is about abuse and resilience.
“I use the female figure to represent life,” Lidia says, “to tell a personal story beyond simple aesthetics.”
Blek le Rat, France
Credit: Eric Lin. Blek le Rat‘s Sleeping Man (with signature rat) in San Fransisco in 2008
Xavier Prou started his career four decades ago by covering his native Paris with an infestation of millions of rats over three years.
His inspiration came from teenagers he saw one day in 1981 in a small park behind a supermarket. They had found discarded, half-used paint pots and brushes and were splashing their names, abstract shapes, and smiling faces on a shed wall.
It reminded Xavier of gang tags covering New York subway trains. But this had a more playful, positive energy. “The two things came together.”
"We are at a turning point in art. This graffiti art will change everything"
Later he made a simple stencil of a rat, reached for some black spray paint and hit the streets, signing his work “Blek le Rat.” “I wanted to say, ‘Yes, your city is beautiful, but beneath your feet is another city of wild animals,’” says Xavier, now 70 and still painting.
He graduated to full-size figures. Napoleon was a favourite, but twisted—sometimes followed by a sheep, or wearing a motorbike helmet. “I don’t like Napoleon,” says Xavier. “He killed millions in France. So I make him look ridiculous.”
Xavier’s work has landed him in hot water with police several times around the world, but he has no regrets. “We are at a turning point in art,” he says. “This graffiti art will change everything.”
Courtesy of MadC. Shown is a portion of MadC’s 700 Wall. The massive painting along a German train line took four months
At 16, Claudia Walde, from Bautzen, picked up a spray can and wrote her name on a wall.
“I discovered that it’s difficult to use one! But I found like-minded people. I was entering a cosmopolitan world, breaking out of small-town life to create an identity and find respect through my skill.”
Claudia’s wild enthusiasm for painting earned her the nickname The Mad One, in time shortened to MadC. She attended art school in Halle and London, but her break came in 2010 when she got permission to paint a wall almost 700 square metres in size along the train line between Halle and Berlin.
“It was tough, with only ladders for four months. But I could experiment with techniques and find my own style.” Today she paints letters and words, abstracted into bright colours and translucent layers.
Now 41, MadC gets global mural commissions and exhibits canvases in galleries. “But street energy powers everything I do.”
Read more: 11 Cheeky but genius works of street art
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