Shepard Fairey street art tour london

Shepard Fairey, Ebor Street, East London

The art world has always bristled with opposing factions: the one side declaring ‘art for art’s sake’ and the other demanding a sustainable living, whatever the cost to integrity. Insider London offer you a taste of this in our Street Art tour, with Banksy currently berated for his avowed disengagement from Sotheby’s current sales of his prints  (can we really begrudge him the measly 4% cut?) and Shepard Fairey dogged by trad. graffers who won’t call his work proper graffiti as long as he’s making his millions. Unlike Banksy, the social commentary in Fairey’s street art is arguably not what’s made him famous. That might be because his comments are about the ‘sedation’ of Americans by the U.S. consumerist society and for us Brits, it’s not sufficiently relevant or if it is, his stuff’s just not as funny as Banksy’s.

The over-tagging of Fairey’s piece on Ebor Street in Shoreditch might also be put down to a perception of hypocrisy given the profit he has presumably amassed through his commissions from presidential campaigns and the film and music industries, not to mention his increasingly giant clothing line. On the website for the latter, (a bit of free publicity for you there, Shepard), he recently posted a response to an e-mail which had accused him of racketeering. Turns out that to break even from ethically selling clothes that are produced on home-soil, you have to charge well over $100 an item otherwise the pay for the workers who made the clothes would likely be worse than in the third world, relative to the cost of living. So he has apparently found only ethical factories in Asia for the making of his clothes. “We are all doing it for the creativity, not the money,” he adds. “I along with everyone at Obey clothing appreciate the support that has allowed us to live creatively. If money is your goal, a clothing business is dumb strategy. Affordable art is what I’m trying to provide.”

But here in the UK, the art world’s purists will have you question the ethics of an artist as soon as he or she even begins to make a living. The trio of street artists known as Cyrcle advertised a gallery exhibition of their work by daubing two huge pieces on a wall of perhaps the largest of London’s ad hoc street art arenas. Alongside an enormous upside-down image of some entangled bodies on Leonard Street, they painted a word from the title of their forthcoming show – also up-turned – on a plain white background. They claimed it was all about turning symbols of power on their heads (the word in question was ‘Reign’, the full title, ‘Over throne! Pooring reign’ – a bit pun-tastic for my tastes).  I suspect, though, that their primary purpose in this case, was to tap into our instinct to turn our heads upside down to read a word and prompt us to look at the accompanying image the right way up, thus making us proud of our investigative observation skills so that we would seek out the exhibition itself.  It must be said, this is a natty device for the British art lover, who likes nothing more than to be made to feel clever.

Love Will Tear Us Apart London street art cept


Love Will Tear Us Apart by Cept, Leonard Street, Shoreditch

For the Street Art purist, though, this act of self-promotion was just not on. I’m not sure who was first to paint over the exhibition title but Cept’s colourful, comic-strip lovers accompanied by the words “Love Will Tear Us Apart Again” is what you’ll see there now. That’s been there a while so it’s obviously more to London street art lovers’ tastes: in case you’re too young, the quote is the title of a Joy Division song, written by their frontman, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide at the age of 23. Interestingly, a canvas print of this Cept piece got sold on Tuesday in the Pure Evil gallery just opposite the work itself. £3,000 was the price-tag. It looks like good art just can’t escape the market. And who’s going to argue with that?

If you’re at all cynical about the Cept piece or the Cyrcle antics or any other artist’s attempts at promoting their own work (a.k.a. ‘making a living’), it’s worth noting that the ad hoc street art gallery space where these pieces appear will soon be a hotel. What is to become of the art, I don’t know but even if it stays in place, yards from the windows of the lucky guests, for the rest of us, it will be obscured by a much more recognisable symbol of consumerism (however cultured and stylish a leisure complex it turns out to be). I’ve cited this before and I’ll cite it again: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.” It was Banksy who said this, of course.  You godda love the way he represents the self-irony of the British social conscience, meanwhile deflecting attention away from his inadvertently successful marketing.

Want to see and know more? Find out more on one of our London street art and graffiti tours.