Street Art: more than meets the eye?

Although living in central London, I’m confronted by a Banksy on practically every corner, I have to admit that I don’t know much about the world of street art. Although I appreciate the sense of humour that's evident in the work of graffiti artists, even when I was running a visual art bookshop a few years back, I was never especially drawn to the (increasingly massive numbers of) books on street art and graffiti. Compared to the lovely books on illustration, fashion, graphic design, craft or contemporary art that always immediately grabbed my attention, street art always seemed hard-edged, aggressive, masculine and also somehow banal. In fact I might have been tempted to agree with art critic Ben Ward, who argued in a debate at Tate Modern in 2008 that street art is actually just a bit boring.

Recently though, I was intrigued to discover (through a feature in Stylist magazine of all places) the work of a whole new group of female artists, such as Claw Money, Miss Van, Koralie and Neozoon, who are creating street art of a very different kind. There's a huge variety here, and it's certainly far from boring: whilst Koralie toys with Japanese culture and the Manga tradition; Miss Van (see above) creates soft-focus images that question conventional notions of feminity; and my personal favourite, the collective Neozoon swap traditional paint for fur, transforming cast-off fur jackets into idiosyncratic street pieces, and even installing cages of ‘fur coat animals’ in German zoos. Reading more about the work these artists are creating, it was clear that I’d been a little too quick to pigeonhole street art.

In a moment of synchronicity, publisher Laurence King chose the same week to send me a couple of their newest titles on the subject of street art, giving me the perfect opportunity to find out more.

The Street Art Stencil Book is a celebration of the art of the stencil, bringing together images and useable stencils from street artists who range from the big names that even I'm familiar with, such as Blek Le Rat, through to emerging new talents in the field from around the world. Seeing the sheer range of artwork here - from London artist Eine's work with with old-fashioned lettering, through to Barcelona collective BToy's nostalgic and haunting images of iconic women from the past - and indeed the occasional skateboarding gnome - confirmed my growing suspicion that there is more to street art than immediately meets the eye.

Meanwhile, the Street Art Doodle Book by Dave the Chimp aims to be a colouring book with a difference, with images like the one above from a whole range of street artists and illustrators, from Jon Burgerman to Pure Evil, to colour and customise. Of course, we’ve seen this kind of thing before in books like Taro Gomi’s series of Doodle Books, or even in the Jake and Dinos Chapman colouring books currently on display at the Whitechapel; however I do like the anarchic twist that Dave the Chimp brings to the colouring book context. Declaring that ‘colouring books are boring’, he advocates breaking the rules, colouring outside the line, and ‘making the world a more colourful place’. Keri Smith would be proud.

Clearly, I couldn’t resist having a go myself. Who would have thought that I’d end in creating my own work of street art, even if it is on paper rather than an, um, street? Still, I don't think Banksy has much to worry about.

[Graffiti by Miss Van and Ciou, Barcelona: photo by aikijuanma used under Creative Commons. Book cover and spread via Laurence King]