Street Artist Claudio Ethos at work Street Artist Claudio Ethos at work © Galerie Itinerrance

Aerosol revolution: street art in Paris

Artcurial auctioneer Arnaud Oliveux describes how Paris' street art moved from walls to auction houses


Paris Editor

It was in the 1970s in New York or Philadelphia where ‘writers’ were outlaw artists the Transit Police were trying to pick up. Four decades later, graffiti has spawned a global phenomenon that’s raking in the zeros. While graffiti lives on, urban art is no longer about throw-ups on the sides of trains or plastered on buildings at dizzying heights, but of street art. While still present on the streets, street art has elbowed its way into galleries, museums and the world’s most prestigious auction houses. We sat down with top street art auctioneer Artcurial’s Arnaud Oliveux who recounts the story behind the movement’s evolution.

“Although we can’t say where exactly graffiti started, New York in the 1970s was where it took off and the photography of Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant was a huge catalyst for its evolution. Their work was seen by hundreds of thousands of people and graffiti caught on. Writers would tag their names with markers before using aerosols. Comic books became a big influence, and so, tags became throw ups (colourful bubble lettering with outlines) and writers became artists. They would paint walls and over-ground trains that would travel out of the Bronx and Harlem into the heart of the city, the perfect canvas for carrying messages.

Jef-AEROSOL-ne-en-1957-CHUUUTTT--2012----ArtcurialChuuuttt!!!, 2012, by Jef Aerosol © Artcurial

“Towards the end of the 1970s, graffiti artists like Futura, Seen and Blade experimented with canvas, marking the beginning of a ‘post-graffiti’ era but it wasn’t until the 1980s that graffiti, then intrinsic to the Hip Hop movement, exploded onto the mainstream art scene. And as a result of the hype, the movement reached beyond the confines of the States, across the Atlantic, and landed in Europe.

Julien-SETH-MALLAND-ne-en-1972-SANS-TITRE-2013----ArtcurialJulien SETH MALLAND, untitled, 2013 © Artcurial

“In France, Stalingrad in Paris’ 19th district was where it started. Although there was graffiti, pochoir (stencil art) by artists like Miss. Tic and Jef Aerosol really got the ball rolling, even if stencil art and graffiti were two different worlds that despised one another. Painting in the street was no longer just about being seen. Scrawling your name on a lamppost wasn’t enough. Urban art became a sensual experience, where artists were drawn to and inspired by the texture of the walls. Simultaneously a market was taking shape and the movement was at its height. But in 1991 when the financial crisis hit, the movement came crashing down. But no more than a decade later, urban art got a second chance.

La Tour Paris13, 2013 by El Seed © ArtcurialLa Tour Paris13, 2013 by El Seed © Artcurial

“When Banksy erupted on the scene in 2005 his work caught the world’s attention. He didn’t do it single-handedly, but he was the reason urban art was back in vogue. Artists were given recognition and they started selling in galleries again – a second golden era for urban art was born, but this time it had moved beyond graffiti. A new generation of artists from art or graphic design schools made it hard for traditional graffiti artists to follow. The art shed its egocentric edge, entering the realm of politics, notable figures like Shepard Fairey and his campaigns calling for people to action, to be empowered. The challenge was no longer in tagging unattainable spots but rather in finding new techniques, of pushing the boundaries of the imagination. For example the young artist VHILS has been a complete game-changer because instead of adding to a composition, he takes away.

mixLeft: Liquidated Chanel, 2009 by Zevs, right: The Urban Art 1 exhibition, Artcurial © Artcurial

“In 2005, ‘Section Urbaine’, an exhibition at Les Blancs Manteaux in Paris was a turning point. I was already hooked on urban art and when I joined Artcurial in 2006, we conducted the first street art sale in France. It was a test with 10 pieces by Futura, Jonone, Crash and Daze at €500-1,000 and it proved there was a market. It was a huge step for street art, which was seen as a working class art that had no place in the contemporary art world, let alone in prestigious auction houses. Street art was a subculture that wasn’t deemed intellectual enough for institutions, but thanks to a new generation of collectors who had grown up with graffiti and with money to spend, street art moved forward. Auction prices increased, with a KAWS piece going for $350,000 followed by Os Gemeos, Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Jonone. It’s only a matter of time before prices catch up with those of ‘traditional’ contemporary art.”

See or the map below for our pick of the best street art galleries in Paris

1 Artcurial Auction House
2 Itinerrance
3 Magda Danysz
4 Mathgoth
5 Le Feuvre