Telling your parents you want to be a graffiti artist can’t be easy, and proudly stating this career goal will likely lead to more than one disappointed face across the dinner table. Much like other maligned or misunderstood forms of art like skateboarding, or tattooing, it’s a career path that – superficially, at least – can’t look all that promising in terms of financial security. And while there will always be those who dabble, and those who try, the reality is very few have the skill, fearlessness, genius or a combination of the three to make a name for themselves. And even then, fame and fortune is no guarantee.
There are notable graffiti artists who, now deceased, made a name for themselves over the years including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Dondi. And it wouldn’t be fair to leave out mention of living veterans like the iconic Lady Pink, or Richard Hambleton, and of course the “Godfather of Graffiti” Richard “Richie” Mirando (aka SEEN). Still working today, Mirando is one of the most well-known graffiti artists of all time. Starting out in the 70s, he painted in the New York subway system, but these days you’re more likely to find him painting wall murals for Neiman Marcus. Hambleton, meanwhile, was dragged out of hiding to his celebrity-studded vernissage, part of a recent resurgence despite his best efforts to be left alone. In an era where new is old and out is in, the moneyed world -from the erudite to pop culture – has fashioned one-time hoodlums and vandals into a new breed of cool sophisticate.
From this transformation have arose five artists whose street style has crossed over into the mainstream in a big way, making street art marketable to the tune of millions of dollars. Their work, whether you hate it, love it, or love to hate it, has brought a blinding spotlight of fame on the otherwise darkly mischievous midnight hours of wheatpaste and alleyways.
5. Retna: $5 million +
While there’s no official industry estimate for the accumulative wealth of Marquis Lewis –aka Retna – his portfolio indicates his net worth is in the low millions at very least. His original art pieces auction at about $10,000 – $20,000 on average. In the last few years the 33-year-old L.A.-based street artist has been referenced by Forbes, and uttered in the same breath as Usher – who commissioned a portrait of singer Marvin Gaye from the artist. His first show, in 2010, coincided with New York Fashion week and in 2011 he tagged the VistaJet Bombardier Global Express XRS, a $60 million canvas. Last year saw Retna team up with Louis Vuitton for an undoubtedly lucrative 2013 artist-edition scarves commission, and he was further called on to create a mural on the storefront of the designer’s new location in the Design District of Miami.
Retna’s work that has arguably garnered the most attention is his signature, personally-developed script. It’s the artist’s self-styled unique language influenced by Old English, Asian calligraphy and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – to name a few. The result is a complex, striking and deeply personal original alphabet that Retna uses to inscribe his thoughts and enhance his art.
4. Mr. Brainwash: $10 million
Possibly the most enigmatic graffiti artist today is 47-year-old Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash or MBA. The Frenchman by way of Paris is now living in L.A. He started off as a filmographer and photographer, a career path which led him into a circle of heavyweights within the graffiti world, including Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Theirry immersed himself in their life and work until someone asked the gregarious and ever-enthusiastic sidekick to put a film on the graffiti scene together. Thierry sifted through his thousands of hours of footage to create a psychedelic collage of mashed-together visuals and sound bites. Banksy enlisted the help of some friends and artists to turn Thierry’s footage into the film “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. While they were re-editing, Banksy suggested to Theirry that he do some graffiti work of his own. With his trademark gusto, Theirry took on the challenge and in a virtually overnight success story put on his first massive gallery show, titled “Life is Beautiful” as Mr. Brainwash. In large part due to the exhaustive advertising of the show, and despite his arguably copycat aesthetic, profits exceeded one million dollars.
The twist: Could MBW could be a prank by Banksy himself – an elaborate Borat-style satire of the commercialization of street art? Since the release of ‘Exit Through the Giftshop’, conspiracy theorists have held that Thierry the artists is a construct, but there’s equal evidence to suggest he is, in all his derivative glory, the real deal. A successful copyright case against the artist seems to have legitimized that the work is at least as his own, and not a behind-the-scenes Banksy satirizing himself. Whether MBW is a masterful critique of consumerism or an elaborate hoax, the reality is MBW is one of the most financially successful street artists of all time. As enticing as it is to create scandal where there is none sometimes, perhaps this time truth is stranger than fiction.
3. Shepard Fairey: $15 million
Almost everyone has seen the work of Shepard Fairey, whether they know it or not. His progressive street style was first coveted by President Barack Obama‘s campaign for presidency back in 2008. The red and blue poster, depicting Obama with the word “Hope” below, has become an iconic symbol of the election and is still present in backdrops today.
He’s also known for his ‘Obey’ Andre the Giant images, which were plastered in public spaces around the world, became viral online and have since been parlayed into a clothing line, including t-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters.
Shepard Fairey, whose legal name is Frank Shepard Fairey, has garnered his fair share of controversy from both copyright cases and his outspoken nature. His work, which combines everything from pop art to Marxist theory, has created lines in the sand between supporters and opponents. Regardless of the fuss, he continues to do what he does best, stirring things up with his blend of rebelious activism and artistic liberty.
After several arrests in New York, The Rhode Island School of Art and Design alum was ironically given a nod from the city to create an uncontroversial yet visually stunning wall mural near the York Street F stop subway station. Fairey’s Obama poster now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
2. Banksy: $20 million
Impressively – in this day and age, where privacy no longer exists as it once did – the world’s most notorious and perhaps most identifiable graffiti artist continues to work under the radar as a faceless enigma.
Banksy is known for his stencil “guerilla” graffiti and bizarrely clever art installations – like a red telephone booth in London curled up on the street with a pick-axe embedded in its door and spilling blood. His tongue-in-cheek, dark social commentary has been gracing the facade of Britain – and cities around the world – for nearly two decades. Banksy’s pieces turn up in the most unexpected of places: In 2006, a Family Planning Clinic in Bristol discovered the silhouette of a naked man hanging from one of their office windows (their decision was to keep it). He painted images on the Palestinian side of the Israeli West Bank barrier in the mid-2000s, including the depiction of children digging a hole through the wall, and a ladder leading over the top – both of which are an inherent part of a whimsical and provocative style that often plays with the organic perspective and edges of his chosen canvas. In 2013, he was on the streets of New York City, leaving a signature aesthetic on the brick and mortar foundations daily; a kind of walking diary of his observations.
Banksy has published a number of books on his projects and directed two movies, one of which – “Exit Through the Gift Shop” – was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. All the while, the man behind the art has remained unidentified. The quest to put a name to a face continues: While differing photographs have surfaced, and the names Robin Banks and Robin Gunningham have cropped up, nothing is certain. There seems to be a consensus that he was born in the mid-70s, though. The artists caused controversy when he was linked to fellow street artist Mr. Brainwash -who may or may not be a project of Banksy’s imagination as an inside joke against consumerism – so it appears Banksy is privately enjoying confounding the world. It certainly hasn’t hurt his popularity any; original work by the anonymous artist commands anywhere from $40,000 to $250,000 US.
1. David Choe: $200 million
Turns out you don’t need a cool nickname to make your mark on the world as a graffiti artist. 37-year-old L.A. based David Choe was approached back in 2005 by a small social media start-up by the name of Facebook. The president at the time, Sean Parker, was a fan of the artist and commissioned him for a series of murals for their office headquarters. What Choe delivered was his blend of frenetic style of abstraction, urban landscapes and sexuality. While Parker indicated it took a bit of time to get used to the distraction of the walls, Choe was presented with two options of payment; cash, or stocks. Choe, who thought Facebook seemed ridiculous at the time, took the stocks because he likes a good gamble and trusted that Parker knew what he was doing. Two years later he was again commissioned – this time by Mark Zuckerberg – to decorate another Facebook HQ. Now, several years later, his high-risk venture has paid off in a lottery-big way. Choe is worth an estimated $200 million minimum since Facebook began publicly trading in 2012.
While Choe’s life is clearly on an upswing, he had a difficult past and was the subject of the 2012 documentary “Dirty Hands: The Art and Crime of David Choe.” The film follows eight tumultuous years in the life of the artist, tracing his journey from porn-magazine illustrator to internationally recognized artist.
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