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Urban legends

What was once known as street art has evolved in scale, technique and public perception. Rob Sandall finds out why collectors are getting more and more interested in the urban art scene

Words by Rob Sandall

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It’s perhaps wrong to say that urban art is ‘back’, as in truth it never really went away, but since the boom triggered by Banksy in the early 2000s, collectors have faced considerable challenges in picking out those artists most likely to succeed.

That’s partly down to the nuances of terminology surrounding the scene in the first place, as Moniker Art Fair director Tina Ziegler points out.

“‘Street art’ as a term in itself hasn’t been doing enough for a long time now,” she says. “A great many artists in the urban and contemporary scene certainly still have strong connections to the street, but as techniques, ambitions and the public’s interest have changed, it’s become such a broad spread. The term street art just doesn’t cover it.”

Moniker has steadily consolidated across nine editions held annually in Shoreditch, London and a tenth most recently in New York. It’s success is down to rising collector interest in work that takes as many cues from the 18th century as it does the city streets.

“Fine art is one part of the scene that’s enjoying a renaissance of sorts – techniques and styles that evoke earlier artistic history but within modern contexts,” says Ziegler.

She adds that the stylistic shift has been brought about by the opportunities for those artists who have best understood how to leverage the power of social media.

“You have students of fine art taking to the streets, because murals and other public artwork are more likely to be picked up on Instagram, and that can get them the buzz they need to either sell art directly or catch the attention of galleries and fairs.”

Work under way on Vesod's Light on the Horizon, in Campobasso
580-265 BC, in Athens, by Faith XLVII

And what of potential returns in a market that on first glance seems dangerously prone to flux? It’s down to finding the artists on the edge of blowing up commercially, and cracking that code is key to securing significant dividends.

Many of the artists exhibited at Moniker this year, including celebrated muralist Vesod, sell original artworks at the £5,000 mark, with pieces by relative newcomers like Kaili Smith available for around £3,500.

With a relatively low buy-in, those artists who capture the imaginations of the public can find their works soaring in value. Stik, who debuted at Moniker in 2011 with works fetching £1,000, has since been listed on a recent poll of the nations most loved works of art. Now, his works are valued at upwards of £20,000.

Movement in returns can be quick, too: Faith XLVII, who will appear this year in Moniker’s installation room, initially exhibited in 2014 with works for sale at £3,000, and are now sold for double the cost. C215 began in 2012 with works at £2,000, now selling for between £10,000 and £20,000.

Clearly then, there are gains to be made, but curatorial nous is needed. The success of fairs like Moniker can be largely attributed to filling those gaps in collectors’ knowledge, while the very public nature of urban art acts as its own form of PR, taking exhibitions onto the streets themselves. We might never see another Banksy, but faith in urban art’s long-term viability has never been stronger.

315-307 BC, Detroit, by Faith XLVII

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