A little bit of a how-to guide on the elusive public art form.
The graffiti and street art we know and recognise today started on the trains of the Bronx during the late seventies, but has since matured to encompass the political messages of artists like Banksy (a la West Bank Wall separating Israel from Jordan, his recent New York exhibition etc.) as well as becoming a cornerstone of an entire subculture (see: Style Wars).
Despite being such a public art form, the art and history behind street art and graffiti remain quite elusive to society in general. So we talked to international graffiti artist WERT159 about the history of the art form, as well as providing a little bit of a how-to guide for those punters interested in trying it out for themselves.
Although graffiti and street art have existed in some form or another for centuries, what most of us would define as modern graffiti art matured in the late 1970s with the full train car spraypaint bombs in the Bronx. Soon after, in Sao Paolo, graffiti art gained prominence mostly because of poverty. Graffiti artists who lived in the slums would go to the richest areas of the city, tagging their names everywhere, just to raise awareness that they existed - that the rich should acknowledge them, and look into their problems.
Meanwhile here in New Zealand, one of our most iconic and established artists, Askew One, wanted to fit into the gang culture of violence and danger, without actually doing any of those things - so saw doing graffiti as a means of still getting street cred, like many other emerging artists in the field.
Creating Graffiti/Street Art
Creating graffiti or street art involves quite a few steps - from scouting for a wall to filling-in techniques. See the above video for a general visual overview, and then keep on reading for more specific details.
"Choosing a wallfeels like walking through a candy store." What you look for depends on what you want from the space. Some artists look for highly visible spots to get the most exposure they can, while others want a quieter spot where they can just paint for hours without being confronted or harassed.
There’s always a question of accessibility as well – whether you can paint on your own or require some sort of ladder or scaffolding system to paint, and whatever logistical problems (transporting the scaffolding etc.) that come with it.
WERT159 personally prefers fresh walls that haven’t been painted before. Here in Auckland, however, it's something which is quite problematic since there aren't enough walls for everyone. Consent's hard to get, and the walls that do get painted just get repainted over and over again, "which in a way devalues what we do – and people put in less effort as well, since they know at one point their work will be covered by someone else’s".
The difference between good and bad spray paint is in the formula they use. Generally-speaking, spray paint produced in Spain, Germany and around Europe is better quality than the Chinese-manufactured labels. Most of the spray paint that you can buy from places like The Warehouse is made in Chinese and is pretty poor quality - being runny, quick-fading and terrible-smelling.
The best quality brands to use are Spain’s Montana ’94, Germany’s Montana, Australia’s Ironlak – which is the most popular in New Zealand due to its price. You can find these at Gordon Harris, Loaded on High St, and on a few online stores.
It's also important to note that different spray cans have different pressures – most have a normal amount of pressure, but some cans are known for having a higher high amount of pressure. Most people use normal pressure cans, but some people do use high pressure cans because you can spit out paint faster – which means you can cover larger areas faster, making it a pretty ideal can for those who want to create illegal pieces (it's basically what they've been created for).However, for your average punter a normal pressure can is fine so don't get coaxed into paying more for something you don't actually need.
Every brand release its own range of caps which can produce lines that can range from 10mm to 20mm wide. Cap sizes can be skinny, soft or fat (as well as some other niche types of caps, but the most commonly used sizes are those three). What cap shape you use will change the hardness of the lines. The skinny caps produce thinner, sharper lines, which is good for detail work. The fatter you go the wider and rounder the line gets, which is better for filling in colour for larger areas.
If someone else’s work’s already there, WERT159 rolls some paint over it. Some artists would just do their outline over someone else’s piece, but for complex pieces it's better to have a clean canvas. Depending on the artist, you'd see different levels of preparation - from planning each and every detail in terms of the colour scheme and image, to just freestyling on the day.
The Sketch Up
Once you have your clean wall, the first step is the sketch up, which involves tracing out an outline of what you’re going to paint. If you're drawing off a certain image, it's a good idea to line up a two corresponding grids - one on the wall, one on the image, to get a rough idea of proportions before starting your outline.
Another good way to check that the image stays in proportion is to take a photo of the outline on the wall from a bit further back - it's easier to tell on a smaller screen whether something's a little bit off or not.
Note: Draw the sketch up with a colour you don’t want to use, since you’re pretty much wasting it by outlining, and it won't be a part of the piece - it just gives you an indication of where to fill.
The thickness is of the line is determined by the distance your cap is from the wall. The closer your cap is to the wall, the thinner the line will be – the further away the cap is, the more spread apart the paint will be. If you're getting a build up of dripping paint you're applying too much, and need to move your arm a little bit faster. The key to applying is short well-timed strokes, not a continuous line.
You should also always shake the can all the time, to create pressure and to keep mixing the liquids and solids. If the paint’s not mixed properly you’ll get runny dissolved liquid coming out, instead of a well-textured paint.
As a technique stencils allow you to create a very complex picture on-site (see C215 above) almost immediately - doing most of your prepping work at home. It’s also a very fast method of creating multiple images.
For stencils you’ll need a cutting board, exacto knife (which is better for creating smooth curves and sharp edges than a craft knife). The best material to use for stencils would be either cardboard or fine sheets of plastic – don’t use paper (can get damaged when it gets wet from the spray paint).
The biggest mistake rookies make is to overspray outside of the area of your stencil - if it's a problem, you need to use a bigger piece of stencil.
Wheat Paste Posters
Wheat paste posters takes the ease of application further than the stencil. Pre-print, pre-draw your paper creation, and apply it to the wall with a few brushes of wheat paste. Easy. See Obey and JR for inspiration.
Feature image: WERT 159photographed by Monster Valley.