Saatchi Gallery Gets A Graffiti Makeover

by Christina Donoghue on 17 February 2023

Today sees the opening of Saatchi Gallery's BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON exhibition, bringing together over 100 internationally renowned artists of our time celebrating street art and its roots in '70's New York.

Today sees the opening of Saatchi Gallery's BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON exhibition, bringing together over 100 internationally renowned artists of our time celebrating street art and its roots in '70's New York.

Many artists use a blank canvas as their starting point, just as writers use a blank notepad (or laptop screen) as their's. But what about graffiti artists? Unconventional in more ways than one, the blank wall has always served as particular inspiration for this cultural movement - one that's so vast, it's become the topic of the adidas-sponsored exhibition BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON that features 100 + of the world's most renowned artists.

'Fight Back', Estate of Roger Perry

Taking over not one but four floors at Saatchi Gallery on Kings Road, the exhibition stretches beyond the constraints of what your average gallery typically offers, proving that, despite a lack of the art world's general interest in the genre, street art is not something to be ignored. 'People tend to marginalise things they don't understand', the exhibition's curator Roger Gastman told me ahead of the show's opening, 'which rings exceptionally true with many subcultures like graffiti and street art. However, the strongest of these always find ways to rise to the top, which is the case with these movements. They've continued to grow through the years and inspire new generations of artists and creatives. Our goal is to always celebrate the inventors, originators, and stars of the culture, especially while they're still with us.'

Marking the first time in just under a decade, the Saatchi Gallery has been transformed into what can only be described as a liveable art piece; its curation demands active participation to gain the whole experience. Featuring new works, large-scale installations, original ephemera, and fashion that captures the powerful impact of street art across the world, the show dives into three main topics; looking at the emergence of punk, the birth of hip-hop (marking its 50th anniversary in 2023) and street culture's strong influence in fashion and film. Not only unusual in size, but the distinct curatorial element belonging to BEYOND THE STREETS really does put your average gallery to shame. From including a life-size record store on the ground floor and a walk-through installation filled with 'Rubbish Stuff' on the second to a maze-like structure of revolving doors with stencil cut-outs (no, but really) and a total transformation of the gallery's space overall, there's a lot to take in with the curation mimicking a frenzied restlessness reflective of the movement itself.

Exclamation Canvas, 2018

Although this style of show may be a first for Saatchi, it's not for Gastman, founder of the collective Beyond the Streets, known in particular for their giant-scale exhibitions, immersive educational experiences, and engaging pop-up events. The centre of the show features a raw passion for the art of spray paint, one that's so deeply rooted in love that it's a near obsession, graffiti style. Having touched down in London for the retrospective, Saatchi Gallery becomes a base for Gastman to chart a retrospective on how graffiti, street art, hip-hop, punk, fashion and break-dancing are all rooted in 1970s street culture. 'When Saatchi Gallery approached us to bring BEYOND THE STREETS overseas, it didn't take long for us to say yes. Saatchi have been amazing to partner with, and I'm excited to share these incredible stories in such a prestigious and elegant space.' Jam-packed with 100 contemporary artists of now (while also including separate homages to bands like The Beastie Boys and even Blondie), it's impossible not to come away feeling the same as you did upon entry. 'I really hope people leave inspired, with more knowledge and a deeper understanding of the important role London has played within graffiti, street art, music and all these other subcultures it helped spawn throughout the years. I always enjoy it when someone comes away with a new favourite artist from our shows.'

'Why graffiti?' I posed to Gastman over email. His answer was simple. 'It was just something I gravitated towards as a kid. I grew up in the early 90s, and all my friends were writing graffiti at the time. It was something of major interest that just kept going since it was around me all the time. I've never stopped doing it or stopped having an interest in it.' Considering his lifelong involvement in the culture, you'd be hard-pressed to believe there was little left for Gastman to know. 'I've learned a lot about London and punk rock', he admitted. 'Even about many things that I thought I knew. We worked with an amazing host of curators and contributors for this show, many of whom are historians who lived through these periods and had significant first-hand experience. There's so much I learned that I'm excited to share with the London community.'

'Ladies on Train', Martha Cooper

So, what is actually included? A personal favourite is Jenny Holzer's much-loved truisms splashed across an entire wall just as FUTURA2000's legendary 30 ft. painting - made on stage with The Clash - is on display next to unparalleled contributions from Malcolm McLaren, MODE2 and the work of American photojournalist Martha Cooper. All the artists featured in the show are integral to the past, present, and future of graffiti and street art rule-breaking and mark-making cultures', certified Gastman. Not to say that 'every person or artist that played a pivotal role in the rise of these subcultures is featured, as that would be nearly impossible to do' he adds, but the key here is mass inclusion, illustrated by the eclectic array of work decorating the gallery's walls.

'TMODE 2 HIS!', 2 Mode, 1997
'SWOON', Ben


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