I grew up in Dartford, in Kent, or Dirtford, as it is often called by locals or regular visitors. I grew up thinking the town had nothing to offer; no prospects, no ambition, no culture. Over the years I’ve realised this isn’t altogether the fault of the town, or even the people in it (apart from their voting habits). The primary fault lies with the local conservative council, voted in year after year despite their very public and obvious decimation of the town itself. Can any meaningful culture survive in a town which sells off its own constituents’ homes, pubs, independent shops and even listed buildings, to Tesco, for the erection of an industrial estate-sized monstrosity slap bang in the centre of the town? Until last Thursday my answer to this question would have been a resounding no. But I stand corrected. Corrected by the astoundingly diverse and talented works of local street artists being exhibited until this Saturday at the What If Gallery in Dartford as part of the Energized Art show.
The exhibition brings together both local and further afield artists, many of whom were at the private view on Thursday, overheard enthusiastically explaining their inspirations to potential buyers. It was, to me, a beautiful sight. There has been a serious dearth of anything even vaguely embodying a shred of artistic sensibility in the local area (publicly, anyway) and these works gave a glimpse of the possibilities for publicising local arts and culture. It is yet another example of how creativity will defiantly flourish despite an utter lack of support, funding or publicity. It continues to spring into being, channeled by talented creatives no matter what the often dire circumstances. In actual fact, it’s a somewhat beautiful irony that despite local councils’ attempts to stem the tide of up and coming street artists (I’ve noticed fabulous pieces suddenly painted over with council grey), they succeed only in fuelling the fire which ignites much of these works and unwittingly become their subject matter. Traditionally, street art has usually contained either implicit or explicit political messages, generally treated with clever dark humour and satire. In more modern times however, and partly as a result of the Banksy revolution (whether you approve or not, he made street art collectible) the genre is less inclined to stick to its previously defined boundaries. The competition is growing rapidly, as are standards, and audiences are no longer just trendy bohemians but bankers, politicians, gallery owners. New styles are emerging and a clear widening of the boundaries which were once labelled simply ‘graffiti’.
I’m familiar with one of the artists, Savant, whose work combines carefully designed artistic visuals with an underlying message and either uses or incorporating that revered traditional graffiti medium, the spray can. His works seem to be a comment not only on individual issues, but by their whole manner perhaps reflect his own stance on the genre. Deliberately not abandoning the roots of tradition, but branching away from the formula and incorporating alternative artistic elements. Other contributors have begun to innovate in whole new ways, which would previously never have been accepted as part of that genre; Eska, a talented young pencil artist, creates detailed landscapes reminiscent of Escher (coincidental name?), his small understated pieces hanging quietly in the corner like a nervous child, but beautiful, and delicately contrasting the other works. More traditional artists were showing too, with a veritable wealth of stunning paintings and works lining the walls of the gallery. But it was Jps who produced two of my personal standout pieces from the show: Biggie Smalls and A Line of Charlie. Both are funny, simple, clever and innovative. They shine a new light on the street art spectrum, exploring and commenting on new media but in classic street art style using popular culture and humour to create an instant connection with the viewer. It did strike me as interesting that only a handful of the artists produced a piece which was not on a canvas in a rectangular frame. The move for the street artist from outside object to indoor canvas is very new, but it shows the still gaping divide between the freedom of street art and the restrictions of gallery art. In a way, they’re still either one, or they’re the other. What will be fascinating is to see how this continues to develop. The status and definitions of street art and graffiti have shifted over the past 15 years and are expanding into a whole new format. Where that will lead, I don’t know, but must say I’m looking forward to finding out.
Now that I’m aware of the wealth of street artists out there, I hope to see their works appearing more regularly nearby and have already submitted my request for a collaborative piece to bring some life and beauty back to the emptiness which currently swamps the town. Whether in the gallery or out on the street, the imagination, creativity and ability is there in abundance. More, please!