The presence of animals and nature in street art is not only a reminder of what was there before the urban environment but also offers us a chance to reflect on what might be coming our way.
Remember when Banksy painted the elephant? The literal ‘elephant in the room’ became just that, a conversation that made a lot of people confront many big issues. The 2006 roaming installation in Los Angeles made worldwide news but wasn’t Banksy’s only animal-based work. He also painted pigs (‘FUCK PIGS’ on their backs), referring to the police and again, making world news.
Maybe his most important animal though, is the rat. Influenced by French stencil-heavy artist Blek le Rat, the rat embodies the characteristics and existence of those that move around at night, unknown and unseen, skittering around dark alleyways next to the pissy-walls and garbage in neon-lit no-mans-land.
Like rats, certain animals are anthropomorphized in art to embody innately human attributes – the pivot is that human’s also relate to traits that are intrinsically animalistic. The strength of a lion or tactility of a cat become symbolic of human behavior. This is why we see them on our clothes, on jewellery, tattood on our bodies and of course, captured in art.
Rats for Banksy were reflective of his own existence as an artist, symbolic of the war being waged between street artists and authorities – the view that they are pests, like rats. Animals are yet untamed and unrestrained sources of life, unconditioned by the straightjacket of societal confines – we are envious of their freedom in a time where ours seems to be increasingly encroached upon.
From the earliest days of graffiti, from walls to trains - movement has been a vital feature. The exploration of movement and freedom is another aspect encapsulated by animals, specifically birds. They’re one of the most potent animal symbols, adopted by nations and indigenous cultures long before they made their way onto walls around the world.
Artists like Lonac, Xenz, DALeast and Eron daub walls with them and, despite their static nature, they always embody a potential for kinetic energy, as if at any moment they will break free from the wall. The bird expresses deep mythical values and being portrayed in an urban environment, allows the passing audience a chance to experience these creatures intimately, as if their presence is among us.
Besides being a means of expressing ourselves, artists paint animals to draw attention to them – to their plight, or their status. The enigmatic street artist ROA viscerally portrays the idiosyncrasies of nature using a mainly monochromatic palette to explore the life-cycle of animals, capturing moments of their life. Sometimes in conflict, sometimes dead, always eye-catching.
What sets his work aside is his eye for nuance. Choosing to focus on animals indigenous to the areas that he paints, he gives exposure to rare species and draws attention to the unacknowledged varieties present in the animal kingdom. These animals seem alien in the urban environment, but they present a constant reminder to us that we aren’t too far away from them – not by distance or by make-up.
Beyond ROA, environmental conservation is a strong theme in the portrayal of nature and animals in urban art. Seeing animals on walls, many times their natural size, puts the onus on us to reinterpret our relationship with the natural world – between mankind and the environment. A particularly pertinent example of this is the work of Louis Masai Michel’s #SaveTheBees project, where the artist painted large bee murals around London to raise awareness of the insects importance to our survival as humans.
Graffiti has always been an expression of freedom, and that is something artists have embraced wholeheartedly. Nothing encapsulates freedom like the natural world and that is one reason why it has always featured in graffiti culture. Inherently resistant, graffiti is a statement that people are willing to fight back. The duality of creation and destruction – present in art nature and the animal kingdom, creates a powerful image when witnessed in an urban society. Just like seeing ivy wrapping its viney fingers around a building, as if the earth is reclaiming what has been built there - seeing animals and nature feature in street art makes the man-made landscape feel more human.
Their representation in art isn’t new, neither is their presence in graffiti. These two themes are becoming far more prevalent though, not only for their rich aesthetic quality, but the symbolic value that they offer artists. They’re trying to draw attention to the things that we are forgetting in our constant quest to build and expand our civilizations. They’re saying ‘look how beautiful these things are, look after them’, because if we don’t – these paintings will be all we have left.
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