Street art, part 1 : the Pioneers
Street art, part 1 : the Pioneers

Street art, part 1 : the Pioneers


                                                                                                          Lover, Banksy

Banksy, Shepard Fairey (Obey) and JR….do they mean anything to you ?

Do you want to know their most talented precursors?

Today, street art is undoubtedly one of the most famous movements in contemporary art.

LeZ’ArTs takes you on an artistic stroll through the streets, from New York to Paris.

                                                                      BIRTH OF STREET ART IN PHILADELPHIA IN THE 60S 


Street art was born in Philadelphia in the United States in the 1960s, under the impetus of the artists Cornbread and Cool Earl. Frowned upon for several years, this art consists of tagging walls, public transport, buildings... Illegal and ephemeral, due to its ease of being covered, street art has nevertheless managed to conquer the hearts of many artists.
The aim is to make this art accessible and visible to a large number of people as a means of communication and to move people’s minds. Today, some works can be worth several million euros and are known to all.

However, it is generally agreed that street art really began in the 1960s in the United States. The first street art-like movement was the “Graffiti writing” started by two Philadelphia artists, Cornbread and Cool Earl. Cornbread, who suffered from severe shyness, wrote “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” on the walls of his school and neighbourhood. Madly in love with her, he doesn’t dare say it to her face! Street art became more democratic when the word “graffiti” was included in the dictionary of art brut, and recognition took shape!

                                                                                             THE 1980s, NEW-YORK


A decade later, the trend seduced New York, which saw the emergence of great names in street art: Taki 183 and Blade One. In the street, on pavements, walls, subways or public surfaces, everything is a pretext to create and pass on a message visible to all. Graffiti, stencils, posters, stickers, projections, there are a multitude of techniques and materials for artists to create street masterpieces.


The tags of Taki 183, arguably the most famous of the precursors, were visible all over New York. Demetrius, his real name, is of Greek origin; and 183 was the number of the street where he lived. He worked as a courier, which allowed him to put his name everywhere during his working hours.

                                                                   BIRTH OF STREET ART IN FRANCE IN THE 1960S                                          

                                                                                             Ernest Pignon-Ernest


                                                     Jumelage Nice/Le Cap, Nice 1974 – photo © Ernest Pignon-Ernest

In the 1960s, the archaeographer Ernest Pignon-Ernest began to call out to shoppers on the walls of major French cities. He asserted his political commitment in images and, over the years, tackled more difficult subjects such as abortion, the situation of expellees, refugees, prisoners and AIDS sufferers.

                                                                            Deportation, Ernest Pignon-Ernest

The artist’s choice of location is never a matter of chance, and this reflection is as important as the final result.

With his works, Ernest Pignon-Ernest depicts the real-life context of the 1970s, in which he began his career as an artist. Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s works are accessible on every street corner and symbolise the very interest of this very special art: to bring to the fore in a universal way what is usually hidden. Thus, he creates drawings that are often very realistic and on a human scale, in order to open the eyes of passers-by. The characters, drawn in charcoal or black stone, are appealing because of their position facing the street, while fitting perfectly into the walls.

His works, both realistic and poetic, are perfect illustrations of the ephemeral nature of urban art.


                                                                  Pasolini – Dans l’infamie des temps, Ernest Pignon-Ernest                      

                                                                                                         Jef Aérosol

Born in Nantes (France) in 1957, Jef Aérosol is undoubtedly one of the most famous street art artists. Starting with stencils in the 1980s, he was one of the very first in France to adopt this new art form, alongside Miss.Tic and Ernest Pignon Ernest.

Today, his works can be seen in the streets of metropolises around the world!

Among his characteristics, we can note that he often paints famous personalities in black and white, such as Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat but also Elvis Presley, the Beatles and other musicians or singers.

This is a natural choice for someone whose creative drive has been music!

                                                                     Silence, place Stravinsky, Paris, Jef Aérosol

His recognisable sign is also the mysterious red arrow that accompanies all his graffiti, the precise explanation for which is not yet known…

Jef Aérosol also takes particular care to represent those he describes as the “forgotten”, i.e. children and the homeless. His Sitting Kid stencil has been seen around the world.

                                                                              Sitting kid & butterflies, Jef Aérosol

                                                                  THE TURN OF THE 1980s IN NEW YORK

                                                                                              Keith Haring


                                                                   Keith Haring, We Are the Youth (Philadelphie)

New York, the birthplace of street artists, experienced a turning point in 1980. The Mayor banned graffiti in the Big Apple. This did not discourage two famous artists: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

The militant artist Keith Haring (who died far too early in 1990) left his mark on the world of Pop Art and street art, as he was one of the first artists to create murals. Recognizable among thousands thanks to his unique style, he created “We the youth” in 1987 in Philadelphia. Today, it is the only mural by Keith Harring that remains intact on its original site.

                                                                                         Jean-Michel Basquiat

In January, I sat next to a masked man on a J train from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan, where a political demonstration was taking place. When the train stopped at Fulton Street, the man turned and wrote a message in black pen on the underground car window: “Every act is an act of protest.” He disappeared into the crowd on the platform and his proposal lay there, suddenly authorless. Jean-Michel Basquiat.


                                                  Jean-Michel Basquiat was a homeless New York graffiti artist, nicknamed SAMO.                   

                                                                                                         Lady Pink


                                                                                               “Vote”, Lady Pink

For a long time, street art was considered to be a mainly male movement. In reality, many women artists are part of this movement, including Lady Pink, one of the pioneers in New York in 1980.

Born in Ecuador, she admitted that it was not easy to break into the male-dominated scene. Especially since graffiti artists work illegally, often in dangerous neighbourhoods.

                                                                          Faith in Women de Lady Pink, Minnesota

Specialised in tags, Lady Pink has quickly imposed her very colourful style with psychedelic influences.

Her works are easily recognisable by their profusion of very bright colours, the presence of characters from pop culture and their dynamism. With time and her time in the studio, the artist has evolved her style, adding figurative elements to her works, but always respecting her lively and rhythmic palette.


                                                                                              THE 1980s IN FRANCE

                                                                                                          Miss. Tic


Since 1985, Miss. Tic took over the walls of the districts of Ménilmontant, Montmartre, the Marais, Montorgueil, and the Butte-aux-Cailles.


Thanks to her aerosol can and her stencils, the young artist creates a completely new and poetic pictorial universe!             

On the corners of the streets of Paris, Miss. Tic stencils a young woman, brunette, always very charming and sexy, in black dresses and clothes close to the body.


This brunette woman, always in a different posture and in different clothes, is systematically accompanied by a poetic sentence.

                                                                                         Jérome Mesnager

                                                                               Rue Bourret, Paris, Jérome Mesnager

 Pioneer of street art in France, Jérôme Mesnager has been pursuing an artistic approach that is somewhere between official and subversive, freely appropriating urban space to reconfigure it to his liking. Although he has been painting since the age of 14, it was in 1982 with the urban intervention group Zig Zag dans la Savane that he took to the walls.

From Paris to New York, from Pondicherry to the Great Wall of China, the white silhouette created in 1986 that characterises his work, a symbol of light, peace and freedom, celebrates the dynamics of life through the human body.

                                                                                 Rue de Ménilmontant, Jérome Mesnager

Jérôme Mesnager remembers the creation of the silhouette of the man, this figure that has become emblematic, whose features are close to naive art: “It was January 16, 1983, it was 12:30. I said to myself: this is one of the signs that will make my life. If I knew it right away, it was because when I was a kid I met painters and listened to them. I heard that it was necessary to produce a sign that brings us together, as close as possible to ourselves, capable of accompanying us throughout our lives. Painting serves to identify us, in the face of the billions of works around. At the time, I had already painted 500 or 600 pictures. When I did the white body, I understood that it corresponded to what the old painters had told me. And that it would be my sign, broad enough in possibility to feed the work of a lifetime, in its simplicity: a brushstroke with white.”

                                                                                     Rue Bourret, Paris, Jérome Mesnager

                                                                                                  THE 1990s

Rare but more qualitative, this is perhaps the 180° turn that has taken place in the street art world since the end of the 1990s. Just as New York banned graffiti on the city’s walls, it is now the Paris City Council that is tracking down graffiti artists.

Names such as Banksy, Invader, the Os Gemeos brothers and JR have become recognised and unavoidable figures of street art. An art that, seen as provocative at first, gradually became institutionalized until it found its place on the contemporary art market.

                                                                                    Jean-René, known as JR


                                                                                      Kid, La Havane, Jean-René

JR, or Jean-René, is one of the most famous artists of the first generation of French street art.

His favourite medium is photography, which he then transposes onto the walls of cities around the world. Having grown up in an underprivileged environment, it is important to him to give a special visibility to young people, especially from the suburbs. His photographs mainly feature portraits of strangers, themselves seen by other strangers. With his giant installations  exhibited all over the world, he invites us to question the borders (or not!) between different social backgrounds and religions.


                                                                                                      Marseille, Jean-René

                                                                                             Rio de Janeiro, Jean-René

                                                                                                   Shepard Fairey

                                                                                   American dreamers, Shepard Fairey

You’ve probably already seen the OBEY sticker, either in the street or on clothing.

It is the trademark of the artist Shepard Fairey, an American from South Carolina.

With this acronym, he encourages passers-by to pay more attention to the world around them rather than walking around in indifference. He also creates propaganda posters with the aim of promoting peace, equality and respect for human rights.

                                                                                Voting rights, Milwaukee, Shepard Fairey


Located on Place Stravinsky, in the heart of the 4th arrondissement and the Halles district, right next to the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Sainte-Merry cathedral, the artist’s new mural runs alongside the one already created by French artist Jef Aérosol.


OBEY offers us a mural entitled “Knowledge + Action”.
The artist is inspired by the art nouveau with a very current message. He believes that apathy and ignorance have led to a decline in civility and quality civic engagement, giving rise to forces that promote fear, division and nationalism. He argues for the importance of educating ourselves to empower ourselves to take action to shape the future.

His mural, dominated by blue, is in keeping with the urban space of Paris. The colour echoes the water in the basin of the Stravinsky Fountain, the sculptures signed by Nicky de Saint Phalle that make up the fresco, and the pipes in the architecture of the Centre Georges Pompidou


This work represents two women standing face to face in profile on two piles of books. Symbol of knowledge and learning, it is thanks to this that they can stand proudly and fight together, they are united in their postures with their arms stretched out towards each other.

In the centre of the picture, a lotus blossom appears above a barbed wire rod, a symbol of the negative being overcome by the positive, a visual metaphor for hope in the unwritten future.

With this fresco, OBEY shows us his desire to see the contemporary world evolve positively.


At the foot of this flower, an open book bears the words “The Future is Unwritten”. At the bottom of the work is the text: “knowledge + action = power”.

This fresco refers to the artist’s fight to protect our environment. It also refers to the feminist cause and more generally to the concept of social justice, solidarity and respect for each individual. It tends to give power back to citizens in order to demonstrate that the future is still to be written and that nothing is fixed, that our freedom belongs to us, that emancipation is in our hands. Thus it means that through knowledge combined with action, we have the power to change our common and personal destiny. Shepard Fairey is a committed artist who advocates peace, gender equity and environmental conservation.



                                                                 Hip Hop Rat, by Banksy, as a tribute to Blek le Rat

Banksy was born in 1974 in Bristol, a city in the southwest of England. He started doing graffiti in the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1994, he joined the street-art group Bristol’s DrybreadZ Crew (DBZ). It was at this time that he became known as a street-art artist. He graffitied with other artists like Kato and Tes. He was inspired by the French stencil artist Blek le rat.


                                                                                        Mild Mild West – Mural, Bristol

Several works by Banksy have been painted on walls in Bristol. The first to be authenticated is “Mild Mild West”. Achieved in 1998, it shows a teddy bear throwing a molotov cocktail at riot police. Note that the artist’s name appears at the bottom of the painting: did Banksy sign it? Was it Banksy who signed it or someone else? In any case, Banksy will not sign any more after this one. According to the Hugh-Art website, “The Mild Mild West” symbolises the police crackdown on parties held in abandoned warehouses during the 1990s.


It is from this work that the Bristolian street artist began to make a name for himself. His works attract crowds, journalists and celebrities.

In conclusion, street art is surely one of the freest artistic movements. The variety of techniques used, its ephemeral or even illegal aspect, and the universal aspect of the messages conveyed make it both fascinating and complex. Above all, it proposes a new vision of art, both accessible and popular, in which the street is both the workshop and the museum or the art gallery. Considered a revolution at the beginning of its creation, it is now invading the most famous institutions and auction houses.

                                                                                      To end up …with Shepard Fairey…


These posters by Shepard Fairey can be seen while browsing the huge exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Lyon, until 9 July 2023.

Shepard Fairey aka Obey is considered one of the world’s most influential urban artists, and is a leading figure in urban art. He became eminently famous ten years ago with the accession to power of Obama, and has imposed his style and colours on walls around the world.


  1. John Coveney

    Thank you for this interesting article. Graffiti, when artistic, is fine, it makes one think, laugh or cry. The problem, and I don’t know the solution, is the non artisic tags applied by those who simply wish to destoy traditional society by degrading everything and as a result, inflic the cost of cleaning walls, trains, bridges and everything else upon descent tax paying citizens.

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