Guest blog on street art from Coley Porter Bell creative director, Stephen Bell

Shepard Fairey, Bastards print
Shepard Fairey, Bastards print

Profit is a stern disciplinarian that generally keeps commercial creativity on its toes. Well that’s the theory at any rate. But it’s a theory that is sorely tested by a new exhibition of Street Art at the Black Rat Projects, located in a railway arch behind Cargo, a club in increasingly yuppified Shoreditch.

As you enter the formerly shabby little side street containing the gallery, you pass two Banksys stencilled on the wall –they must be worth millions and they aren’t even part of the exhibition.

Inside there’s a show of prints by artists including Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Blek Le Rat, Pure Evil and D*Face, all from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection. But they don’t come across as fusty old museum pieces. They are vibrant, witty, provocative and inspiring.  

As I shuffled out it struck me that even though Street Art isn’t new, it still has energy and the ability to engage in a way that has become conspicuously lacking in the more mainstream street form –commercial posters.

For nearly one hundred years posters were the propagandist’s medium of choice. Whether you were promoting a political party, recruiting soldiers for an especially nasty war or just trying to flog more soap powder, posters gave you instant access to a mass audience. Until even five years ago the poster was a fantastic way to generate a bit of controversy and get noticed.

Saatchi, Labour Isn't Working,1979
Saatchi, Labour Isn’t Working,1979

From the Saatchi’s 1979 ’Labour Isn’t Working’ for the Tory party, through  ‘Hello Boys’ for Wonderbra to Queer Company’s lipstick Lesbian Kiss image, commercial posters were often both a visual treat and a way to get people to reconsider their thoughts on a topic, whether it be the government or underwired bras.

But walk past any 48 sheet poster these days and you will be confronted with work so bland, uninteresting and meaningless that it will hurt your brain to even engage with it.  Dull product information, sale announcements, money off promotions and new tv programmes are the subject matter. They offer no attempt to engage the brain, raise the pulse or your spirits. Just dull little sales messages.

What happened?  Obviously digital is partly to blame. Many of the more controversial duties of posters have been hived off to the internet where companies can eff and blind and generally be controversial to their hearts content –with less risk of the collateral reputational damage that comes with mass media.

But improvements in the way the poster industry operates are also at work here. Thanks to better measurement and accounting systems, it is now possible to accurately identify with the people who see any given poster site. This has turned posters into a narrowcast rather than broadcast medium, so content is less likely to be of general interest.

Lastly there have been huge improvements in production technology which mean that a poster campaign can go up in days instead of months. This has vastly boosted posters ability to act as a tactical medium. They no longer try to do the job of TV ads. Instead they are competing with press advertising.

So that is why posters have become so poor recently. It’s a shame because The Black Rat Projects and its guerilla artists remind us of how just what a brilliant medium it can be.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • David Lewis. 1960creative November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Nice article Stephen. I have loved poster work for over 30 years now and I always looked forward to the Insane art director section within CR and D&AD. The one thing that annoys me today is the amount of information they cram on them especially the 48 sheets. Probably down to the client wanting to throw the kitchen sink at it!

  • martin hall November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    sounds like an good exhibition.

    A poster campaign that really caught my eye recently has been for google voice search, with things phonetically spelt as if spoken. These are usually site or time specific (for the particular train station you are at, or for valentines day)

  • Post a comment

Latest articles