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Art

How street art hopes to save the world

Charities and advocacy groups are working more and more with street artists to help create innovative and unique campaigns. Uniting the two is a common cause: fighting for what they believe in.

In the present era of "slacktivism," "clicktivism" and general apathy towards the state of the world, a traditionally maligned form of art is getting people listening and - more importantly - giving.

Once the province of misfits and social outcasts, street art is taking on a friendlier face these days. Known for being subversive and sometimes downright anarchist, street art has never been shy about getting its message across.

"It's more personal, and people appreciate the work that goes into it," says UK-based artist Pistol.

Sometimes these campaigns can take on a more personal tone, as is the case with Pistol's upcoming "paint jam" for the British children's medical research fundraiser, the Ollie Young Foundation. Pistol says he noticed that his local neighborhood of Wokingham could use some brightening up and had heard about the charity from his daughters. So he organized the one-off event, inviting artists from across Europe to come together and create artwork on the neglected area of the street.

Pistol himself will be painting a portrait of the charity's namesake, five-year-old Ollie, who passed away from a brain tumor two years ago.

"It was just a nice thing to do," he says.

Street artist Spok Brillor creates an artwork in a Madrid street as part of the BLOOM Association's event against deep sea trawling, Copyright: BLOOM/SPOK

Street artist Spok Brillor sprays in Madrid against deep sea trawling

Across the Channel, French marine advocacy organization BLOOM found themselves suddenly overwhelmed with requests from local artists wanting to help them in their fight against deep-sea bottom trawling - an issue that, at first glance, doesn't have much to do with urban art.

"We were contacted by some street artists who were outraged by what's happening in Europe right now and they basically said, 'How can we help?'" says the association's founder and director, Claire Nouvian. "We were like, 'Yeah definitely, thanks for your generous offer,' and we started plotting the activity around that."

Think global, act local

In 2012, the European Commissioner of Fisheries proposed a ban on the fishing method, which damages deep-sea organisms as a net is towed along the bottom of the ocean. Countries such as France and Spain have continued to block the legislation.

Nouvian says they jumped at the chance to get help with their cause from a huge network of European artists. In July, they held a day of action where artists in Lisbon, Berlin, Rome, Biarritz, Brussels, London, and Madrid all created works to protest against ocean bed fishing.

Artist Aurelien Delwood, who works on France's northern coast, says he jumped at the chance to help with such a worthy cause. "I'm a surfer and I surf in the ocean, so for me that's a reason to protect my ocean. All the surfers I know don't know about this cause because this fishing is very far away from the coast. I knew a little bit about this fishing but I didn't know the extent - that it was killing the ocean."

Delwood, who worked on a concrete military structure called a "block house" on a Biarritz beach, says the completely open and public nature of this type of event meant people could get up close and personal with the artists and their art.

French street artist Delwood's finished work on a Biarritz beach, Copyright: BLOOM/DELWOOD

French street artist Delwood's finished work on a Biarritz beach

"When I was painting on the beach, I started at midnight and the beach was empty. When I came back at eight all these people came to see me, to ask why I'm doing this," he says. "I said I'm speaking for the ocean, with BLOOM, and it's good to have this contact with people because I'm normally painting alone in my workshop. I think it's a good experience for me."

Not everyone can be a street artist

When using street art to promote a good cause, Patric Schäfer, creative director at the digital communications agency Denkwerk, found out that quality counts. The decision to use established street artists came after the firm's failed attempt to include the community.

"The idea was to put canvases on the walls and give everybody a chance to paint on them; you didn't have to be a graffiti artist or street artist or whatever," he says.

But after leaving a test canvas up in Berlin for a few days, they were disappointed with the results. "We saw the canvas two days later and it was crap! And we thought this won't work, no one will pay even 5 or 10 euros for this so we made the decision to ask real artists."

Denkwerk's Blankspot Project was started in 2013 as a way of raising money for global advocacy group Save the Children. Since then, in cities across Germany, artists have been creating striking works on canvases that are later removed to leave a conspicuous hole and sold at auction nights, with the profits passed on to the charity.

Schäfer says the positive attention the campaign received has also extended to the street art community. Artists have been proactively contacting Denkwerk to see how they can participate.

An artist painting on a canvas for the Blankspot Project, Copyright: Alexander Munch

This artist is painting on a canvas for the Blankspot Project

"We have a lot of graffiti artists or sprayers from across the globe calling us or [project curator] Atom One to get involved with the project in the future or asking if they can be a part of it next time, or are we planning something, say, in Barcelona," he says.

Art genre with a reputation

Despite street art's new benevolent direction, Pistol thinks it has yet to fully shake its delinquent stigma. "Graffiti has a bad name," he says.

BLOOM's Victoire Guillonneau also admits that in the early stages of involving street artists in the project not everyone was in agreement. "I think we were victims of the cliché at first but we soon realized how developed the street art scene was, and how creative it was," she says.

She also came to the conclusion that street art and the fragile underwater ecosystem they are trying to protect turned out to have more in common than first expected. "Street art is a very specific type of art, it's sometimes hidden, it's not the highest ranked of art forms and we have the same issue with the deep sea, because while some species are very popular in the media - such as tigers, pandas, whales - it's not the same case for deep sea creatures, which can sometimes be even more amazing."

Creative difference

At Denkwerk's Cologne office, Patric Schäfer agrees that street art's popularity as a publicity tool has risen over time. While using street art as marketing tool is nothing new, he says, he is quick to disassociate charity campaigns from mainstream advertising.

In London, street artist Panik paints an underwater scene for the day of action against deep sea fishing, Copyright: BLOOM/PANIK

In London, Panik paints an underwater scene for the day of action against deep sea fishing

The street artists "don't get any money for the work, they do it because they get to work with cool guys in a great project, and they love doing something to support a good cause like Save the Children," he says, adding that one of the artists involved in the project remains anonymous, similar to Banksy.

In the southeastern English town of Wokingham, local artist Pistol acknowledges that he lets his heart determine the kind of work he does.

But he worries that despite street art's history of courting outrage, as an art form it has become over-politicized.

"If you want to put up political slogans then go be a politician," he says. "I just do it because I love it."

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