Street Art in Prague - part 3 of 3 takes a look at the commercialization of local street art

Paul Ratner

Written by Paul Ratner Published on 02.05.2011 17:06:19 (updated on 02.05.2011) Reading time: 5 minutes

We took to the streets to get local opinions of street art in Prague:

Video by Prague Camera

To delve further into the local street art scene, I had an illuminating conversation with Petr Hájek, the director of the Chemistry Gallery, an exhibition space dedicated to the works of young Czech and international artists.

Petr started the gallery a little over 2 years ago. He doesn´t himself have a background in street art. He studied law and actually works most of the week as a manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the gallery business is growing and taking more and more of his time.

His interest in street art comes from photographing it. A few years ago, he made a street art calendar. His interest wasn´t in tags but in art that conveyed messages. When he started the gallery, he didn’t know anyone from the street art community. As he started to organize exhibitions with the major names in the Czech street art scene, he not only got to know them, he also started selling out these exhibitions in advance. As such, Petr is convinced that there is definitely a demand for street art. He first sold pieces by the Czech artists PASTA and POINT to collectors at ART PRAGUE, and now sells street art pieces through his gallery. As Petr says, the emergence of such collectors “is great for the gallery because the collectors will come back and buy repeatedly, and it´s great for the art because it shows that street art is established and recognized by people who are collecting art.”

Petr recounted that many street artists whose works are sold in the Chemistry Gallery started out with illegal tagging on the streets, but have since moved on to do work that is permitted and sanctioned. Nonetheless, like in hip-hop culture, there is a certain need for street cred among the artists, especially as some are becoming quite famous. There is even some amount of envy. So the artists still go back to the streets on occasion, but these occasions are less frequent. Success brings other opportunities to paint – they have offers for exhibition, collaboration with companies and festivals. From the standpoint of growth in an artist´s life, the streets remain important for the younger generation, as sort of a training ground.

Petr had very interesting observations about when an artist´s work becomes marketable, overcoming what is essentially a contradiction – selling street art.

CHASE, a Belgian (and currently LA-based) artist whose work Petr sells in his gallery, started out painting in the streets, then moved on to more sophisticated efforts and was “painting, painting, painting and suddenly changed his style a little bit and he could see the way how he started to paint became his own!  It defined him. When you look at his style you can really distinguish the difference between what was before and what was after. This kind of moment when the artist just connects, you can see in PASTA and POINT´s work as well”.

This recognizable moment when the artist finds their style can lead to marketability. In an amusing consequence, Petr had buyers come up to him at the gallery and ask if the artists could paint tags on canvasses – they want to put street art tags in their homes!  

Petr sees the Prague street art scene growing, yet acknowledges that compared to Barelona or London, there´s much more street art to be found in those cities. Petr thinks that “Czech artists are equally good” as other international artists. There´s nothing specifically Czech about the artists of Prague as “no borders can define them. They express themselves freely”. Many have attended art schools. Some work in graphic design.

One reason for the relatively small size of the street art scene in Prague may be due to a lack of clarity for the artists on how the relationship with the city of Prague can work. Even when they have a desire to allow a street artist to paint over their public property, owners of buildings aren´t sure what the city government will allow.

It would seem that some of the communistic building blocks of the city could use a bit of sprucing up this type of art. The artist Chase proposed to essentially rebrand graffiti as “frescos” since graffiti has so many negative connotations to people. “Can also call it beautification,” says Petr. “When you paint the wall in a nice style, even taggers won´t destroy it. They´d respect a nice wall. In a way, street art could protect against tagging.”

Another way to expand the street art scene in Prague is to bring in more festivals. Petr is working on organizing a festival for next summer, where international artists will be invited to come and paint certain approved walls in Prague.

Petr organized the “Chemistry Zone” during 2010´s “United Islands” festival. They had artists paint live in front of a very diverse crowd of festivalgoers and many people asked if they could get a can to try and paint something. Undoubtedly, street art´s popularity will only continue to grow.

When Petr started the gallery, there were almost no others in the Czech Republic who showed street art. But Petr is convinced – “I can see people are interested. There’s a big space for new young street artists to become more popular. It doesn’t need to be about two to three names. Success can be spread among a much larger number of names.”

As far as what kind of art sells better in his gallery, Petr thinks there´s no clear formula. “The mechanical style is the same as in any other art style. You can be a good abstract painter or a totally hyperrealistic painter but some are more successful than others. It’s also about your track record – if you’ve been in exhibitions, involved in public projects, had a history that you could show.”  

This is clearly another reason for street art´s growing success – it has acquired a history and can finally be processed by the public, which is typically afraid of new, uncategorizable movements. What does this mean for street art?   Will it lose urgency and power to influence people?  Maybe one day, but it´s hard to imagine that on that day a new type of art won´t emerge that will find a fresh way to transform our lives.



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