In recent years the London street art scene has been dominated by the brash, satirical, crowd-pleasing work of Banksy. His 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks, made Banksy a familiar name in certain American households, and his book, Wall and Piece, has been one of the best-selling art and photography books since its release.
But while the public lines up to see Banksy’s shows, and art collectors, like Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera, fork over big money for his paintings and prints, a more polished street artist named Slinkachu has been producing brilliant, evocative artwork that has largely escaped the attention of an American audience.
Slinkachu is everything Banksy is not–subtle, empathic, poignant, contemplative.
While Banksy’s art relies on shock value, cleverness, and overt political statement, Slinkachu’s miniature street tableaux and photographs convey more complex narratives about the human condition. His art is often witty, but never clever for cleverness’ sake.
(Note: Click on images to enlarge)
Like most street artists, Slinkachu’s bio is deliberately vague. He says that his curly hair is what earned him the nickname Slinky–a name that eventually morphed into Slinkachu when the artist needed a name for his photography blog. He grew up in Budleigh Salterton, a small town on the south coast of Devon, As a boy, he played with bugs and creatures in the yard behind his house and helped his mother build dioramas for the children at the nursery where she worked.
In one interview, Slinkachu describes a critical “a-ha” moment he experienced while watching a stag beetle crawling down a London street. The unusual sight of the beetle in the city made the artist wonder if such insects actually were rare, or merely unnoticed in the busy flurry of day to day urban life. This intriguing idea of the “unseen” compelled Slinkachu to try his hand at creating his own small, urban dramas.
Slinkachu’s work has a dual existence as both a street art installation and a photography project. He often leaves his miniature scenes behind for observant pedestrians to find. The element of surprise is key. His street art may linger for days or weeks, or may be swiftly removed. Luckily, the work has a life beyond the street in Slinkachu’s large-scale photographs and marvelous book projects.
Slinkachu’s modified model train figures are the perfect expression of urban angst, for who hasn’t felt small or overwhelmed? As Slinkachu’s photographs and street scenes illustrate, each of us is only one tiny person among millions. The lonely singles, melancholy office workers, and misunderstood teenagers in Slinkachu’s art resonate because they’re familiar. Our own daily lives, like the lives of these little people, are filled with humor, tragedy, boredom, and surprise.
The banality of urban living with its crass commercialism and junk food litter is a well-executed theme in Slinkachu’s work. And when it comes to the subject of religion, I’m hard pressed to think of a contemporary visual artist who tackles the topic with such humor and poignancy. Slinkachu’s converted fire hydrant mosque in Lower Manhattan is pure brilliance. And while the British artist creates most of his street art in London and other European cities, his photograph “Jesus Saves” strikes me as a particularly American scene–a shrewd observation on the similarities between marketing a commercial product and marketing religion.
Slinkachu depicts our violent human impulses too. It is unnerving to see boys throwing Lego bricks off of highway overpasses or a miniature mugging. “Animals” is a fine example of Slinkachu’s talent for choosing the perfect titles. Who are the real animals in this photograph–the insects or the official-looking men in uniforms beating them with nightsticks?
Slinkachu’s moving photographs remind me of a passage from W.H. Auden:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
Do I find Banksy’s graffiti art and subversive museum capers shrewd and amusing? Of course. Do I, like 250,000 other people, own a copy of his book Wall and Piece? Yes. Banksy is big in more ways than one.
But Slinkachu’s miniatures have a power that resonates beyond their small size. His work offers viewers a deeper experience that doesn’t fade once the thrill of discovery has passed. If Banksy is the David Bowie of the street art world, then Slinkachu is its Nick Drake. Being louder and flashier and having a bigger fan club doesn’t make you better, though it certainly is easier to get noticed.
It’s no accident that Slinkachu’s Little People in the City is the single book that spoke to me in the large, overcrowded store at the Tate Modern this past summer. It’s ironic, I know, to be standing in one of the largest art museums in the world surrounded by oversized art books, but to see only a tiny book filled with tiny people.
But small things can be formidable too.
To learn more about Slinkachu and his work, you can visit his website. His work is currently on view in Ludwigsburg, Germany. The show features existing images and installations, as well as new work shot on the streets of Berlin, Stuttgart and Ludwigsburg; it runs through November 27th at Kunstverein. Slinkachu’s prints are available at Andipa Gallery in London.
I also highly recommend Slinkachu’s two books Slinkachu: Big Bad City and Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu. Since I returned from the UK, Little People in the City has been the most popular book in my living room. Friends love browsing through the photos and comment on how “moving” and “brilliant” the images are. Luckily, you don’t have to visit the Tate to get a copy. Both books are available here:
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This article is part of an ongoing Gwarlingo series on street art. You can read the first piece in the series, “This Revolution is for Display Purposes Only: A Street Art Primer” here, or explore the art of poetry bombing in this special feature.
All photographs in this article are © Slinkachu and have been used with permission from the artist.