As someone growing up and going through school in the 90s, I’ve got a love-hate relationship with street art. When it came out I experienced it as a spontaneous emergence of artists that ignored the established institutions and art market and took to the streets to express themselves freely, most of the time provoking a healthy rejection from society. My impression started to change when I realised that most of those heroes that hid behind cool tags started selling themselves to the system, one by one, and jumped to an art world that awaited them with open arms.
Katsu. Self-Portrait, 2011
It’s for this reason that, when Katsu sprayed with his famous “fire extinguisher” the exterior of the MOCA in Los Angeles to coincide with the Art in the Streets retrospectiva, I couldn’t help but feeling a certain satisfaction as to how he had put on blast the sacred cows exhibiting their work inside the building and not on the streets, as would have been much more coherent with the exhibition’s name
Katsu’s giant Tag next to New York’s High Line as seen on Google Earth
Since then, Katsu’s popularity hasn’t stopped growing. Through actions having a lot to do with technology and consciously designed to become viral (from silly stuff such as self-vandalism in Picasso’s Girl in Front of a Mirror de Picasso or his intervention in World of Minecraft to much more intelligent actions such as Powers of Katsu or his poster theft in street furniture mixing celebrities, logos and his own tag) Katsu has shown that he might not be selling himself to the system, but he’s still obsessed with fame.
The Powers of Katsu
Directed by Nick Poe & Alex Kalman of Red Bucket Films.
With Troy Lumpkin and The Chunnel
His most recent action, defined by the author as “the first act of public vandalizing with drones”, left me with mixed feelings, because the act and its result are of a strange and particular beauty, but the goal reached by it couldn’t be dumber and was clearly devised to increase his popularity. By vandalizing a huge image of the face of Kendall Jenner from a Calvin Klein billboard, Katsu was at the same time attacking the establishment and becoming a part of it.
However, when I discovered his edition of posters with the battered face of Mark Zuckerberg, I couldn’t help but think that this was a movement completely opposed to that of Shepard Fairey when he agreed upon the use of his style (and his huge fan base) at the service of political powers. Katsu’s poster, brutally explicit and at the same time incredibly childish (in fact, it’s nothing more than an intervention with markers and spray over a blown up image), relates to, in my opinion, the tradition of making fun of those in power that goes way back even before the birth of photography. In the poster format’s own tradition (a language, to my regret, now down in the dumps), it was highly popular since its first appearance (with well-known examples such as the Heartfield and Hausmann posters against Hitler), and reached its peak with the “bedroom poster” as exemplified by the several photomontages made by Alfred Gescheidt to ridicule the Reagan family.
Beyond Katsu’s perseverance in attacking Facebook’s founder and CEO (whom he’s even portrayed on canvas using his own faeces, as part of his Shitheads series, that now includes Eric Schmidt and his cocker spaniel) and of the activist motivation it might conceal, this is in my opinion one of the most iconic works of our times: a mixture of social commentary and mythomaniac fascination that connects it with Warhol’s origins, who painted his first portrait (Liz Taylor’s) convinced that the star was about to die of pneumonia. Katsu’s obsession with money, power and fame is very warholian, as we’ve been able to see in those of his works in which he uses dollar bills or in his recent portraits of Marilyn.