By Nick Pelling

Street Art has come a long way – from Manhattan’s lower East Side via Shoreditch to  Norman Road St Leonards. It has also become a rather more sophisticated creature than the guerrilla ‘rat’ of the early days. Now street art is both anti-commodity and commodity. The Stella Dore gallery-store in St Leonards is a kind of portal into that curious double-world. The urban space-woman at the helm is the remarkable Stephanie Warren. 

Steph Warren in her gallery
CREDIT: Nick Pelling

Secretive demi-monde

Steph is a Hastings girl, proud of her roots in the BMX and skateboarding scene around Source Park. Like so many people involved in Street Art, she never attended an Art School, nor saw the need. Indeed, it seems that her route into the world of urban art was almost accidental – she applied for a PR job in London and didn’t get it. But the art group she had applied to saw something in her driven personality that persuaded them that she was exactly the right kind of person to assist a provocative pop-up group in London calling itself Santa’s Ghetto. This was a group of street artists confronting the mindless consumer culture of the yuletide season, describing itself as a “squat art concept store.” It sold high quality street imagery at low prices. In fact, it was a sub-group of a ground-breaking collective of subversive artists called ‘Pictures on Walls’ or POW. Amongst their leading lights was one Banksy, but other originators were involved such as Jamie Hewlett, the artist behind Tank Girl and the Gorillaz pop-toon band. Steph threw herself into this world and in the process came to know and work with most of the undercover practitioners in this secretive demi-monde. 

The decision to bring it back to her roots in Hastings and give street practitioners a base in St Leonards was a brave one. The shop was established in 2018 and ever after has given artists a chance to sell and promote their imagery. 

Ambiguous gravity

The current exhibition is by Kid Acne. He is a Sheffield-based artist who specialises in punchy slogans, often stencilled in black and white, on a vivid colour field, in what is now his signature typeface. It is sharply reductive.  Or as Mr Acne puts it, there is no “white noise.” The impact is hard to describe. In a street situation, one can imagine turning a corner to be abruptly confronted with a stark visual shout declaring that “it’s a bit much.” Undoubtedly it is. But then again “it is what it is”. The meanings roll around your mind. But there is a light touch alongside the ambiguous gravity and perhaps a certain self-deprecation, as in “give it a rest.” Whatever one’s views, there can be no doubt that on the opening night, Stella Dore had transformed itself for the show, becoming a weird stripey grey cube – for a small shop it was doing a good job at being a sort of psychedelic bat cave. 

The rights and wrongs of selling street art can lead up some peculiarly philosophical cul-de-sacs. Who owns an image if it is on someone else’s wall? Is a wall also a canvas? What is a wall?  Who cares? But in my view, the artists in conjunction with people like Steph have probably grown a little tired of their images being monetized by dodgy T-shirt vendors and even corporations who lay claim to images on their walls. A not particularly complex point in the debate is that even artists have to pay the rent. Playing the art game, gift shops and all, is probably a necessary strategic compromise with the capitalist art beast. Or as a Kid piece puts it, “shit got real”. He need not worry; his typeface is now a de facto logo. 

(left) A Kid Acne punchy slogan
CREDIT: Nick Pelling

Urban facelift

Steph is not at all pretentious – “My aim is to work directly with artists whose practice began on the streets.” Getting tangled up looking for the definition of ‘pure’ street art is surely pointless. As Steph says, we are just hoping to “brighten up the outlook of your walls.” Anyone who lives in Hastings can surely not object tothe idea of an urban facelift. One only has to look at the way the now decaying Debenhams has been enlivened by the artist Bicer to get the point. Steph is super-proud of working on that one.

Actually, the town of Hastings has a notable tradition of engage-ment with urban art. One does not have to go very far to see that a certain crude interest in tag scribbling still sprays itself up from time to time. But the town also has it very own Banksy. Of course, Dotmaster has made a landmark out of the splendid Ruby’s Rooms on the seafront. The neo-pop artist Shuby is also said to be a resident of the town. Her work has caused controversy, dealing as it does in bad bunnies and bananas. The St Leonard pub on London Road has prints of her work, if you want to enter the debate. Or if you just want a beer.

But in an age when shouting one’s opinions – no matter how ill informed – has become a global sport, it is perhaps best just to reflect that Stella Dore, and Steph in particular, gives us something fun; a colourful slap in the face in an age of what Steph cheerfully calls “disaster capitalism”. It may not be that one disaster after another is being deliberately created by evil scientists in Boris’s laboratory, and it may not be that the revolution comes out of the nozzle of a can, but as Kid Acne’s canvas says, street art gives us “all that and a bag of chips.” Dive in.   

Famous Five

Kid Acne – is a Sheffield-based street artist whose work focuses mainly on short slogans. He works in public space but also with fashion brands, such as Prada. He is also a rapper, releasing several albums.

Bicer – is partly based in Mexico. His work currently uses a hyper-bouncy cartoon font to create vibrant murals that often contain hidden messages. Work can be seen on the Hastings’ Debenhams building.

Shuby – works in what appears to be the pop art tradition but with new twists, such as re-working Warhol imagery. Lives in the Hastings area and snippets of her posters appear around St Leonards.

Jamie Hewlett – has taken his original street art style forward into new areas such as the Tank Girl series and the Gorillaz project with Damon Albarn.

Banksy – surely the best-known street artist in Britain, although, intriguingly, no one is entirely sure of his identity. His work can fetch millions of pounds and extends to film, books and installations which almost always have a political edge. 

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