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20 Q&As: Steve Lazarides

In the new 20th Anniversary Issue of Dazed & Confused, we interviewed the maverick gallerist who was one of the first to engineer widespread interest in the street art scene

Steve Lazarides has a refreshingly big mouth. The self-made gallerist represented Banksy when he was just a local boy from Bristol, and like the artists he exhibits – which include JR, Antony Micalleff, Vhils and Invader – Lazarides is an outsider who has had huge success in the wider world. He almost singlehandedly created a market for street art when he started the site, and the ex-photo editor’s Soho gallery is internationally recognised as the go-to space for leftfield art.

Suffice to say, this maverick has a bombastic approach to everything he does – whether it’s guerilla shows in Hollywood or dark exhibitions in the Old Vic Tunnels, such as the upcoming The Minotaur – and what makes it all work is his indefatigable drive and humour, which always sticks two fingers up to the world.

Dazed & Confused: Where do you think things are heading for street art, and how do you think things have changed in the medium?
Steve Lazarides:
I used to really fucking hate it when people like Bonhams used to do these urban art sales. It was the semantics of it. I didn’t like ‘urban art’ – what does that mean? That it was made in a city? It has always come under the umbrella of contemporary art, and I think it’s finally starting to be viewed in that way. The collectors that come in are much more serious. You’ve got things like Art In The Streets at the Tate. It’s slowly being dragged in, kicking and screaming.

D&C: Although the work you show is rebellious, it has a classicism about it…
Steve Lazarides: I think everyone expected this shit to be put into some space in the east end, which I never did. I thought it was a nice juxtaposition to be in some Georgian townhouse with a bunch of sweaty graffiti artists. The first show here was called Grow Up. We’re not a bunch of fucking 20-year-old kids running around the streets any more. You can only stay angry for so long without looking like a total dick.

D&C: Do you think that changes the content of the work?
Steve Lazarides: I think the ones that have succeeded the best are the ones that made the transition from doing work outside to doing something different when they came into the galleries. There’s a great difference between painting something on the street, where someone’s probably going to look at it for like, 20 seconds on their way to work, or a canvas that someone’s going to look at for the rest of their lives. They’re very different disciplines.

D&C: Are you dealing less with the hang-ups about selling out that plagued these artists at the beginning?
Steve Lazarides: It’s tedious. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that would mean that the only people who could exist as street artists are those that are independently wealthy? Those that don’t have to sell their work in the first place? And that would be ‘keeping it real’? Okay, let me think about it for a minute – you are a prick. These guys make great stuff on the street and make great exhibitions.

D&C: There is much less work on the street than ten years ago...
Steve Lazarides: There’s a reason for that. You speak to people like Shepard Fairey or Invader – the amount of time their stuff now exists on the street is so short. You’ve got a whole strata of what I dub ‘a second-car salesman fraternity’ that are going round and chipping stuff out of walls and trying to sell it. It also defeats the purpose of wanting to show work to an open audience because it’s not being seen. It has always blown up in different cities at different times. São Paulo at the moment has the best and the worst of the movement, because no one there actually gives a flying fuck about cleaning it up.

You’ve got a whole tagging movement out there that will tag a 20-storey building from top to bottom. With the Arab Spring, graffiti as a political statement is becoming very powerful again. I’ve been travelling round the world to go and see stuff, and the most directly challenging political stuff I’ve seen is coming out of Saudi Arabia and Iran. I’m not going to name the artists just in case, but I’ve seen a biting critique of the petro-chemical industry. In the west, it’s become more of an art form, whereas in the east it’s become more of a protest thing.

D&C: You are very interested in political art in a wider sense, aren’t you? Black Panther imagery, the 1968 Paris riots…
Steve Lazarides: I also love the state-sponsored stuff. I love the aesthetic of the Communists. If you look at the Chinese and Russian stuff, someone like Shepard Fairey and Banksy owe far more to that tradition than they ever did to the graffiti world. They took the ethos of graffiti and the criminality of it, but aesthetically they took from political posters. Those posters were designed to have maximum impact… I still want to do an exhibition of the art of despotic leaders. I just don’t know what the criteria is – do a million killed count? It doesn’t matter if they’re on the left or on the right, they all loved images of themselves. You’ve got Mao making little dinner plates or porcelains of himself, Stalin, Tito, Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein – the list is endless.

D&C: What do you think Banksy’s legacy will be?
Steve Lazarides: I don’t know, man. He made it popular to be an artist – you can’t take that away from him. People like him, Jamie Hewlett, Del Naja from Massive Attack or Goldie, even. Twenty-five years ago, if you were in the playground and you said, ‘I wanna be an artist’, you’d have probably landed up getting your head kicked in. Everybody wanted to be a footballer or a sportsman. He caught the mood of the time. He was doing pseudo-political work at a time when no one was really saying anything. It appealed to everyone. Wall And Peace has sold over 700,000 copies, which must make it one of the best-selling art books of all time.

D&C: Why did you start Pictures On Walls?
Steve Lazarides: I think it was 1999 when we originally came up with the idea. I went to pick him [Banksy] up in Bristol, and he had a bunch of posters with him and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to sell ‘em for a fiver’.’ I said ‘Well, in that case, I’ll buy them all and sell them for 30 quid – you’re an idiot!’ It spiralled from there. In the early days, it would take us a year to get rid of one. It was also about trying to provide cheap affordable art for the masses. We were quite naïve. It didn’t take long for the meteoric rise in prices to happen.

D&C: Do you still have an egalitarian urge to make art for the masses?
Steve Lazarides: No, I just hate everyone now. When people defend the working classes, I’m like, ‘Have you ever actually been on a council estate?’ Because I go all the time, there’s a few of them worth defending, the rest of them I’d gun down along with the middle classes and the upper classes. My mum taught me good people are good people, and that’s it… But yeah, I still like doing things for free, and trying to put things on, and trying to make people realise that art doesn’t belong to one strata of society – that it’s there for everyone.

D&C: How would your describe your approach?
Steve Lazarides: You know in the old days with a record label? You would go and buy something off the label because you trusted the direction that the label went in? I think it’s a little bit like that.

FRANCESCA GAVIN is visual arts editor of DAZED & CONFUSED, and is the author of RENEGADE HEROES, a book about street art

Photography GUY LOWNDES

Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue