Electric art battles around the world are exposing new artists and kicking off a worldwide viral phenomenon. Can North America handle it?
Hundreds are crowded around two blank white canvas walls, perched on their tiptoes, craning over each other’s heads to catch every moment of the competition. As they watch, a pair of two-artist teams transform massive 10-by-6-feet blank canvases into wild, imaginative pieces that draw on comic, abstract, fine and street art alike — using only one paint color: black.
This electrifying competition called Secret Walls has been connecting live audiences with artists for 16 years, since Founder Terry Guy threw the very first battle in 2006 in Shoreditch on the east side of London. This year, Secret Walls will embark on its largest tour ever, the Support Your Local Artist North American Tour, or SYLA for short, featuring artists Greg Mike, Allison Bamcat, Ally Grimm, Matt Gondek, Sentrock, Woes, The Obanoth and LAmour Supreme, in select cities. Over 140 artists will throw down during the tour, which will span 35 cities in 60 days, crisscross the U.S. and log more than 13,500 miles.
On the SYLA Tour, spectators get to support rising local artists. “Every now and then, bigger names get involved, but to us, it was always about the person who wants to prove themselves, get on stage and show people their talent,” says Terry. “We’re trying to shine a light on the younger generation and its rising stars.” Those artists won’t just be battling with stencils or street art, though. Fine artists and abstract artists will make their mark on this tour using a variety of brushes, rollers, markers and even homemade tools that they bring along.
The growing popularity of the event is due in no small part to the mainstreaming of street art, according to Terry. “Street art and graffiti were seen as an illegal activity, but now with Banksy and many others in big auction houses, everyone wants a piece,” he adds.
The idea for Secret Walls was inspired by the fusing of art forms within hip-hop, where the disciplines of breakdancing, graffiti, rapping and beatmaking are traditionally performed within one space. Terry went to a B-boy event in Brixton and fell in love with its vibrant hip-hop culture, especially graffiti and breakdancing. Himself an animator and digital designer, who moved in a wide crowd of artists including fellow animators, street artists and fine artists, Terry co-founded a collective called Monorex to throw art shows, which later evolved into what is now Secret Walls.
He was dismayed that any art beyond street art was often cloistered away in artists’ studios and museums. A huge sports and soccer fan, Terry wanted to also bring the live energy of sports events to art. While living in Camden, he was inspired to create Secret Walls’ competitive 90-minute format from the intense, non-stop motion of soccer. He was also inspired by films about warriors, like “Fight Club,” and a series of 12 Marvel comic books he binge read when he was younger, called Secret Wars. “I was visualizing artists as characters, like in the comics,” Terry says.
Crowds were thrilled by the unpredictability and uniqueness of each throwdown because artists knew neither their teammate, nor the topic of their art, until the competition began. The winner was determined by a guest panel of judges and a decibel meter measuring how loudly the rowdy audience cheered.
At first, Terry didn’t see the event as anything beyond a one-off tournament. Hundreds of people showed up at the first competition featuring 16 artists. “Every few weeks, we’d host another one, until we got to the final, and we didn’t think we were going to do anything past that. But as each battle unfolded, it just got crazier, and artists got into it.”
Soon, brands were calling to co-create events featuring “The Fight Club of Art.” Reebok called, asking for a Secret Walls event with Pharrell Williams in Barcelona. Other major partnerships soon followed, including Nike, Bentley, Apple and Major League Soccer. Chelsea Football Club’s USA Summer Tour hired Secret Walls for a team jersey signing at Niky’s Sports in Los Angeles, with two artists vying to create a Chelsea and Los Angeles-inspired mural.
What keeps Terry doing the hard work of organizing these events is the community that’s being built. “We’ve got artists getting out of the studio, going on stage and making friends. Secret Walls always felt like a safe place, a very diverse kind of crowd of people who come for a unique time and good energies. Our show is an intimate experience — you can just walk over at the end of the battle and shake your favorite artist’s hand and have a conversation.”
Over the past 16 years, the Secret Walls community has grown to over 2,000 artists, curators and content creators. “Most of them love the experience and being able to show people what they do in real life, and fans get to see art made in real life, not through the lens of an Instagram story, where it’s highly edited or in snippets. It’s really magical.”
During the pandemic, Secret Walls innovated, finding ways to reach across the digital divide to its community members. After years of youth workshops, sheltering in place seemed like the perfect time to start the Secret Walls Academy Summer Camp. For a week in 2020, students logged in via Zoom to immerse themselves in freestyle drawing, character design, commercial design and mural planning, while learning storytelling and collaboration skills useful to a lifelong pursuit of art.
“We’ve now got this balance of physical and virtual that’s growing and growing,” Terry says. “We realized that the Secret Walls platform can be more than black paint on white walls.” Though the in-person battles continue to thrive, Secret Walls is reaching larger audiences through two-dimensional, three-dimensional and virtual reality formats. Last November the collective hosted its first NFT Battle at the ComplexCon convention, in which artists created nonfungible tokens artworks on electronic devices. The live artwork was cast to a 16-by-18-feet video wall so that the audience could judge them.
Secret Walls fans can also experience live battles in virtual reality format, through an Oculus viewer. Inspired by e-gaming and platforms like Fortnite, Terry hopes to develop a Secret Walls game that users can download and use to battle one another around the world.
No matter how much Secret Walls’ virtual community grows, though, Terry it is confident people will keep showing up in person. “The power of live art and live creativity, whether theater, or an underground boxing match, or secret walls — there’s something special about seeing an artist paint live, and it never gets boring. I’ve been to thousands of battles, and it’s always different. The combinations of artists, the execution, is going to be different, and keep artists and audiences on their toes. Freestyle art is something special, and we still have a certain magic in the room that not many other art shows have.”
To keep folks showing up, Secret Walls will offer rewards for the Web3 world, an alternate version of the World Wide Web. “We love rewarding fans for showing up in real life, so we don’t want to lose the real-world experience, but we want to prove we can still show up in this digital world,” says Terry. For the SYLA Tour, the collective will digitize around 140 art pieces with the artists’ permission, creating limited-edition NFTs that fans can collect after physically attending a live event. At the end of the tour, community members will be able to scan their NFTs on the Secret Walls website, which will unlock access to special experiences. Providing SYLA Tour NFTs helps ensure that turning up in person to a live show will always be the most valuable way to experience it.
“Before blockchain, there was never a consistent, easy way to get the art to the fans,” informs Terry. “What do you do about a 20-foot piece? We might give it away, destroy it, sell it for charity, paint over it, get it back to the studio, or have lost pieces along the way that were too big. Making a poster of it didn’t feel right. Now we can digitize and have it in people’s wallets, so they can have an extra-special version.”
As Secret Walls evolves to meet the future, it also remembers the past. The tour’s Los Angeles wrap party in November will feature not only a battle, but also a retrospective gallery highlighting a vast amount of artwork created during Secret Walls’ 16 years.
“In a weird way,” Terry says, “I feel like we’ve only just gotten started, after 10, 15 years of hustling to make ends meet and being super underground. There’s an appetite, and the mainstream audience is starting to come. But technology is really going to change the game and open more doors to people like us.”