A long history of mosaic art is traditionally bound to opulence and wealth, predominantly around the Mediterranean. This luxurious decorating art technique was always reserved for the aristocrats and the rich, while the regular folk could only hope to enjoy some of its charms in scarce public buildings. And that is only if they were in luck to live in a prosperous society. These circumstances didn’t change significantly since the antiquity, until the early modern times, but the 20th century did introduce a new angle to using and observing mosaics.
Precisely because it was always related to prosperity, different modern societies introduced mosaic art as one of the favorite techniques in public art. Designs proposed by famous architects (such as Antoni Gaudi, for example) are not only innovative and fresh but also give a majestic appearance to the buildings they bedeck. It’s a known fact that eastern, socialist societies had strong public art policies and their propagandist imagery was sometimes executed in mosaic art. Today, these pieces possess a great historical and artistic value. Because of the durability of the technique, modern mosaics make the facades and public surfaces look alive and new, testifying to an era of innovations in technology, politics, and of course, art.
Despite the complicated and costly method of mosaic creation, some contemporary societies still enjoy installing these works in public. One of the most recent examples of an extravagant public art project is the mosaic group of the four stations of Second Avenue Subway in New York, where artists such as Chuck Close, Sarah Sze, Jean Shin and Vik Muniz left their mark in the form of large-scale tile installations.
Still, there is a more subversive contemporary stream that uses mosaic art. Although it can never become its dominant technique, Street Art has welcomed and assimilated the art of tesserae in the most unexpected way.
Generally, Street Art is not prone to techniques that take a lot of time to execute and install. Its methods have to be quick, because often they are posted illegally, without any license. But there are several artists who chose mosaic art to express their vision. They are just as brave as any writer, perhaps even more vocal on social issues at times, while their art is completely unique, fascinating and long-lived.
Inspired by digital technologies, Invader has been roaming the streets since the 1990s. He is famous for the small, pixelated images installed in visible places in the cities, usually portraying characters from the late 1970s game that originally inspired him – the immortal Space Invaders. He refers to his actions as “invasion waves”, infusing populated and often posh areas with a dash of free-spirited symbolism.
Today, this Parisian is considered a legend and his works can be seen in more than 65 cities in more than 30 countries around the world. Depending on the location, every city Invader works is usually embellished with 20-50 of his artworks.
Like many artists, Invader is keen on keeping his anonymity. He works during the night, usually wearing a mask. It’s known that he works with a team as well, people who will fix the tiles to walls with cement or glues. The technique he developed is quick, and the designs are prepared in advance. This minimizes the risk of Invader or his teammates getting arrested because what they do is considered defacing and it’s generally illegal.
It’s interesting to mention that Invader is a graduate of the renowned École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His classical training did not divert this street art activist to pursue his passion and install his small mosaics across the globe.
Carrie Reichardt and Activist Mosaics
“I’m an artist. Your rules don’t apply,” exclaims Carrie Reichardt, one of the loudest and most interesting contemporary artists in Britain today. A descendant of a “long line of aristocratic eccentrics”, she founded a Craftivism movement and created a “Mad in England” brand, focusing on artistic production involving ceramic art and mosaic art techniques. Best known for her large-scale public mosaics, Reichardt also creates small-scale pieces, all of which send out her specific, humorous, critical and brave anti-establishment message.
Her aesthetics is rooted in traditional British crockery, enriched with vintage, floral, kitsch and religious elements, often mocking the official editions of royal porcelain or criticizing contemporary political issues. Her mosaics are elaborate, colorful and masterfully executed, made out of ceramic tiles of different shapes, sizes, and colors.
A constant rebel, Carrie Reichardt uses her craft to protest, raising her voice in an attention-grabbing manner. She campaigned for prisoners on Death Row, and propagated art as a form of therapy, naming her fantastic house/studio “The Treatment Rooms”. In 2014, she collaborated with the V&A Museum, embellishing their entrance with a provocative mosaic pair, stating boldly “Power to the People”. Although her art is not always illegal, it’s embraced by the Street Art community as subversive, activist and socially-conscious, while its daring visuals and messages continue to inspire both artists and admirers.
Pixel Portraits in Santiago de Chile
Going under the moniker of Pixel, Jorge Campos represents a new generation of Chilean street artists. He started as a designer, but today, he is mostly known for the phenomenal mosaics he created around his hometown, Santiago.
Similarly to Invader, Pixel is inspired by digital technologies, exploring their connections to traditional art forms. After living in Paris for two years, he was inspired by both the classical art and the vibrant Street Art world, photographing the infamous stencils and graffiti around the city. This experience helped him in developing his own technique, which he mastered over time, becoming an excellent mosaic art portraitist.
A special characteristic of Pixel’s mosaics is that they are rather elaborate. It takes time to install them, but since they embellish the environment rather than “deface” it, his works are not only tolerated but welcome.
Every wall mosaic he installs is accompanied by a QR code that leads to his online portfolio, once again emphasizing the connection between an ancient technique and modern tech.
Jim Bachor and a New View of Potholes
Captivated by ancient cultures and art, Jim Bachor turned to the art of mosaic, because mortar and glass do “not fade”. In his own manner, he is seeking eternity in his installations, but he was not known as a Street Artists until about five years ago when he began making his mark in the many of Chicago’s potholes. Using contemporary subject matter, florals or pop art imagery, Bachor has taken an ancient and precious technique to our time in a different way, daring to merge together hand-cut pieces of Italian glass with the mortar and – the street.
Starbucks coffee, twinkies, Burberry plaid and other symbols of contemporary (and yes, consumerist) society can be found in these pieces, making us wonder if they immortalize them or whether they allow us to thread across these emblems of modern enslavement.