If you love street art like we do, you’ve got to know the name Guido van Helten. In the grand tradition of large-scale, photorealistic street art, van Helten looks to the future.
Guido transforms pieces of history. Old grain silos and massive pieces of architecture become focal points for local communities. And he takes up his paint gun in a different kind of war; the war against poverty and racism.
Today, we’re exploring what inspires this rising Australian street artist to transform derelict buildings into art.
The Story of Guido van Helten
Born in 1986 in Melbourne, Australia, van Helten grew up surrounded by public art. Melbourne is known as one of the great cities in the world for street art. Starting by tagging trains, he decided that traditional graffiti wasn’t the best place for him.
A couple of arrests and the realization that all his time and money went to graffiti helped push van Helten to enroll in art school.
Guido wanted to create work that had a more personal, artistic style, and art school was a good fit. He attended Southern Cross University in Brisbane, Australia, and graduated in 2008 with a degree in printmaking. But staying indoors in a printmaking studio wasn’t what van Helten wanted. He wanted his work to reach large audiences and make an impact.
Since 2014, the artist’s work has graced walls, ships, silos, and buildings worldwide. He’s created work for communities in other island nations, such as Ireland and Iceland, as well as mainland Europe and the United States.
What Is Guido van Helten’s Art Style?
Van Helten’s style is influenced by old black and white photographs. His early murals contained bright blocks of color, but he drifted towards monochromatic paintings in 2016.
When he creates a new piece for a community, he spends time getting to know the people. He takes photographs and compiles a collage of ideas from which to paint.
For van Helten, this is integral to his creative process. His goal is for his painting to be part of the community, to reflect its character. And that is what makes his work so impactful. Locals and visitors alike resonate with the large-scale paintings because they see themselves reflected in them.
What Inspires Guido van Helten’s Art?
In late 2015, van Helten started painting decommissioned grain silos. First, in Brim, Australia, and then around the world, these silo paintings tell the story of local people. And these people are his inspiration. He attempts to break down barriers in his work and to join people together.
His most recent work in McKinney, Texas, does precisely that. For a community rocked by racial divides and changing social structures. The artist spent several days attending Juneteenth celebrations, meeting with local students, and talking with community leaders. Then, over a few days, he transformed eight ninety-foot-tall silos into a love letter to the community.
Did Guido van Helten Paint a Silo in Nashville, Tennessee?
To say Guido van Helten is obsessed with silos is an understatement. Since his first silo painting in 2015, he’s painted them around the world. Just in the US, he painted at least five major silo projects in the last six years.
In 2017, the artist traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, for a project. He created a striking portrait of local art teacher Lee Estes on a massive decommissioned grain silo. From a photo taken when Estes was 91, van Helten created an homage to this local art educator.
He included two young children attending St. Luke’s community center, where Estes spent many years mentoring young artists.
For the artist, this kind of work is vital to his practice. Infusing a community with images of those who’ve spent most of their lives in the area gives a sense of place and history.
What Are Some of Guido van Helten’s Art Pieces?
From all around the world, van Helten’s work pulls us in. He’s painted in warzones, abandoned towns, and in the largest cities in the world. Let’s look at some of our favorites.
Bookbinders in Exarcheia
Bookbinders explores the history of the craft and community. Featuring two bookbinders and painted on the side of a building in Exarcheia, Athens, Greece, the muted colors give the sense of an old photograph.
The artist took photos around town, chronicling the suburb’s history of activism, thought, and art. A 1973 student uprising inspired the artist to include bookbinders alive at the time.
Monuments Project – Minnesota
One of the silo project paintings, Monuments Project-Minnesota, is the state’s largest mural. Painted in Mankato, MN, the mural pays homage to the Dakota people who first lived on these lands. The site is also meaningful because of its proximity to Reconciliation Park, where thirty-eight Dakota men were hung after the Dakota-US war in 1862.
In the mural, a young Dakota boy in traditional dress dances, eagle feathers outstretched. Three other boys join the dance in modern clothes. The powerful image calls the modern children back to their shared history.
Painted on public housing in Sicily, Insulae is a diptych that portrays the people living in high-rise buildings. Van Helten focused on the concept of home. Outsiders viewed the neighborhood as one that God forgot. Locals view it as their home.
The artist worked with local schoolchildren to discover their sense of home. In the work, children stare out as though from behind windows. Their hands press up against the window and look like they’re begging for help and release.
Where Can I See Guido van Helten’s Art?
Aside from a one-person show in 2012, van Helten exclusively paints large-scale murals. The best places to see his work are on his personal website and Instagram. Both sources have extensive documentation about what inspired the work and the process.
His website also features a map of where his murals exist. Assuming they’re all still up, there is plenty of his work to be seen!
For street artists, connecting with a broad audience is part of the gig. They strive to reach as many people as possible. For van Helten, public art serves another purpose than just mass appeal. He tries to break down barriers to connection to help viewers see a place’s character and spirit.
And we think he’s successful in that. You can’t look at his work without feeling the heart of the people who live there.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!