From a distance, it looks like a prize fight. Or maybe a rap battle.
But elbow your way to the center of the ring at Monarch Gardens in San Francisco, the ArtHouse Hotel in Sydney, and scores of other locations around the world and you’ll see these warriors are armed with palettes and paint brushes.
Welcome to Art Battle, a long-running competitive painting event where a dozen artists face off in a single night’s tournament. Each painter has 20 minutes to create a work of art from scratch in front of a live audience. As the match heats up, the scene gets loud: Drinks are flowing and a DJ drops beats while the audience roots for its favorite speed-painter.
When the shape and subject matter of each artist’s work eventually come into focus, the crowd goes wild—and sometimes audibly gasps. “The whole thing is thrilling to watch,” says Art Battle co-founder and president Simon Plashkes, who likens these bouts to “a magical election” where the audience members aren’t sure who to vote for until the 20-minute time limit is up.
In between rounds, onlookers socialize. Some venues even bring in live bands and food trucks, and impromptu dance competitions between rounds are not uncommon. “It’s one of the best parts of Art Battle,” Plashkes says. “You see a sea of friendly faces who have their hearts and minds open as they vote and talk with people around them about how they respond to the different works. Making new friends is a nightly occurrence.”
After a winner is declared via in-person and in-app voting (you can download the Art Battle app for iOS and Android here), the freshly created works go on silent auction, typically selling for anywhere from $150 to $500. “It’s a great opportunity to start or continue an art collection,” adds Plashkes.
Art Battle began as one-off events in New York City in 2001. Plashkes turned it into a tournament, connecting each show to the next, in Toronto, his homebase, in 2009. Seven years later, he took it to the world stage. While the majority of attendees are local to the host city, it’s out-of-towners who have expanded its presence globally. Art Battle has launched tournaments in Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia, and has held multiple events in Lima, Peru. It has found a home in Omaha, Nebraska and Belgrade, Serbia—where, according to Plashkes, the art being produced is “second to none.”
“We don’t ‘sell’ [the concept],” says Plashkes. “People fall in love and wish they had an Art Battle in their own city or town, and then we work with them or their friends to establish a new Battle community.”
Founding cities like New York and Toronto draw regulars, too. “They become art nerds of sorts,” says Plashkes. “They know the painters and collect artwork at great prices.”
Throughout the night, the crowd and the painters energize each other in equal measure. Plashkes will never forget the atmosphere at Art Battle 16 in Toronto, when one of its early stars, Carlos Delgado, approached the easel. “We had the lighting really dialed in that night—dark at the edges and sharp, bright, white light [at] center stage,” he recalls. “[Carlos] stepped into the light with his brushes high in the air and the audience went wild. Huge ruckus, applause—and he hadn’t even painted anything yet! It was that night that I knew we could really help artists become art stars.”
He also cited the Ukrainian painter Yana Litus, who fled to Toronto at the start of the war. “She has done absolutely stunning work in only 20 minutes, and went from unknown (to us) to almost winning the Canadian National Championship.” Canada, along with the U.S., U.K., Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand all host national championships, where the top-ranking artists from marquee Art Battle cities go head-to-head in an even fiercer competition.
With numerous collaborations in the pipeline, Plashkes is looking forward to working more creative disciplines into Art Battle. Canadian producer Daniel Lanois performed at the aforementioned Canadian championship in July, and is now working with Plashkes to add a musical element to shows with performers from Atlanta. Also in the works for next year: a cool new streetwear brand and home accessories collection (including blankets, towels, and pillows) that features work by Art Battle artists.
Like most events that involved strangers gathering under one roof, Art Battle was massively impacted by the pandemic, but it has rebounded nicely and developed its online presence substantially. “Now we track event results like a sport. It’s all for review online and in our app,” says Plashkes. The company has built an artists’ ranking based on the last two years of outcomes; the two highest-scoring artists at the time of publication include Ukrainian-Canadian artist Dimitri Sirenko and Texas-based painter Jesse Baggett. Most importantly, Plashkes is proud of how diverse these tournaments have become: “Color, culture, ideas, and style—it’s people coming to bear witness to creation and rare talent.”
To see an Art Battle tournament live in your city or while traveling abroad, check the event calendar at artbattle.com.
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