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Keeping it real

Steve Lazarides is Banksy's gallerist and the man responsible for the boom in street art. He hasn't

There is a crowd gathered outside the Lazarides Gallery on the Charing Cross Road. Inside, three grinning dwarfs in tuxedos motion guests up the stairs. The red walls are spattered artfully with yellow paint and covered in brightly coloured canvases, many of which feature skulls, or women in pornographic poses, or both. In one corner is a makeshift ten-pin bowling alley with china gnomes instead of pins. In another, a lady wearing nothing but nipple tassles is taking bites out of a bunch of roses.

On the top floor, Dennis Hopper and Kevin Spacey, their faces shaded by baseball caps, are standing in front of a large, brash canvas by the Brooklyn graffiti collective Faile. Ralph (pronounced "Raife"), a suave young salesman until recently employed at Sotheby's, is talking them through the piece. Hopper listens and then asks the price. "This one is £50,000," Ralph says evenly. "Really wonderful," murmurs Hopper. I ask him what he likes about this art. "It's the fact it started off as such an underground thing." In the next room framed, spray-painted rats by Banksy, the gallery's main attraction, are selling for £140,000. ("Because the rats are a Banksy signature piece," Ralph explains.)

This is the strange and contradictory world created by Steve Lazarides, gallerist and agent for Banksy, and the man responsible for the street-art boom of the Noughties. Street art was the Asbo-generation offspring of Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists movement: a hyper active, media-savvy take on graffiti culture. It revelled in subverting the rules of the art Establishment, with the anonymous Banksy sneaking his own guerrilla exhibits into galleries and museums to see how long they would remain in place. Gradually and predictably, however, it has become incorporated into the mainstream. This summer, Tate Modern commissioned three Laza rides artists to paint on its exterior walls. (The gallerist says sniffily that the Tate "should have shown it inside".)

Banksy and other street artists such as Faile, Blu and Paul Insect have adapted to the demands of the market by creating living-room-friendly canvases to fund their unsaleable, but credibility-enhancing creations on walls and railway sidings. Street art's humour and edginess, not to mention its viability as an investment, made it the aesthetic of choice for pre-credit-crunch hedge funders. (As one non-Lazarides artist put it, "Hang it in your riverside penthouse and you look like you have a bit of cred.") In July last year, Hirst himself bought an entire show by Paul Insect for £500,000; earlier that summer, Lazarides had sold 100 works by Faile for $1m.

In his latest foray into fully fledged respectability, Lazarides has compiled a book featuring work by the artists from his stable, including the Gorillaz cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, 3D of Massive Attack, Radiohead's favourite artist Stanley Donwood, and the up-and-coming photographer JR. It is published by Random House and is entitled Outsiders, perhaps because Lazarides still feels like an outsider himself.

A native of Bristol, Lazarides is the son of a kebab shop owner and is himself a former chicken plucker. He met Banksy in 2001 while he was working as a picture editor at the magazine Sleazenation. His winning formula has been to blend street art's feisty attitude with sharp business acumen (something Donwood identifies as a "very Bristolian combination").

And yet, when we meet for lunch during Frieze week, it is not immediately clear to me how he differs from the "insiders" of the art world. The Charing Cross gallery is full of trendy types preparing for the evening's festivities, timed to coincide with the art fair. Lazarides ushers me quickly out of the office and into the Groucho Club, where he is on first-name terms with the staff. With his shaven head and chunky silver necklace, he looks like a graphic designer (not a breed he admires), and is kindly and unpretentious, if brimming with his recent successes: an "Outsiders" show in New York attracted 20,000 visitors in 12 days with no advertising; the greats of American graffiti were there and "loved it"; a thoroughly hip time was had by all.

Lazarides is no stranger to the irony of street art becoming part of the Establishment. "We are not the new big thing any more. I'd like nothing better than for someone new to come and kick my ass. But you have to adapt and roll with it, otherwise you'll look like an utter prick selling this stuff in the middle of Soho for thousands of pounds a piece." I ask whether he thinks he looks like a prick, and instantly feel mean when, laughing, he answers: "Yeah, yeah, probably."

More than anything else, he says, he wants Outsiders the book to demonstrate that there is more to his artists than the term "street art" suggests. "I get pissed off with the tag. People don't take it seriously - it's like it's for children, not proper contemporary art. The only time an artist like [the painter] Antony Micallef is on the street is when he goes to buy a paper and a pint of milk." The book is divided into sections: Outside, which covers the more conventional kind of graffiti; Inside, featuring gallery-based work by artists such as the taxidermist Polly Morgan and portraitist Jonathan Yeo; and Other, which includes installations and sculptures. Banksy is nowhere to be seen. "Banksy is a phenomenon, a once-in-a-generation artist. If we had put even one image of his in the book it would have become all about him."

Like many before them, Lazarides and the artists he represents are torn between trying to remain outside the art Establishment and wanting to be taken more seriously by it. He defines outsiders as "artists who have not gone the traditional route in getting their work seen or bought". However, he concedes that some of those featured in the book have been to art school and that, at his prices, the art in Lazarides is no more affordable than it would be from a gallery in Mayfair. "The outsider thing is a state of mind more than anything else," he says.

The work he promotes is in some ways a reaction against the conceptual school of contemporary art, which Lazarides sees as being exclusive, designed to alienate the public and to appeal to an elite group of "in the know" galleries and collectors. "I don't think you should need a degree or an explanation booklet to understand a piece of art," he says. The next evening at the party, I meet Micallef, who makes much the same point. "I went to the Turner Prize exhibition and I came out feeling really depressed," he says. "It's like having a conversation with someone who just talks about themselves and never asks you any questions. As an artist, I think it's my job to communicate with people within my chosen form."

The content may be accessible, but Lazarides abandoned long ago his (to be fair, considerable) efforts to sell art at below-market prices. At first many of his artists would produce screen prints, which sold along with the original works at the shows for rock-bottom prices. But as the eBay traders' profit margins rose, the feeding became so frenzied that, in 2006, the screen-print line was hived off to an internet-based company, Pictures on Walls, freeing Lazarides to concentrate on original artwork. The experience was bruising. "It got to the stage where I didn't trust anyone," he says. "Everyone I'd ever spoken to had become a fucking arsehole . . . We tried to do things differently and it didn't work.

"Well, communism was a great idea and that didn't work, either. You realise that the human race are evil bastards who will do anything to get money or power. I truly believe that."

I don't think he truly believes that, because if he did he would have given up on art and gone to work in investment banking. Instead, he has decided to keep his naughtiness in check and play by the rules. "I sell things at market prices now. The only way to do it is to get the people who can afford to pay for it to give you the freedom to do what you do. At least other people can stop by and have a look." He expresses his rebellious nature in other ways - splattering his walls with yellow paint and hiring dwarves for his opening parties, for example. The art Establishment may be safe for now, but it's still a little more fun for having Steve Lazarides in it.

"Outsiders: Art by People", compiled by Steve Lazarides, is published by Century (£14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas