When graffiti artist Sean Bono staged his first "paint-off" in 2001 in his New York City apartment, the goal was simple: to watch friends creatively one-up each other—without fear of arrest. That idea morphed into ArtBattles, a sporadic series of New York-based parties in which emerging artists race to complete original works, spectators judge the results, and winners walk away with cash prizes (artbattles.com, from free to $10).
Judging by the spin-offs that have since emerged, Bono's brainchild hit a cultural nerve. In the past year alone, Secret Wars, a similar London-based group, expanded its reach to half a dozen new cities, including Lisbon and Dublin (secretwars.co.uk, from free to $8.50). In places as far-flung as Zürich (artclash.ch, from free to $8); Toyama, Japan (joint-art-battle.org, free); and Detroit (myspace.com/artbattle, $10), independently run annual showdowns each draw hundreds of onlookers. And in recent months, Bono's events have broken free of the warehouses and lots that once housed them, finding new homes in upscale SoHo galleries and at a festival in Central Park.
Perhaps more telling is the reaction from the fine-art establishment: Secret Wars took over the Raphael Gallery at London's Victoria and Albert Museum in June for an illustrator contest that gave tourists and locals entry into an underground scene they might never have cracked otherwise. Now, even Hollywood is riding the trend: Bravo's as-yet-untitled competitive art reality series goes into production this fall.