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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Street Art Either Vandalizes or Livens Up the Locality

Street Art Either Vandalizes or Livens Up the Locality


Bob Dylan As Street Art - 33mhz

Guerilla art, graffiti, flash-mobbing, tagging, defacing buildings are judgment terms describing both the phenomena and just how high temperatures can get.

Street art encompasses live, temporary performance theatre at one extreme, and semi-permanent drawings, cartoons, captions, slogans on walls, canal banks, buses and trains, at the other. It may be argued that posters on lampposts and hoardings are equally part of the total urban street environment, the street furniture that makes up what people accept as public streets.

Video installations and laser projections on landmark buildings, such as the Berlin Festival of Lights 2008/2009, can also be part of what is termed contemporary street art. In the main, however, people understand it is the unapproved appearance of something that may be funny, shocking, sarcastic, clever, compelling, ugly or disfiguring, according to viewpoint and taste.

The Philosophy Behind Street Art

Insofar as they speak publicly about their work, most street artists claim not to be changing the definition of artwork; they are simply communicating in an accessible, challenging (with so many CCTV cameras in cities), risky (on moving trains) and establishment-bashing ways. Frequently the works are socially or politically relevant, in the same way as political theatre. Only the genre is different. It is often amusing, satirical, mocking the authority of the locality or political correctness.

American street and multi-media artist John Fekner has almost become part of the establishment of accepted practitioners. He is asked to participate in special projects and site-specific installations. For example, in 1981 he was part of the Washington Project for the Arts, teams working directly in the streets.

His website is called Art of Trespass, and he has created hundreds of environmental, social, political and conceptual works consisting of stenciled words, symbols, dates and icons spray painted outdoors in the US, Sweden, Canada, England and Germany. His definition of street art is ‘any art on the street that’s not graffiti’.

The British street artis, known as ‘Banksy’, whose real identity is not absolutely confirmed, published Wall and Piece in 2006, and in it he, or somebody possibly speaking for him, said: ‘Despite what they say, graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum, it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available’. He said there is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and everybody can afford to see it. ‘A wall has always been the best place to publish your work’.

Banksy said people who run cities are only interested in things that make profit: ‘they say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society, but it’s only dangerous in the minds of politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers’.

The Subversion of Graffiti

He articulated a view that this art form is monopolised by the young, the frequently rebellious, those happy to emerge at night, hoods up, intent on making a statement on walls, tenements and subways. This interpretation is shared equally about adolescence in film or on stage.

Sometimes, terms like ‘subvertising’ and ‘adbusting’ are used to describe the activism that drives ‘culture jamming’, assumed to motivate street artists. In a sense, this is merely an updating of the counter-culture arts of the 1960s, favoured by today’s critics when they were young.

Many city police forces regard a young, hooded person in possession of aerosol paint cans and on the streets at night, to be doubtless intent on such vandalism. However, the art form utilises other media too. Stencilling is popular, and allows the same message to appear in a number of locations quickly, literally overnight. Stickers can achieve blanket coverage.

It has never been confined to open streets. Toilet walls have long been a repository for common wit, revolutionary comments, racial/sexual observation or meaningless cries for help. In 1967 Robert Reisner was moved to publish Graffiti: Selected Scrawls From Bathroom Walls, quoting Norman Mailer’s Cannibals and Christians as justification: ‘Some of the best prose in America is found on men’s-room walls’. ‘LSD= Love, Sex, Dreams’ is one typical of the period and that made a semi-political statement about drugs and the law.

The New York Police Department, in their August 2010 magazine Police Chief, called graffiti a ‘quality of life crime’ creating conditions that can challenge law enforcement. Besides the economic ramifications associated with removing graffiti, they see ‘an insidious perception of disorder and contempt for law that it leaves behind’. Their seven-step strategy to combat it focuses on enforcement, education and clean-up.

The Acceptance of Urban Street Art

Many urban street artists publish their work in books; Banksy is not alone. Some have achieved national/international recognition (like Jef Aerosol, BLU, Cartrain, Ces53, Dan Witz, D*Face, Swoon, Twist, 108, Ellis Gallagher, Tod Hanson and Neck Face) showing work in museums and galleries others (Richard Hambleton and AVANT, street-as-gallery movement) even developed careers in such institutions. Ash, Ron English, Mr Brainwash and WK Interact, for example, have either worked in graphics for companies or created their own brand merchandising.

David Robinson’s 1990 book Soho Walls: Beyond Graffiti documented how street art shifted from word-based graffiti to wider art forms in streets. 2008’s Street Art Exhibition at the UK’s Tate Modern Gallery was accompanied by Cedar Lewisohn’s book Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, one of a number of recognized authoritative studies.

Banksy has the last word: ‘Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some become vandals because they want to make the world a better-looking place’. True or not, there is no denying that street art has now become mainstream.

First published on Suite 101, 8 September 2010.

Photo: Bob Dylan As Street Art – 33mhz

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