In 2005 the English street artist Banksy did a series of paintings on the West Bank barrier. (Photo by Banksy)
On March 9, 2010 an artist named Sparrow Philips was convicted of defacing personal property in the Auckland District Court. The piece that got him arrested showed a man painting money over graffiti tags. According to Philips, “the money bags represent[ed] the money spent by the Auckland City Council to paint over tagging.” An hour after he left the courtroom, Philips was found painting on the walls of the Auckland City Art Gallery, where his work was on display. According to press reports, the exhibit was one of the gallery’s most popular shows.
Street artist Sparrow Philips was convicted for painting this stencil in the TV3 parking lot. (Photo courtesy of TV3)
There are few mediums that force us to rethink our definition of “art” the way street art does. A painting that is deemed “vandalism” one minute, can be publicly condoned and dubbed a valuable artwork the next.
In the book Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, John Fekner defines street art as “all art on the street that’s not graffiti.” I like this definition because it excludes territorial graffiti and the deliberate destruction of private property (vandalism for vandalism’s sake), but is broad enough to include graffiti artwork, posters, guerilla art, video projections, sticker art, flash mobs, and everything in between.
Street art often has an activist thread. It may be subversive, playful, overtly political, or humorous. Commercial advertising is a frequent target. Some artists alter existing advertisements, while others challenge corporate advertising with their own original work. The English artist Banksy, one of the world’s most famous street artists, comments on advertising in his book Wall and Piece: ”The people who truly deface our neighbourhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back. Well, they started the fight and the wall is the weapon of choice to hit them back.”
A piece of Paris street art by the French artist Invader (Photo courtesy Flickr Commons)
Advertising is a frequent target of street artists. (Photo courtesy WebUrbanist)
The work of Cedric Bernadotte on display in Pau, France (Photos from cedricbernadotte.com and Wikimedia Commons)
One of the characteristics of street art that I find most appealing is its egalitarianism. It is art that exists outside the museum. There are no gate keepers: no museum curators standing by giving their stamp of approval, there are no explanatory text panels, or security devices sending the message that the piece of art under protection is a precious, cultural treasure or a valuable commodity. There are no lines, no pricey tickets, no gift shops hocking art-embellished neck ties. All of this baggage falls away. Anyone can have a direct encounter with street art, and as we’ll see in my next article on Banksy, the response of a community is often as intriguing and important as the work itself.
The rawness of the encounter between the work and the viewer is one of the best qualities of the medium. When we encounter street art, we either like it or we don’t. We find it offensive or funny or true. Often these art works are appreciated and enjoyed by an audience that would never set foot inside of a museum. And for those of us who do frequent galleries and other art institutions, the street art experience resonates with immediacy.
On a recent trip to London, I came across this piece of street art in Charing Cross. I was filling time after a cancelled meeting, perusing the shelves of used bookshops, when I stumbled on this sign. I don’t know who made the piece, or how long it’s been there, but it didn’t matter. The sign amused me. It was a highlight in an otherwise lackluster day.
Street art in Charing Cross, London (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)
Historical Graffiti (Photo by Clarissa Hughes)
London has been at the heart of the graffiti scene from the very beginning. In London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd describes one of the first known pieces of graffiti written in a Roman hand–Publius and Titus are “‘hereby solemnly cursed.’” Ackroyd has done some digging and come up with a sampling of London graffiti from previous centuries: “‘Thomas Jordan cleaned this window, and damn the job, I say–1815.’” “‘Christ is God…No Coach Tax…Damn the Duke of Richmond!…Damn Pitt!’” were all popular in the year 1792. The most common graffiti in 1942 was “‘Strike in the West Now!,’ and in the later part of the century the two most formidable slogans were ‘George Davis is Innocent’ and ‘No Poll Tax.’” The desire to leave a human mark–some trace of individuality–in this bustling, anonymous city can be traced back to London’s earliest days.
While Bristol and London are certainly the two major street art hubs in the UK, street art is not strictly an urban phenomenon. During my visit to England, I also discovered this piece of stencil graffiti on the side of an old building in the countryside near Bath.