This Revolution Is For Display Purposes Only: A Street Art Primer

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.

Stencil art in the countryside near Bath, England (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

Street art is also happening in rural towns and suburban neighborhoods. There are guerilla gardeners throwing seed bombs onto abandoned lots and planting flowers on traffic islands. Artist Fritz Haeg encourages homeowners to replace their wasteful, thirsty front lawns with edible plants. He has built numerous community art projects around the idea and published a book called Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn that documents his work. The line between art, activism, and environmentalism has never been this porous.

An Edible Estates garden in Baltimore, Maryland. Artist Fritz Haeg was commissioned by the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and built the garden with homeowners Clarence and Rudine Ridgley (Photo by Fritz Haeg)

While street art has been dominated largely by men, female artists are making their own mark. The Guerrilla Girls are one of the more famous examples. The group formed in 1985 in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.” 169 artists were included in the exhibit, but fewer than 10 percent were women. The Guerrilla Girls protested by placing posters around SoHo.

A new street art phenomenon is the practice of yarn bombing, a type of street art that uses knitting and crocheting instead of paint or chalk. A number of artists like Olek, Jessie Hemmons, Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain are making their own mark in this male dominated field.

Yarn bombing

Yarn bombing is a popular new form of street art. “Charging Bull," near Wall Street, was covered in crocheted yarn by the artist Olek. (Photo by Olek)

 

One of the many works by the Guerrilla Girls on view at the Tate Modern (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

The Chinese government’s suppression of free speech has made street art a vital, but dangerous activity in China. When Ai Weiwei, an artist and activist known for his “Sunflower Seeds” installation at the Tate Modern and his collaboration on the Beijing National Stadium, was arrested on April 3, 2011 by the Chinese government, his studio searched, and his computers confiscated, an artist calling himself Cpak Ming began projecting flash graffiti all over Hong Kong. His work showed Weiwei’s face with the caption “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?” Cpak Ming projected the image onto streets, onto buildings, in buses, even on the wall of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) harbour-front barracks. As Reuters reported, when the artist began disseminating photographs of the project on Facebook, the Chinese army responded with a strong warning: “Such an offence is a breach of Hong Kong law. The PLA reserve its legal rights.”

Flash graffiti by Cpak Ming protesting the arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (Photo by Cpak Ming)

This intersection between activism, art, and technology deserves further exploration. “Street” art is no longer limited to real streets in urban, suburban, or rural landscapes. Virtual landscapes are ripe terrain for subversive, activist art as well, particularly in countries like China, which don’t allow free speech. The current challenge is for digital activists and artists is to find a way around the “Great Firewall,” which is closely guarded by the Chinese government.

In the introduction to Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, Lee Ambrozy describes the current challenges facing writers and artists in China:

“Like Ai Weiwei, countless bloggers have had sensitive posts removed, and cyber-dissidents have even been imprisoned…Demonstrating their commitment to information control, a network of ‘secret police’ estimated at more than 280,000 perpetually trolls the Internet, almost immediately deleting posts that aren’t politically correct. In addition, the ‘fifty-cent army’–paid commentators trained and funded by the state–manipulates public opinion in chat rooms or in blog comment feeds. Comments advocating the official line have even begun appearing in comment feeds on English-language news coverage, attempting to shape public opinion around the globe.”

Technology offers activist artists a whole new way of connecting directly with readers and viewers. The Internet is a powerful medium and no one appreciates this fact more than the artists and government watchdogs in countries like China, where free speech is oppressed. Artists like Ai Weiwei and Cpak Ming who challenge the party line express themselves at huge personal risk and are under constant online surveillance. According to Amnesty International, China has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world. But artists there are continually looking for ways to bypass this “Great Firewall.” Direct communication is the primary point of street art, whether literal or virtual, and nowhere is it more critical than in countries where other forms of direct communication are under assault.

A photo of the anonymous street artist Cpak Ming. His flash graffiti protesting the arrest of Ai Weiwei provoked a warning by the Chinese government (Photo courtesy artasiapacific.com)

This introductory article on street art is the first in a new series. Over the next few months, we’ll take a look at some of the most interesting artists working in the medium. Some artists, like Banksy, you may know, but plenty of others will be new to you. I have some great stories lined up for the next few months, so stay tuned.

Want to learn more about street art? Browse the shelves of the new Gwarlingo Store to discover my favorite books on the subject.

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*Note: “This revolution is for display purposes only” are the words of Banksy quoted in his book Wall and Piece.

 

By | 2016-11-11T21:55:50+00:00 08.04.11|Greatest Hits, Images|2 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

2 Comments

  1. Ryan Wilson August 4, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Hey, this is a great post and deals with a lot of things I’ve been interested in lately! China, of course, and street art. I might have mentioned I started an art club last semester and I taught them how to make stencils and paste and we did a little poster bombing on our campus. One girl got really into it and she’s continued on making some on her own and when I get back to campus we’re going to make regular bombing runs together to see if we can get the students on campus to pay more attention to the walls, curbs and surfaces around them (that’s harder with Chinese students than you might imagine). I found that I love it and I love seeing the pieces out in the wild the day after pasting them. I even made my own Ai Weiwei inspired piece back when he first got nabbed, but it was too abstract and no one got it. I wasn’t about to make it too clear though, because I like my job and my life in China too much. Anyway, when I get a chance I’ll share some of the things we’re doing with you. Oh, and you know about Tangerine in Hong Kong right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Ai_Weiwei_street_art_campaign

  2. AC August 4, 2011 at 10:28 am

    The Gwarlingo topics of discourse are always remarkable and filled with solid thought.

Comments are closed.