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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.