Is street art still ‘street’?

March 19th, 2011 | By | 10 Comments »

Graffiti in NYC's Freedom Tunnel. Photo by mercurialn

In the beginning, at a time when rebellion was in the air, graffiti was a call to arms. The late 60s and 70s saw disenfranchised youths, first of Philadelphia and then New York, take to the streets equipped with marker pen and spray can. Seeking to re-claim their city, in much the same way as the Situationists and their revolutionary politics in Europe, these youths not only challenged the geographies of our urban settlements but also influenced generations of writers, artists, photographers and today’s new breed of urban creatives.

Whilst the 1970s style wars on New York’s subways saw the evolution from tag, to dub and finally to end to end burners, the 1990s saw a new change, the evolution into what can be best described as street art. Influenced by the New York subway writers and early street art pioneers such as Fekner, Haring, Hambleton and Holzer, a new wave of artists led by Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee and Blek le Rat revolutionised the way art was produced and displayed to the public on the street. But before I get into any arguments about definitions, graff, street art or the hideously named ‘urban art’ – to me, street art marks a shift from letter to logo and into new forms of artistic expression; stickers, stencils, paste-ups and installations all sitting alongside their traditional graffiti counterparts feeding off the same anarchic roots.

This shift towards new means of expression was an important milestone as it was not the only change taking place in our cities, for the 1990s also saw the increased privatisation of our public spaces – perhaps shifts and changes that actually went hand in hand. With the aim of regenerating our city centres to draw back shoppers from the badly designed out of town shopping centres, authorities up and down the UK formulated new rules and regulations dominated by all seeing CCTV.

Now managed to exclude illicit traders, skateboarders, Big Issue sellers, tramps, beggars and vandals with spray cans, our city centres took on Disneyland style characteristics. They became spaces for just the middle classed shopper and the dazzling lights of advertisement. But as I said, this shift in city design almost went hand in hand with the evolution of graff into new forms of street art expression. It was almost as if city management promoted this new form of art on the streets.

Over the last decade, whist out cities have becomes increasingly privatised and commodified, street art has grown. A hybrid of anarchy, avant-garde practises and the undertones of subculture disorder, street art aims to restructure out cities away from the visual inundation of advertising and image juggernauts like Starbucks and McDonald’s. As Tristan Manco once stated, street art is “in flux between established ideas and new directions.”

However over the last few years, I suppose thanks to a certain stencil artist, amongst others, street art is becoming accepted (to an extent) – Although it must be noted that I say this statement very lightly. Nevertheless, we have seen an increasing number of shop and property owners embracing this raw cultural art form, a far cry from its roots in NYC where Mayor Lindsay claimed it to be vandalistic scrawling committed by kids with mental health problems. And there lies my question, has street art lost its way?

It’s a topic that I have been thinking about for a while, and only last month Burning Candy took out a massive wall in Bristol after getting permission from the building owner, and so it seemed the perfect time to consider the issue and write this piece. Does the increasing legalisation of many pieces of street art remove all their underlying anarchic, rebellious meaning?

Burning Candy - Bristol Cafe Masterpiece. Photo by LL Brainwashed

The BC wall in Bristol actually provides a good topic of conversation simply because of its content. For one, it is well known about the BC members respect and passion for the roots of graff but more importantly, it is their understanding of each other and of the city. Their work always remains free-form, context sensitive and maintains its rapid reaction to what they see. While the work may be ‘legal’ it is certainly not compromising their unique identity.

To some, BC may not be to their taste, and others may make comparisons to other well-known crews or high profile street artists, but comparisons suck as no one ever agrees. However what can be argued to a conclusion is that this piece by BC is self-expression in its rawest form no matter how you look at it. It is ultimately the end product of a group of artists stamping their own identity on the city.

And you would imagine that the local council are not massive fans as it certainly does not fit into the traditional regeneration policies aimed as creating uniform, safe, clean spaces. BC’s legal wall for the Whitecross Street Party in 2010, for example, was definitely not loved by the Islington Graff Squad, and it was painted over as early as possible the morning after the festival finished!

BC at Whitecross Street Party. Photo by Shower

So back to the main question – has the legality involved in street art removed its historical roots? Is there a time when street art can no longer be considered street? Has the new BC wall lost all meaning because it is legal?

The short answer is no, and certainly not the case with regard to BC. Whilst BC did gain permission for the wall, they have set out to re-appropriate the space in their own way, taking a fresh look at the city and re-personalising it, in a similar way to the Situationists and their quest to adapt their own city spaces. In fact, it could be said that their intervention almost becomes open source urban design or perhaps DIY design – but that’s a whole new topic for debate.

To me, street art makes you think or re-think. It makes you smile as you walk past, or makes you stop and stare, or it makes you completely re-think a space or even a city. Street art takes its visual queues from graffiti and the inundation of advertising, and takes its anarchic feel from the revolutionary politics coined by The Situationists, Dada, CoBRA, The Letterist International, and from the overarching increasing privatisation of our public spaces. As such, street art, whether it is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ re-appropriates pristine lifeless city spaces and consequently, as with 1970s NYC subway graffiti, must still be considered two fingers up to the powers that be!

Photos by LL Brainwashed, Shower and mercurialn


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  • http://www.themagiclantern.blogspot.com Em

    As long as there’s some sort of tension between writers/artists and local authorities, then street art will not be dead. At a certain level there’s a meta-dialogue about what ‘public’ really means: Graffitti asks just how public a public space is and questions the level of force that authorities will use in order to maintain their control over those public spaces.
    Back in Washington Heights in the early 1970s, there was an almost complete absence of civil authority in terms of protecting us from crime or providing suitable infrastructure. There was a level of drugs and violence that are hard to describe to those that didn’t live through that. In that environment we wrote in order to make a statement that we existed, we were alive, and that we were not merely an inconvenience. And we were also laying claim to our neighborhoods (I was Fuck You 162).
    Those tensions still exist today, though the stakes are not so much life-and-death anymore, but certainly graffitti and street art still probe the boundaries of who owns our public spaces and whether the poor can really lay claim to the spaces in which they live.
    The flipside too is that good street art allows the shielded/cloistered to be ‘ambushed’ by artists outside the gallery and money framework. This is a vital communication link that the moneyed class are often able to close down because they often are the true owners of the authorities and, therefore, those public spaces. Street art lays claim to those public spaces and reopens the communication channels that might sometimes say things that people don’t want to hear, but need to. And that’s not super-different from basic tagging graffitti in the ‘hood back in the 70s.

  • Nolionsinengland

    Nice writing! If only most examples of street are were genuiinely conceiived in the spirit of rebellion and wiith a sense of attitude as you (and I) hope. Sadly it is is a viictim of its own “success”, too much bullshit masquerading as street art is out there as thinky disguised promotional spam. As you know, that charge is one that weighs heavily on Bankys’s output and of course the Monorex facilitated Converse campaign last autumn is the ultimate sell out. Gold Peg ice cream on the Village Underground? give me the roof top every time.

  • Jennie

    To me, the ‘street’ aspect today is directly intertwined with intent. The whole street movement as you described, largely began as a necessity to be heard, to speak out against the authority, and the bureaucratic hierarchy of the art business. In this way, its roots are very political.
    The fairly recent embrace of street art, however, is a double-edged sword. On one hand it indicates more of an open-mindedness to free-form public creative expression than ever before– perhaps a sign that the message is being heard, albeit a tension clearly still exists. The prominence of artists like Shepard Fairy and Banksy have [perhaps] unintentionally aided to create this embrace. On the other hand, the fact that money now circulates the street art scene, thanks in part to the afore mentioned, inevitably creates a shift in the intention of a lot of artists.
    Back in the 70s, 80s and most of the 90s, being a street artist wasn’t linked to fame and fortune, but now it is. I don’t think any group or figure is to blame for this, but, rather, its a matter of circumstances and evolution. Probably most street artists today should be given the benefit of the doubt that their intent is purely to make art and say something– but I also have to question it, particularly artists who so obviously bite a known artists style, or flash their work all over the internet with a link to Big Cartel.
    So, while there still exists a tension with authority, etc., it feels like the artists’ intention is becoming tainted by the same stuff that street art set out to rebel against. Being ‘street’ as defined 20 years ago has certainly changed in a lot of ways, and vying for public space seems like only a small percentage of the intent– especially when the majority of street art is often centered around certain areas that are already chock full of edgy galleries, design agencies, rich hipsters, and bloggers.
    Executing art on the street is not the same as ‘being street’… there are a lot of amazing street artists out there who have paid their dues in taking real risks, refining their work, and maintaining their integrity and intent, and they should always be applauded for it, regardless of whether its legal or not.

  • Zzzzzzzzz

    Completely superficial article written some clueless vacuous hipster trying to look cool by dropping names such as the Situationists, without any real understanding of what they’re talking about.

    The Situationists were violently opposed to the kind of banal spectacle that you call ‘street art’.

    No, it’s not ‘street’, revolutionary, or even vaguely rebellious. Virtually all of it is just a form of unlicensed advertising, and this blog just perpetuates and intensifies the problem.

  • http://blog.vandalog.com/ RJ Rushmore

    The Situationists painted graffiti/street art in the form of phrases on walls and the more revolutionary street art and graffiti artists definitely come out of a similar tradition and are/were probably influenced by them. That said, the commercial success of street artists and graffiti writers and the use of walls for advertising is, I agree, something the Situationists would object to very strongly.

    As for your last paragraph, I think Nolion’s comment addresses most of that quite well. Street art is a victim on its own success and yes, street art can be a form of advertising for artists and that sucks.

    As for this blog, again, street art is a victim of its own success. If I post a few things about an artist like WorldWarWon, his name will get out there and offers may start coming his way to commercialize the art. When I do that, am I encouraging WWW to turn his art into advertising, or am I trying to show people some cool art? From my perspective, I’m not intentionally encouraging WWW to turn his art into advertising, but yes, that is a side effect of trying to show people some cool art. And the same could be said for when I post about more popular artists. Yes, all blogs perpetuate the problems that exist in street art. Hopefully they do more good than harm though. If you think that everything I post on here is with some evil and secret motivation, well that’s your right to think that, but it’s not true.

  • Shower

    I’m certainly glad that this topic has resulted in a few comments.

    Zzzzzz, while the Situationist International may not be so approving of much of what street art has become, I strongly believe that their roots in revolutionary politics are still running through this evolving art form. Their ideas revolved around the increasing commodification of the city, and while you can argue as Jennie pointed out, many street artists have taken simply conformed to this commodification themselves, many don’t, and in fact most in my opinion are not simply sell outs.

    The Situationists were disillusioned with the city and everything it brought to society and in particular with the notion that public space had become the ultimate commodity, in much the same way as we see the modern city, a point that Em raised regarding the publicness of space. Using the methods of dérive – the playful drifting through space, and detourné – the destabilising the presumed social norm, plus the idea of psychogeography, the Situationists re-thought and re-mapped the urban politics of cities.

    To me, street art and graffiti fall into the detourné category with regard to their aim of re-appropriating public spaces. Artists are now simply repackaging the alternative culture of the 60s and the politics of the Situationists, their forerunners the Letterist International, CoBRA etc. So while much of today’s street art does not seem rebellious, and to an extent I agree, but I have to disagree on the whole. As Jennie pointed out, it comes down to intent and an underlying feeling of taking back that little bit of space for yourself. If I was artistic I would certainly be out there now but unfortunately I gave up art when I was 12.

    I think NoLions comment regarding the success of street art is something that could definitely be further investigated and I completely agree – give me a rooftop everytime! But also Jennie concludes her post with a great point. In this article I tried to argue that asking permission to paint a wall or a set of shutters should not take away from the art being produced, (and that’s definitely different from a councils lame excuse for a ‘legal’ wall), and so I think her last point is perfect…

    “Executing art on the street is not the same as ‘being street’… there are a lot of amazing street artists out there who have paid their dues in taking real risks, refining their work, and maintaining their integrity and intent, and they should always be applauded for it, regardless of whether its legal or not.”

  • Zzzzzzzzz

    I didn’t say it’s a big secret. On the contrary, you’re really quite blatant about pushing the commercial angle. It seems to be the predominant feature of this blog.

  • Zzzzzzzzzz

    Detournement is a purely political action. Recuperation is when such actions are commodified into art…

    “by attacking and distancing oneself from the sign-systems of capital, the subject creates a fantasy of transgression that “covers up” his/her actual complicity with capitalism”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9tournement

  • http://www.themagiclantern.blogspot.com Em

    I dunno…I think some of you dudes (gals?) think too much. Zzzzzzzz is a good example. Is Swoon, for example, ‘street’? Is she commercial? WHO GIVES A SHIT. Her work radiates humanity and warmth and it makes me feel good. Shepard Fairey? Yeah, call it advertising, but sometimes here in NYC I’ll see something he put up and it is really beautiful. Although I’d personally still call it “street” because I still get a sort of subversive feeling, it doesn’t matter, because you can’t in general buy that actual piece, and the piece itself has something in it for you right there and then, rather than promising to deliver somewhere else, say in a gallery. As long as that remains true then it’s not only street art it’s good art, so who gives a shit what the “cool kids” say.

    Put it another way: Would Zzzzzzz still proclaim it all bullshit if he didn’t know anything about the artists and the Gallery world, and only saw the art?

  • Zzzzzzzzzz

    Yeah, I’m obviously thinking too much. That’s where I’m going wrong. Must remember not to think.