Street art and advertising

There is often a very fine line between street art and public advertisements. They are both on the street, and often times they are both illegal. When that line gets very blurred though is when street artists start putting up advertisements as artwork or vice versa.

There are numerous examples of artists who put up wheatpastes or flyposted advertisements when they have a show about to open, but they also aren’t what I want to address today. I want to focus on a few more recent and blatant examples of street at as advertising and advertising as street art.

First, there is Kaws. He did some work for Kanye West’s new album, including this piece in Times Square:

Photo by JOE M500
Photo by JOE M500

For a guy who started as a graffiti writer and transitioned to a street artist who subverted (or at least changed) advertisements, he sure has come a long way. I’m not going to say it’s good or bad that Kaws is doing advertisements. I’d probably rather he didn’t, but I can’t blame him for wanting to make some money and get up in Times Square. People change, and I don’t think he’s shy about how he has changed. There isn’t a false front there. Kind of like Kanye himself.

Rappers don’t usually start out their careers by saying “I really want to rap and get a connection with fans and spread a message.” The stereotypical rapper justs comes right out and says “I wanna get really extremely rich.” By comparison, your average rock start has to worry about “selling out” and staying true to their originals and all that. Inside, that rock star is probably thinking “I really want to buy a mansion some day,” but they’d never be allowed to say that out loud.

Kaws doesn’t claim to be this anti advertising subversion king at all, so more power to him I guess.

And the important thing to keep in mind here is that Kanye’s record label paid for that ad. It’s not like that billboard is a wall which would have otherwise been taken and used by street artists or graffiti writers.

More after the jump…

Next we have Mr. Brainwash.

Let me first say that I don’t like Mr. Brainwash’s “artwork” in general, so this might be an unfair rant. Sorry MBW.

MBW recently designed the album cover for Madonna’s new cd, Celebration. Here is what it looks like:


And here is something that popped up recently in LA:

mr brainwash madonna

This is the sort of thing I really don’t like. That’s pretty much an advertisement for Madonna’s album. Sure, it doesn’t say Celebration anywhere, but there are certainly been much more subtle guerilla advertising campaigns, and you can bet that Madonna will be renting huge billboard spaces as well, so people already familiar with the image will see it as an ad for sure.

While that work may or may not be artistic, it is also certainly an advertisement, and an illegally placed one at that. A street artist would know better. If MBW wants to wheatpaste huge pieces everywhere, I won’t like it, but I wouldn’t say he has no right. On the other hand, flyposting advertisements is not something I can support. These should be treated as ads not art, and are therefore fair game to rip down or paint over or whatever else.

Finally, I’d like to bring up something from last year that I’ve recently had a change of heart about: Banksy’s giant rats in New York City.

Photo by caruba
Photo by caruba
Photo by caruba

These rats weren’t painted by Banksy. They were painted by some guys he hired and the walls are rented from an advertising agency that he worked with.

At first, I was quite upset about these rats. What was Banksy thinking hiring an advertising agency to paint his pieces for him? I didn’t like it one bit.

Well over the last 10 months or so, my opinion has changed dramatically. It should be worth noting though that what brought this to my mind was the book Untitled II, which I just reviewed. In Untitled II, opposite a picture of Banksy’s I Heart NY rat, is a little blurb that says “Kids don’t believe in faries anymore. Their imagination has dwindled by having things told to them. This is a fact, this is true, this is real. Those are the same kids that stand and stare at a 150ft rat on a wall in absolute awe.”

The guy who wrote that has a point. What would be in that location if Banksy hadn’t rented it out? Probably a giant advertisement for Nike shoes or (God forbid) Glenn Beck’s tv show on Fox News. Definitely better to have a giant rat there. We can debate whether or not those rats are still art or if they are adverts themselves and things like that all day and not get anywhere, but I think it’s easy to see that those rats are a lot better to look at than Glenn Beck’s ugly head.