Has street art “sold out and gentrified our cities”?

The entrance to Wynwood Walls in Miami, Florida. Photo by Osseous.
The entrance to Wynwood Walls in Miami, Florida. Photo by Osseous.

Earlier this week, the online street art community was abuzz about an article by Rafael Schacter for The Conversation, From dissident to decorative: why street art sold out and gentrified our cities. Between the time I left my apartment on Monday morning and when I arrived at work half an hour later, it seemed like a dozen of my friends had shared the article or reacted to it in some way.

Schacter has captured a feeling about street art and contemporary muralism, a nagging fear really, that seems to have been bubbling just beneath the surface for a while now. Basically, Schacter argues that street art isn’t rebellious anymore. Rather, that it’s most notable form is as a tool used by corporations to spur gentrification. Agree or disagree, the article is a must-read.

Rather than go on my own rant responding to Schacter like I would usually do, I reached out to some of the biggest names in street art and muralism for their reactions. A few of them answered. The prompt was pretty open-ended, basically just to share some thoughts after reading the article. Here’s what Buff Monster, Living Walls’ Monica Campana, 1xRun’s Jesse Cory, Jeffrey Deitch, Libray Street Collective’s Matt Eaton, Tristan Eaton, John Fekner, Gaia, Ganzeer, Carlo McCormick, The Painted Desert Project’s Chip Thomas, Jessie Unterhalter, Vexta, and Wall Therapy’s Ian Wilson had to say (with emphasis added)…

Buff Monster at the Coney Art Walls. Photo by The All-Nite Images.
Buff Monster for the Coney Art Walls. Photo by The All-Nite Images.

Buff Monster:

Well that article is quite pessimistic. Surely, with the proliferation of mural festivals, some murals will be better than others (based on a variety of criteria). But to assert that real estate moguls are using street art as a cog in the wheel, just to appear “edgy enough” is not totally accurate. Yes, street art makes neighborhoods “hip” but there isn’t a grand sinister plan behind it all. The “critical street art” that the author yearns for is really just “public art”. But the systems for commissioning and funding public art have probably remained slow and frustrating. But people, nonetheless, want to see art in the public (which is why there is so much more of it now). So in this totally DIY age, it’s no surprise that people are just buying some paint, asking permission, and getting on with it. I am curious, however, what the world will look like in 20 years. This explosion of street art festivals around the world is unprecedented.

Monica Campana:

I always feel very conflicted when talking about the role of the artist and gentrification, especially when it comes down to the kind of art we call street art, muralism, graffiti, etc.

In 2009, I started a project called Living Walls, the City Speaks, with my friend Blacki Miggliozi. This project put graffiti writers/street artists alongside city planners and urbanists to talk about our cities. Baffled by the CNU18 (Congress of New Urbanism) that took place in Atlanta, GA in 2010 and its expensive entry fee, we felt that we could also create a platform for conversation about our cities that was free and open to the public. Living Walls then became a conference of street art and urbanism.

Murals and lectures were the core of the project and in 2010 we launched our first conference. Now two thing were also happening at this time. First, a new movement of mural making was starting. The internet was rapidly growing, connecting all these different artists interested in street art and muralism together. Being in the US, I was blown away to see the amazing murals and street art coming from places like Italy, Spain, and Argentina. Some of these being done illegally, some not.

Around this same time in the US, we start to see another shift happening. As William H. Frey, a demographer at The Brookings Institute, wrote in the report The State of Metropolitan America: “A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction.” Across the globe we saw a movement of people wanting to live in healthier cities. People didn’t want to drive as much. Walking, biking and vibrant urban environments become a more and more appealing option for living, especially among young people.

Living Walls started to work with these new artists from all over the world and we started to bring them to Atlanta to paint murals. Each year, we gave ourselves a total of 10 days to get to know a community and have a conversation about better and healthier cities. The murals were going up fast, the attention in the city was growing. Not too long after that the criticism of us as potential agents for gentrification started.

Producing a large mural festival, even with the best intentions of wanting to highlight a sense of pride in our city was very difficult and in many cases misunderstood. I have been questioning what my role as a curator and art organizer of this kind of project ever since the criticism started.

I often wonder, if we are quicker to point the finger at someone else and use the word gentrification carelessly without reflecting on our own actions. I reflect on the fact that everyone that is creating any kind of mural festival does it in less than a month period. We all work fast, but even if we are creating challenging, thought provoking art that questions our morals, are we doing it with proper consideration for the place where we are working and the people that live there? Are two weeks enough? I love the artists mentioned in this article, in fact, they are some of my favorites as well, but is it only white males that are creating interesting street art? If street art is an agent of gentrification are bikes, projects like the Beltline in Atlanta or the Highline in New York City, as well?

I think this is a very important conversation to be having right now, but there needs to be more than just criticism. This should be a starting place for us to figure out the responsibility we all have as people that do work in the public space and with the public itself. Gentrification is not a black and white issue, but a very complex one. It is not created by street artists, though artists are usually the ones that are more open to live in vibrant environments, and places that attract young creatives. Gentrification in the US is not the same as what happens in Europe, our socioeconomic and racial tensions even vary from city to city here, so how can we make a general statement about this?

Wynwood Walls is a prime example of murals being used for the benefit of a developer, but that doesn’t mean that street art or murals are inherently gentrifying forces. If Tony Goldman had given access to those walls to artists without including the expensive pizza and burger place, the fake green grass and the gates, then it could have actually been a cool project, but he was not ashamed to create something that had a very target audience in mind, a wealthy one that could afford expensive pizza rather than the community that already existed there.

So, what are you doing to not let crap like Wynwood Walls happen again? How are you creating a solution to the problem?

Jesse Cory:

Rafael Schacter makes some valid points, but to consider all public art “Street Art” is like calling a Graffiti Writer a “Tagger.” Using the word street art as representation of the vast amount of contemporary painters applying their work in the public domain discredits their work as a whole.

This article has some valid points, and if a producer of a mural festival is out of touch with the community as a whole, then you will see the citizens and neighbors feel left out, but if public art is a representation of the community from the poor to the rich, then we can all come together as people and share start conversations.

Many places we’ve painted murals on in Detroit were left for dead, at least that was our first perception. It was through meeting and talking with our neighbors that we discovered several reasons the buildings we’re in poor condition. Some just due to the fact that the owner didn’t have the funds to rehab and was using the place for their business and the facade was not a part of the marketing of their services. On the other hand we’ve approached several property owners that had development plans in place but had yet to act on them as of the time we requested the space to apply art to them, so in the interim they let artists paint on them.

The conversation of gentrification is a hot point, but I feel it’s just a bunch of bull shit. Change happens and has happened over the hundreds of years. Cities have been evolving, and since we only have a limited span of understanding how cities regenerate, we use the cop out of “it’s gentrification” as a classification for what is really just the normal course of change in any city. The bigger issue at hand is that many urban centers and American cities were left for dead as suburban sprawl and home ownership was sold as the American dream. Now that we have a consolidation of wealth to the 1% and property left behind in these cities is inexpensive, it’s corporations that have one fiduciary goal in mind when doing business and that is profit, so they are never going to take into account the “community” when making investments. So people just take the easy way out when thinking about these complex issues and just call it gentrification. Much like calling a graffiti writer a tagger or public art street art.

Jeffrey Deitch:

The “Uncommissioned Public Art” that artists put up on the streets without permission remains our most direct and exciting form of artistic expression.

Curated outdoor mural projects like Wynwood Walls and Coney Art Walls are different concepts. They give an opportunity to artists who have worked on the streets to create ambitious works that can remain on view for an extended period in a serious context. These projects have become outdoor museums, inspiring the public and other artists. The work is treated with respect – artists are provided with materials, assistants and stipends. The work is illuminated at night and properly documented. The work is treated with the same level of seriousness as the work in more conventional museum exhibitions.

Most of the major and most influential artists who are know for their work on the street have enthusiastically participated in the versions of Wynwood Walls and Coney Art Walls that I have curated. The artists are happy to have their work displayed in this context.

Gentrification that displaces residential communities for luxury housing, and creative economic development in decaying communities with high crime and unemployment are very different propositions. The public mural projects in Wynwood helped to turn around a dangerous, crime ridden neighborhood with many vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The new galleries, restaurants, stores and offices for creative industries have created jobs and spurred needed economic investment.

There is also a big difference between a real estate developer who hires a “street artist” to paint a mural to promote a new building and the creation of a well curated outdoor mural museum that contributes to the artistic dialogue in a serious way.

Until the major museums (the Brooklyn Museum is an important exception) open up and show the work of artists who emerged on the streets, projects like Wynwood Walls and Coney Art Walls are essential venues for the public to learn about and enjoy some of the most important contemporary art.

Matt Eaton:

For what it’s worth… I really don’t agree with this much. For the first time in the history of art, a movement has taken shape around the globe all at once in real time, mostly fueled by and perpetuated by young people. This is important, so of course people will try to capitalize off of it, that is human nature and business 101. It happens all the time in every area of art and culture. Instead of looking at a comparatively small sliver of its existence (mural festivals, commercial adaptation and advertising), look at the vast majority of what is being created around the world in the streets by artists who might never have had an outlet, a studio, an arts education or ability to create beyond their most intimate surroundings. Understand that for a lot of them this is an opportunity to simply be creative and express themselves, to communicate with like minded people, feel like they are contributing to something larger and maybe, just maybe, be able to support themselves making art. Also, of course it’s fucking decorative. There is always something “edgy” and unique that people want. From the very beginning of physical manifestations of human creative achievement are the two most important art forms, architecture, how we protect ourselves and distinguish ourselves from beasts, and the written and spoken word, how we communicate, the words to explain images and the songs and poems to convey history of self. Everything feeds into this. We can’t help but to want to be a part of it all. Street art never had “radical roots”, street art is just a continuation of our attempt to relate to each other, and that is rooted in our first words, cave paintings, hieroglyphs and visions of our surroundings…practical roots. Graffiti in a lot of cases is much more an act of rebellion. This is just my personal opinion of course but I never see street art as secondary to graffiti, or having come from graffiti. Street art is much more akin to muralism than it is to graffiti. Graffiti is about the ego of the writer and his or her message to other writers. Street art usually communicates with a much more far reaching and broad audience. I love both for different reasons but don’t think they are that closely related in this day and age.

Tristan Eaton (detail). Photo by RJ Rushmore.
Tristan Eaton for Z Project (detail). Photo by RJ Rushmore.

Tristan Eaton:

We should be skeptical if & when real estate developers are producing murals in low income areas (obviously). But I don’t see much of that at all.

Attaching the growth of street art & muralism to gentrification is boring and short sighted to me.

The explosion of giant public art across the planet is a new phenomenon and its positive effect on communities goes far beyond any whining and complaining about ‘gentrification’. Most of us have dreamed for these opportunities and for this acceptance on this scale.

I also think artists should be getting paid for their works – very often, everybody is benefiting from the giant mural production, except the artist.

People worried about gentrification should point their anger towards greedy landlords, not hungry artists…

In regards to content – people can paint whatever the fuck they want! It’s up to the artist to paint what they feel. I feel like originality is king and there are many artists who aren’t pushing the envelope in terms of theme and content, but outside of that, I think people should have the freedom to paint whatever their heart desires and fuck you if you don’t like it!

John Fekner. Photo by John Fekner.
John Fekner. Photo by John Fekner.

John Fekner:

If the proliferation of street art festivals and community murals is beyond the saturation point, then the cry of ‘NIMBY’ or in this case ‘not on my front wall’ will need to be initiated by local communities, block associations and other municipalities to create ordinances and laws regarding such events.

Street works and community murals have the power to engage, entertain and involve others in the creation of something unique and beautiful. Urban art also functions as a conduit for social action, providing inspiration for both younger and older audiences to think in new ways to protest inequities, poor wages and other social injustices or government failures. The street exists as a public forum for debate. People are no longer willing to just sit at home and listen to the incessant banter of both the mainstream media and our political leaders. The vivid color of street art murals has infused the public, both young and old, to get out into the streets and use street intervention tactics at rallies, demonstrations and protest marches. The black and white pamphlets employed by earlier activists with scrawled barely readable messages on homemade cardboard signs are now replaced by bright signage with legible text and bold color graphics as a means to convey their messages clearly and succinctly in the streets as well as on social media, in print and on broadcast news.

To blame gentrification on creative image makers and deny the street artist’s individual expression, work and impact is saddening. Yes, the streets are filled with hits and misses. Not everything is great. We’re all not perfect; we all make mistakes. Everyone is trying to eke out a living. If art in the street can ignite an incentive for everyone and anyone to use their combined public voice to create public policy to spark change to bring an end to all the old and wrong ways, then we should allow street art and graffiti to remain the catalyst.

Gaia and Nanook for Living Walls. Photo by RJ Rushmore.
Gaia and Nanook for Living Walls. Photo by RJ Rushmore.


Now that the street art approach to mural making has achieved a kind of adolescent maturity, the festival model is being taken to task across the United States, especially with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement. The tide of the local, and the opportunity afforded to those beyond the regular, predominantly male, cis-gendered, european canon, is being called into question. The real question will be whether decision makers and curators will flee in defense, or rise to the occasion for a more inclusive synthesis of celebratory aesthetics and international style. The bell curve is achieving its apex, so maybe the mural gold rush is concluded.

Ganzeer for the Alwan 338 Festival. Photo by Daniel Rode, courtesy of Ganzeer.
Ganzeer for the Alwan 338 Festival. Photo by Daniel Rode, courtesy of Ganzeer.


There is so much wrong with this article. On one hand, it seems to idealize graffiti, and on the other hand it seems to predominantly blame the rise of the Street-Art festival for the castration of what the author seems to think was inherently some kind of dissident art form.

The problem, as I see it, is that western graffiti and street-art, and most especially in America were doomed from their very inception. The way they came about was actually designed to inevitably be co-opted by corporate interests. You see, neither street-art nor graffiti were ever really dissident in America. Sure, people took it upon themselves to illegally paint things, which can seen as an act of dissidence in and of itself, but that would be too narrow a view, because what people painted was always completely and utterly pointless. It was void of any actually dissident content: there was no criticism of US political structures, no commentary on inequality or police brutality and absolutely no challenge to the status quo. What we have is this odd phenomenon of people embarking on dissident activity without the slightest hint of dissident purpose. The outcome is an artistic movement that was neutered from the get go. The content of what was produced was never actually at odds with big business, so it was quite easy for it to be co-opted. We’re talking, after all, about an art scene where the artist seen as the most radical and political is responsible for posters declaring Andre The Giant has a fucking posse, or posters in support of a political candidate belonging to a party that has never been at odds with bloodsuckers on Wall Street and has a long ass history of selling arms to very bad people around the world.

So no, the festivals are not to blame. The pathetic art itself is to blame. The festivals never turned the art into meaningless decoration. The art was always meaningless decoration to begin with. And that includes the oh so rebellious act of tagging walls with your fucking nickname in cool angled letters.

You can totally partake in a festival and still put something out there that is worthwhile. I know I’ve tried:

Carlo McCormick:

RJ- Thanks for sending me that link. As you know I follow a rather more antiquated model of how to invest my time towards intellectual capital so I don’t spend much time on the Internet, and it is nice to be reminded now again what passes for discourse there. I’m never quite sure how to respond to texts that are basically opinions founded on generalities and couched in the faux-rigor of academia. For me it is a no win situation, for my own argumentative proclivities just drive me to respond with my own opinions, generalities and intellectual tropes, in which case I may as well waste my time as blogger like the rest of you. That said; let me try to unpack a few things from the article you sent me. These things are relative at best; subjective no matter how much they wrap themselves in the lineaments of objectivity, so perhaps it is more a matter of locating the different positions we all take as an ideological geography of the street.

It’s hard to really disagree with Rafael, he’s smart and knowledgeable enough, and a lot of what he says is painfully obvious- such as the fact much of what is fobbed off as street art is a bunch of garbage or that real estate interests have employed some of these energies for their own financial interests. Generalities are useful that way when you want to hype or bemoan any aspect of culture at large, but they’re an utter failure when it comes to the nuanced thinking culture demands. Yes, much of what happens in the name of art in public space is a total shit, but if anyone wants to walk along with me on my rounds of galleries I dare them to find a better ratio of quality to crap in that far less democratic market-based realm of ratification. The point is that art is never measured by the norm, for surely it would always be substandard and dearly wanting. It is, rather, understood by the exceptions, and even if our lists of the very best may vary, let us presume we all agree here, for surely none of us would be wasting our time on this field if we were not truly blown away by its greatest proponents.

I’m a little more disturbed by the presumptive devaluation of this art due to real estate interests. By the same comparison against what I regularly witness in the fine art world, the filthy lucre by which the very best in galleries, studio practices, museums and the like are floated would make the schemes and scams of these developers look pretty pent-ante in measure to the global machinations of this now fabled one percent. I come across this knee-jerk reaction in the art world by which the entire street art movement is written off as being in bed with property owners and recognize it as part of the bias, disingenuous outrage and pathological hypocrisy endemic to their own vested interests. To hear this now so often within the conversations of the street art community however doesn’t seem to me like reasonable self-critique nearly so much as it does the adoption by subculture of the dominant culture’s oppressive language. Many of the artists we care about are extremely wary if not outright allergic to these co-optive situations and find their own ways to avoid or subvert them. Then, to damn the kids who are getting their first breaks in commissioned or permissioned public art for working with the devil strikes me as something I can’t stomach, at least in the privileged position where I now don’t have to make many compromises in my own life. A band may suck, the club they’re playing in might be a fucking hellhole and the promoter might be a total cunt, but if they’re kids they have to start somewhere, and experience has taught me that a small few of them become really great such that you might end up bragging about first seeing them in such a horrible way.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this because as a kid, I think before you were born, I promoted an art scene that was then largely written off by the art world because it was part of the gentrification of a neighborhood. This can be terribly confusing and damaging to young people who in truth have no other place to live or share their work, and is a persistent way in which the status quo uses leftist rhetoric to dismiss the irascible energies of youth. In my case I found myself being accused by that bastion of radical intelligentsia, October magazine, as “an apologist for capitalism.” Truth is the author was married to a stockbroker and was able to hurl her aspersions on my tenement struggles from a fancy loft. Perhaps I still am an apologist, but please let us understand the terms of engagement on all sides, and let us never collapse the problems of gentrification as Rafael does with the dark history of colonialism. Cities change, constantly, for good and bad, and these changes create situations some can profit from, others may find their property values plummet due to, and often poor people are forced to move from neighborhoods they have occupied for more than a generation. Let’s not confuse these market factors with the far greater problems of poverty, which deserve more serious solutions than can be found in the petty turf wars of neighborhood identity. If you are feeling radical and up for a fight I’ll buy you the gasoline for any Molotov cocktail you may want to hurl. Then we can blame ourselves for supporting the petrol industry.

Let me also express some mild shock at the dichotomy set up by Rafael’s title “From Dissident to Decorative.” For those of us charged with this irrelevant and poorly remunerated task of writing about art, let us be extra careful when it comes to terms that have a long history in art and a whole complex philosophical discourse in aesthetics. Rafael has himself written a rather deft book called “Ornament and Order: Graffiti, Street Art and the Parergon” that I would highly recommend. How then I wonder, with that tool in his belt and based in England, could he so casually use the term decorative as such a facile pejorative. Let us be clear, Aestheticism in 19th Century Europe is at least as subversive as anything else Modernism would throw up in its wake and is located in this very notion that aesthetic values like beauty trump social and political didactics. This was the very source of “art for art’s sake,” the refutation of Ruskin’s “truth” and the genesis of everything from Symbolism and Decadence to the Arts and Crafts Movement. While my own history, identity, and proclivities have me looking more at the politics of street art and urban culture, I refuse to ascribe to any polarity that would forbid us from the perverse pleasures of Keats, Shelley, Wilde and Swinburne, or the decorative sensualities of Whistler, Beardsley and Rossetti. But perhaps we have something valuable here, born of this confusion, a way to appreciate this new muralist movement without the puritanical prudery of our overweening politics, a way of reading this work outside the didactics and closer to the critical tradition of Theophile Gaultier, Harold Bloom and Dave Hickey. Either way, let us remember who our real enemies are, and know they are not found in the hustlers of our street art festivals, the kids learning to paint in public, or even those who have little to say in regards to our world view.

Finally RJ, just to be the grumpy old fart you know me to be, let me harp on my pet peeve. I saw in the bio that accompanies his article that Rafael is cited as the creative director and head curator of Approved by Pablo, so, having some fondness and respect for the cat I looked it up. Sure enough, turns out to be one of those hybrid enterprises as entrepreneurial as Rafael’s title there- in short the kind of work done by the very same creative class that he lambasts as the target/source for all this gentrification. Fuck man, they sell stuff, they monetize street art in ways no less pernicious than the developers who get artists to paint the sides of their luxury condos, and well, on the scale of dissidence versus decoration let’s not even bother to parse such a difference. But the problem is that there is a dangerous overlay in the artists his company works with and those he cites as “leading the way” in the article. When I write kind words about an artist you may disagree but you will know that I do so with no agenda and never be able to accuse me of vested economic interest. Stop it guys. If you want to be taken seriously as a critic or historian, close your galleries, consulting services or schmatta sites. Deal drugs, it’s a far more honest endeavor than shilling art, or better yet go stab a landlord and take his wallet.

Chip Thomas. Photo by Chip Thomas.
Chip Thomas. Photo by Chip Thomas.

Chip Thomas:

Rafael Schacter’s short piece titled “From dissent to decorative: why street art sold out and gentrified out cities” is insightful not so much for confirming the obvious that commerce co-opts culture but in identifying the principle on which this action is based, namely the creative city doctrine.

In observing the current state of street art festivals Schacter notes “Much of the street art pumped out through the festival apparatus provides an aesthetic of transgression, while remaining perfectly numb to the social realities of its setting, treating public space like a blank canvas, rather than a site already loaded with cultural, historical and personal significance.” Schacter gives examples of street artists who challenge the predominant street art festival paradigm and concludes that it’s the responsibility of festival organizers to diversify the artists invited to their festivals. However, history shows the nature of commerce to favor the nonthreatening, socially palatable flavor of easily digestible culture. White washed, as it were. But meanwhile in the streets, the rebels will be keeping it real on the down low.

Jessie and Katey for Pow Wow Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Jessie and Katey.
Jessie and Katey for Pow Wow Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Jessie and Katey.

Jessie Unterhalter:

This is an interesting conversation, and Katey [Truhn] and I have discussed our roles as “decorative” public artists quite a bit.

I would much rather see a decorative mural than an advertisement or a big box store. Not all murals need to be political, people appreciate all types of art, you never know how someone is going to react to a piece.

When Katey and I are making murals we try and interact with the community as much as possible. We will often hold community paint days and try and have a celebration when it is completed.

Sometimes we even get to pay people for helping us. You can’t pass judgment on a completed  mural because you don’t know the process the artist and the community took to get there.

Vexta. Photo by Ben Garrett.
Vexta. Photo by Ben Garrett.


I don’t think that street art sold out and gentrified our cities. I think capitalism gentrifies our cities – we could equally blame cafes, farmers markets or parks for driving up rent prices. I posted the article [on Facebook] mainly because whilst of course I think artists should valued and be paid well for what we do, I’m not going to deny that we need to also consider where money is coming from and whose interests is might be serving beyond our own artistic interest of creating thought provoking & beautiful work which makes our world a better place. Street Art Festivals, in my experience, began quite organically and independently. Now, I feel like some are becoming very corporate connected, and I think people should think beyond just wanting to be paid to do what they love.

Ian Wilson:

I think it’s an unfair burden to attribute gentrification to street art. As a socioeconomic process, gentrification may be a consequence of the opportunism of a few (or many) who usurp the energy that this form of public art brings to public spaces.

What the author posits in the piece is the perceived effect of what should more accurately be described as muralism, not true street art which is unapologetic and unsanctioned.

As the founder and producer of a mural event, am I to be considered in league with the property developers who allow us to use their buildings as blank canvases? Not necessarily. There is a definite value exchange between those of us who strive to change the aesthetics of our environment from bland to beautiful, from commercial to contemplative. I don’t own multistory buildings (yet), so I do appreciate being granted the permission to use such property for one of our talented friends to paint.

What a heavy burden to place on the patrons and practitioners of street art. Imagine if the same vitriol were directed at the ones who are actually co-opting the acts and activity of the creative?

Photos by John Fekner, Ben Garrett, Daniel Rode, RJ Rushmore, Osseous, The All-Nite Images, and Chip Thomas, and courtesy of Ganzeer and Jessie & Katey