Putting street art into any serious discussion is quite a difficult undertaking. First and foremost because of the fact that there is not a clear delineation of what street art might represent in all its wideness. Secondly because understanding this phenomenon is easiest for those who practice street art, produce new meanings, and live by the rules of their worldwide community and think of it as a lifestyle, thus leaving us researchers with an unclear set of information, or, rather, scraps of information we collect from those who belong to the culture. Or, they leave us with the possibility of becoming a part of the culture in a superficial way that can blur our judgment due to an incomplete understanding of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, street art is such an exciting practice that it should be given deeper thought, and every study that comes out brings new perspectives, ideas and glimpses into it. Therefore, I will try to find out what street art can be by analyzing books which have been written on this topic or have included street art in their overview.
Depending on one’s stand point, street art can represent many different things and diverge from the opinions of others. It could be understood as any street intervention done by artists who belong to the fine art world, like neo-avant-garde, neo-dada, fluxus happenings and situationist interventions, all of whom have been historically influential. Or, it could also be understood as contemporary public art. On the other hand, one can take a look at it from the perspective of street cultures that have thrived both in the United States and in Europe since the 1960s. If you look at it strictly from the perspective of graffiti culture, it could represent New York spraycan graffiti done on subway trains, and all the styles which evolved from it. But, this would not necessarily be true when bearing in mind that most of those who belong to graffiti culture do not think that street art is graffiti. These are exactly the topics I will try to discuss further in the text. Keeping all this in mind, we might try to look at street art as an independent artistic practice that has strong connections and roots in New York spraycan graffiti, skating culture, punk-rock, Do It Yourself (DIY) practice, graphic design, customized goods and the commercial aspect of independent fashion production, as well as in fine art strategies used since conceptual art. To all this we need to add the fact that it is a global movement initially developed in the western world axis – the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia – and which, as we speak, has a most interesting development in Latin America and North Africa.
Fine Art on the Loose
In the age of interdisciplinarity it might not be such a good idea to try and shrink down the subject, but I have found a couple of good reasons for that both in my own field research and in some reference books. Before we start, I will eliminate from this article art on the streets which is executed by the artists who belong to the art world, in the way Howard Becker describes it, and who execute their art on the streets with permission. I will deliberately be employing the words “with or without permission” instead of “legal/illegal” because the latter ones bring such a negative connotation to artistic practice, which, due to its ethical assets, cannot be illegal because it represents human expression. Of course, there are many artists who execute their art on the streets and who have some sort of artistic training either from art school or art universities, but what is most important is that they create the oeuvre without dependence on art institutions and critique. They find inspiration on the street and put out most of their art back on the streets without permission, and this represents the most important part of their artistic practice. The fact that many of these artists still exhibit in galleries and participate in festivals that offer them possibilities to enter the art world and art market and to execute huge elaborate murals with permission does not change the fact that their biggest and most important oeuvre is done on the streets without permission. Once we have established that street art has to be executed without permission and in the public space, we can move into another field which needs additional clarification.
Graffiti or Street Art?
As Cedar Lewisohn says “The distinguishing process may seem like an art form in itself, but it’s actually quite obvious. Once the viewer takes an interest in the subject, it becomes clear very quickly what is street art and what is graffiti.”
( 1) From my own experience I argue that he has a point. Confusion, I would say, comes from written materials about graffiti and street art where, like in an enchanted forest, everything can become graffiti and everything can become street art, which need not be a bad thing necessarily, but for the purposes of this article I will try to follow a previous thread. It goes without saying that graffiti and street art are closely connected and intertwined: sometimes they share the same walls, the same artists and the same techniques, but most of the time they produce a different visual material. Referring to the written material and to more than 50 interviews which I have conducted so far it seems that graffiti and street art differ in several quite important points:
? community – most of the time the graffiti community is strictly regulated trough different codes of behavior that are inherited from the previous generations of graffiti artists. Accordingly, there is quite a strong tradition of teacher/apprentice practice which indicates strong connections within the graffiti community on a local and global level. The street art community, on the other hand, is loosely structured, and, while individual artists might have assistants, they are not organized in crews. It seems also that the majority of street artists are older than graffiti artists (there are many graffiti artists who are in their forties but they represent just the tip of the iceberg in the worldwide graffiti community). (2) Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules.
? techniques vs. ideas – one of the most important factors in graffiti art is impeccable technique. Using a spraycan as the main instrument in the realization of an art piece is not easy, and it takes a lot of time and energy to master it. And while they can use different ways to produce their artworks, the spraycan still stays the most dominant way of production. On the contrary, street art requires only a good idea. Good technique is always a valuable asset, but a person can be a street artist without ever taking a spraycan into his/hers hands. One can construct a piece of art with a computer, print it and apply it on the street as a poster. In that case, the artist needs a good idea to attract the attention of those who pass by it. Print, paste up, sticker, elaborate mural, rollers, spraycan, site specific intervention, urban knitting, video, performance – anything goes with street art. Again, exceptions are always present. (Explosive Etching)
? letters vs. figuration and narration – in the strictest sense graffiti artists are concentrated on their tag which they elaborate in every possible way. Even though from the very beginning graffiti artists have included different characters and designs, letters have remained the most important component of a piece. Street art is well known for having a character-based visual expression. It can look like a logo, illustration, comics or realistic character, it does not really matter; the important thing is that it is recognizable and that people can relate to it. Here again we face a problem of ‘exceptions’; for example, we cannot apply this delineation to photo-realistic graffiti or to street art which has only written messages.
? audience – it is generally considered that graffiti is made for other graffiti artists and that peer opinion is the most important factor. On the other hand, street art is mostly made for the public; this is why it has to be understandable. Or, it might be the other way around: it is understandable, and thus there exists the common opinion that it is made for a wide audience. One way or another, is seems that graffiti and street art have different audiences in general.
These vague differences (since they are not one hundred per cent true and since there are always very vivid exceptions) can still help us to a certain extent to trace the origins of the terms within the articles and books written on these subjects.
Problem with the word graffiti
Misunderstanding starts quite early on with the term graffiti. Actually, what most of us will be referring to, in this issue of Mustekala magazine when we say graffiti, is New York spraycan graffiti done on the subways and the ways it developed for forty years. It started with the activity called tagging (3), and it developed rapidly into a new art form, but the main actors did not think of it as graffiti; they called it writing and consequently referred to themselves as writers. Their concept did not relate to traditional graffiti (all anonymous inscriptions in public space, from Pompeii to the public toilets of today). Nevertheless, one can understand why scholars, and later on the community, were more comfortable in using the term graffiti and graffitists. At the time of the 1960s and 1970s, dominant graffiti discourse was grounded in latrinalia, a type of graffiti found in public restrooms. It seems that during that period, academics made the distinction between indoor and outdoor graffiti according to their content. Those written outside were usually names and not considered interesting since they were just egocentric expressions of their authors. Those written inside were anonymous but more elaborate and therefore more suitable for analysis. At the time researchers focused on graffiti with political, homosexual and racial content and differences between the male and female graffiti in public restrooms. And even though some authors have concluded that “graffiti are accurate indicator of the social attitude of a community” (4) they still called it ‘aggressive behavior’ based on other studies they had consulted and on the 1939 frustration- aggression hypothesis (5).
Since graffiti in the New York subway were only nicknames, and since they did not elaborate on their social conditions, they were not considered interesting by the intellectuals who were at the time focused on other types of graffiti. Moreover, previous studies had marked political, sexual, homosexual and racial latrinalia as aggressive, and this definition was applied to spraycan graffiti as well since they produced a very obvious visual change in the urban surrounding. Most of the authors have failed to recognize the particularities of spraycan graffiti activities, and without conducting a thorough research and analysis they have included this activity in the graffiti family and labeled it as aggressive. I do not wish to imply that subway graffiti would not be found aggressive if they were examined, but only to point out that they were not given enough thought. So the first serious ethnological study about New York spraycan subway graffiti appeared in 1982; it was called Getting Up and was written by Craig Castelman. But it was already too late since the word graffiti was already widely in use and about that time even the word post-graffiti appeared. (6) A major academic theory which was to have a huge impact on graffiti also appeared in 1982. The so-called broken windows theory by Wilson and Kelling led to zero tolerance policies around the world. This theory has been very much disputed after the year 2000. Nevertheless, it produced a huge impact on graffiti and street art communities and their activities. And yet, it mentions graffiti in only one sentence, calling them a ‘harmless display [of disorder]’ (7).
Problem with the word street art
Already in 1985, Allan Schwartzman made a clear distinction between graffiti and street art. He did write about spraycan graffiti, but he also wrote about other artistic interventions without permission that share the same characteristics with the street art of today. Unfortunately it took quite a long time after this book was published to pick up the term again.
“While graffitists, kids who had no voice, mark up their streets to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with, these traditionally trained artists who have taken to the streets have chosen to participate in daily life, to claim a voice the art world denied them. […] Without the burden of history on their shoulders, graffitists have the freedom to do anything, and graffiti has a direct emotional appeal. The street work of traditionally trained artists is tempered by aesthetic postures. Unlike graffitists they have chosen to work in functional modes, documentary styles, or “styleless” styles, for direct access […] (8)”
Back then, traditionally trained artists, as Schwartzman conveniently calls them, had integrated with graffiti artists for a couple of years, and this encounter had changed both spraycan graffiti and future street art. It happened this way in the United States, but in Europe it happened the other way around. A long heritage of political street interventions and the protests of 1968 have been fertile soil for artists like Ernst Pignon-Ernest and Jacques Villegle, but also the punk movement with its new aesthetics and DIY attitudes was quite influential. So in Europe there was a different kind of art in the streets before spraycan graffiti was introduced in the mid-1980s. Those traditionally trained artists usually used stencils, paste ups, posters, stickers, site specific interventions and so on. This was also the time of Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, who were inspired by graffiti strategies and visual representations but did not produce graffiti. The art world and some academics have put the label on their work and turned them into graffiti artists. And here again we face the widely spread misuse of the term graffiti. What these artists have been presenting in the streets was done by different means and different strategies, and these have become typical for contemporary street art.
If the 1980s marked the spread of graffiti, the 1990s was the era of their global impact. Around the world graffiti developed as an independent culture that produced its own discourse through magazines, documentaries and books. This culture became self-sustainable and self-sufficient. Visual expression of graffiti changed immensely during this period. Exciting new styles like the Berlin 3D style or Barcelona anti-style were introduced. The concept of graffiti stayed pretty much the same, but visually it changed beyond recognition. Subway trains, local trains and highways still played a big part in graffiti production, but well elaborated murals became a new standard. New styles brought more freedom in artistic expression, and extraordinarily technical skills, once recognized only by peers, were now blossoming in, for example, photo-realistic characters. Focus moved from elaborate nicknames towards narration and figuration, strategies employed by street artists in the mid-1980s. Different techniques of execution were also used so they could no longer be called spraycan graffiti. During this period they became post-graffiti. Since they became more ‘readable’ for the general audience, communities started to perceive them once again as art and with new insight.
During this era a very small number of street artists were active (such as Space Invader, Andre, Blek le Rat, Shepard Fairey, Banksy), but, scattered around the western world, they could not constitute a movement or community. By default, they were merged with graffiti in both academic writing and articles from the graffiti subculture. And even though works of street art were very distinctive and had conceptual or fine art flair, they were executed without permission, which immediately forced them into the same discourse with graffiti.
The legal aspect is something that also changed profoundly during this period. A zero tolerance policy was introduced in New York in 1994 and has been considered to be very desirable for most of the cities in the Western world. With such a strict policy, the main center of production of styles and innovations moved from New York to Europe. The zero tolerance policy had the strongest support in Scandinavian countries and in 2005 affected most of the European cities. Even though this policy is concerned with the general state of public space, it has particularly affected the graffiti movement through severe financial punishments and jail sentences. Therefore, most of the academic research during the 1990s has been dedicated to the zero tolerance policy. This naturally led to quite unfavorable attitudes and uses of the word graffiti (street art as well because it was considered as the integral part of graffiti).
New millennium and new possibilities
With the creative centers in Europe and Latin America, and with the ever stronger zero tolerance policy, graffiti was experiencing another crisis, and thus, street art as we know it was born. It had a different visual expression, but it was nonetheless created without permission and was almost as effective in taking over the public space and the internet. Many graffiti artists had been experimenting with street art and some of them retired from graffiti and became street artists. Generations of graffiti artists have had traditional art or design training, and they could bring different influences to both the graffiti and the design worlds. Just like in the mid-1980s, some traditionally trained artists took their art into the streets. This trend was led by graphic designers at the end of 1990s, but all other artists followed. So once again there is an overwhelming mix of graffiti, design, illustration, tattoos, comics etc. in the streets, and this time it produced the street art movement which took over the throne in public discourse about art executed without permission. In the production of street art, artists are using techniques and strategies known to fine art since conceptual art, which are the same ones used by traditionally trained artists in the 1980s.
Another important remark is that street art is primarily character-based. Street artists were also the ones who fully recognized the power of the internet. All these factors make street art more understandable, agreeable and more loved than graffiti. Art history and philosophy offered numerous theoretical backdrops and possibilities which corresponded with the visual dimension of street art and its strategies, and so the art world was finally able to incorporate, theorize and to a high extent commodify these independent art movements. But this time, the academic articles and numerous books published on the subject took street art as a dominant discourse through which they could include graffiti as well. During this period, books and articles dealt with both visual expressions and used both terms to define graffiti and street art as a unit.
Urban art – what is that!?!?!?!?
Another trend appeared during the first decade of the new millennium: the interest of the art market in street art and graffiti production. Unlike in previous times, this interest lead to exhibitions in major art institutions such as the Tate Modern in London, MOCA in Los Angeles or Fondation Cartier in Paris. The art market also played a huge role in this recognition, especially at the beginning of the 2000s and with the interest in Banksy’s work. In this situation, the term urban art became very handy because it could be used as an umbrella term for graffiti, street art and contemporary production that did not fit under any other definition. Most of the books published during this period concerning the topic mentioned used this term either as a dominant or as an additional term with an explanatory purpose.
Graffiti and street art seem to exist and develop side by side since the early 1980s in New York and since the 1990s in the rest of the Western world. (9) And yet, street art as an independent artistic expression has been recognized only recently after the year 2000, but even then without full recognition because art institutions seem to favor the word urban art. Nevertheless, street art as an idea and the concepts it is operating with has been stirring the art world and our urban environment. It has become the factor to be reckoned with in the art world and art market, but its liberal spirit is as fresh as ever. Contrary to ever stronger zero tolerance policies, street art is spreading like a virus, and with every new generation of artists, the ideas and legacies of rebellious and subversive art are enduring. Proper street art is done on the streets and it seems that we are seeing it now more than ever before. More and more people from all over the world are willing to risk harsh penalties so they can put a piece of their mind on the street. The fact that they are doing this without permission just means that there is something seriously wrong with our public space and with our social system. Who knows, maybe street art will help change that.
(1) Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art; The Graffiti Revolution. London: Tate Publishing, 2008, 23
(2) The Art of Rebellion 2, by C100, Publikat, Mainaschaff, 2006, 9
(3) Writing a signature with marker or spray paint. The point is to do it as often and as much as possible in order to be appreciated by your peers.
(4) Terrance L. Stocker, Linda W. Dutcher, Stephen M. Hargrove, Edwin A. Cook, Social Analysis of Graffiti , The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 85, No. 338 (Oct. – Dec., 1972), 356-366.
(5) They were often referring to a book written by group of authors under the title Frustration and Aggression published in New Haven in 1939.
(6) The exhibition under the name Post-Graffiti was held in the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1983. For additional information consult Thompson, Margo. American Graffiti. New York: Parkstone Press International, 2009
(7) James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, ‘Broken Windows’, The Atlantic Online (1982).
(8) Allan Schwartzman, Street Art. Garden City New York: Dial Press (1985), 63.
(9) Artists who practiced street art predated graffiti art in Europe, which was introduced primarily through galleries, media and hip hop culture in the mid-1980s. Graffiti had been accepted in U.K. and Holland a bit earlier, but it was only in the mid-1980s that graffiti gained popularity and influence in the art scene. It is interesting to mention that graffiti was introduced to Europe by art dealers who saw a good artistic potential in them.
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