Art by Julien Beever
Few things can jolt you out of your everyday mundane look at life as street art! Coming from something within the human being that we have always had, a human need of letting thoughts and ideas out and sharing them with others. Street art employs the street as an artistic resource, making it an art form on its own. When I discuss “street art” my definition entails graffiti, painting, stickers, posters, sculptures, installations, all which can be stumbled upon or sought after in the urban landscape. There are clear differences between graffiti and street art but we do not need to differ between the two in this text.
Street art has to use public space in order to be important, to be outside of the system, which is the essential point of the art and the discussion it brings. I would argue that street art is a way of participating in society, even for those feeling excluded from it.
I have been watching documentaries and reading academic texts on street art, and found a few protruding themes using political as well as a cultural approach.
If we look at the more artistic/creative dimension of the practice, with the help of Gauntlett (2011 Making is connecting), we could say that the artists being creative and the choice to make is a political act in itself, and will inspire their environment to do the same. The street artists then, by showing an alternative visual order of the urban space, can awaken an idea of an alternative or different city, thus showing that an alternative life is possible as well.
Gauntlett also talks about the sense of joy and meaningfulness creative practice can infer, as well as Sennett (2008 The Craftsman) who talks about the meaning of craftsmanship and doing something properly for its own sake and not say commercialization, something which is threatened in a capitalistic society. Drawing on these ideas, the street artistic practice can give another sense of pride and accomplishment to the maker, creating something yourself from beginning to end can give them a sense of meaning which can perhaps not be bought in a capitalistic culture.
We can also see that the street art as a culture does have an idea of being a more authentic culture, doing something well for its own sake and not for money, since there is no monetary pay. Being outside of the economic system can involve an enormous artistic freedom. Not being confined to the normal boundaries could be of importance for the artist’s personal development, but of course also for art in general. Often the artist incorporates the space itself in the work, and uses the street and urban context to give meaning to the work. This means the space itself and the urban context is used as a material, and without it the work would loose its significance. By using the street, the artist willingly subjects the art to many threats: being destroyed, moved, stolen, altered, appropriated, and they give up the claim on the art’s integrity.
The artists are aware that their work will not get to stay visible for a very long time, and so a big part of media’s function for the street art culture, is to document the work and spread it to a larger audience, who can nowadays often comment and interact with the content. They work as an online public sphere. But of course, the primary medium is the walls, subway trains, pavement and overall physical space of the city. Media could not develop the culture without the physical space.
If we think about audiences of street art, there is an idea of the art as being more open to a larger group than typical art institutions, but also that it can be open to those not included in the street art community or culture. There is also the opportunity of talking to an audience without revealing who you are. Here, being highly creative and original can be of huge importance in grabbing the audience’s attention on the street. If the artists does this skillfully, the work doesn’t need institutions in order to be appreciated as art. We could call street art something like post-institutional art. A key point is the surprise dimension to the art from the audience’s perspective; the audience is jolted out of the thought and indifference to the street, and invited to explore the artworks.
The audience naturally will read and interpret the content differently and there are examples where an audience has reused symbols from graffiti art and given it their own symbolic meaning. For instance an artist in one of the documentaries we watched who drew a Mexican icon, the day of the dead skull but in popular 60’s clothing such as the big fur coat and the hat, as a political symbol for the Chicano movement (Bomb it the movie). For him it was a symbol of life. But the gangs picked it up and tattooed it on their bodies as a symbol of protection, in case you get shot it will give you luck so you survive. They took the symbol from the walls and gave it a totally different meaning.
Let’s end with a clip from NY that perfectly exemplifies the creativity, working with the street and grabbing the audience’s attention, in creating street art –Joshua Allen Harris’ inflatable Bag Monsters.