Street art is visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues. Other terms for this type of art include “independent public art”, “post-graffiti”, and “neo-graffiti”, and is closely related with urban art and guerrilla art. Common forms and media include spray paint graffiti, stencil graffiti, wheatpasted poster art, sticker art, street installations, and sculpture. Video projection and yarn bombing have also gained some popularity near the turn of the 21st century.
Street art is a form of artwork that is displayed in a community on its surrounding buildings, streets, and other publicly viewed surfaces. Many instances come in the form of guerrilla art, which is composed to make a public statement about the society that the artist lives within. The work has moved from the beginnings of graffiti and vandalism to new modes where artists work to bring messages, or just simple beauty, to an audience.
Some artists use “smart vandalism” as a way to raise awareness of social and political issues. Others simply see urban space as an untapped format for personal artwork, while others may appreciate the challenges and risks that are associated with installing illicit artwork in public places. A common motive is that creating art in a format which utilizes public space allows artists who may otherwise feel disenfranchised to reach a much broader audience than other styles or galleries would allow.
Whereas traditional graffiti artists have primarily used spray paint to produce their work, “street art” encompasses many other media, such as LED art, mosaic tiling, murals, stencil art, sticker art, “Lock On” sculptures, street installations, wheatpasting, woodblocking, yarn bombing, and rock balancing. New media forms such as projection onto large city buildings are an increasingly popular tool for street artists—and the availability of cheap hardware and software allows street artists to become more competitive with corporate advertisements. Much like open source software, artists are able to create art for the public realm from their personal computers, similarly creating things for free which compete with companies making things for profit.
Some observers use the term “independent public art” to describe a type of street art, which can also include work in remote places that may not be visited by an audience, and may also be short-lived. An ephemeral instance of colored smoke in the forest, or a precarious rock balance are examples. Some work has been installed underwater.
Slogans of protest and political or social commentary graffitied onto public walls are the precursor to modern graffiti and street art, and continue as one aspect of the genre. Street art in the form of text or simple iconic graphics in the vein of corporate icons become well-known yet enigmatic symbols of an area or an era. Some credit the Kilroy Was Here graffiti of the World War II era as one such early example; a simple line-drawing of a long-nosed man peering from behind a ledge. Author Charles Panati indirectly touched upon the general appeal of street art in his description of the “Kilroy” graffiti as “outrageous not for what it said, but where it turned up”. Much of what can now be defined as modern street art has well-documented origins dating from New York City’s graffiti boom, with its infancy in the 1960s, maturation in the 1970s, and peaking with the spray-painted full-car subway train murals of the 1980s centered in the Bronx.
As the 1980s progressed, a shift occurred from text-based works of early in the decade to visually conceptual street art such as Hambleton’s shadow figures. This period coincides with Keith Haring’s subway advertisement subversions and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s SAMO tags. What is now recognized as “street art” had yet to become a realistic career consideration, and offshoots such as stencil graffiti were in their infancy. Wheatpasted poster art used to promote bands and the clubs where they performed evolved into actual artwork or copy-art and became a common sight during the 1980s in cities worldwide. The group working collectively as AVANT were also active in New York during this period. Punk rock music’s subversive ideologies were also instrumental to street art’s evolution as an art form during the 1980s. Some of the anti-museum mentality can be attributed to the ideology of Marinetti who in 1909 wrote the “Manifesto of Futurism” with a quote that reads, “we will destroy all the museums.” Many street artists claim we do not live in a museum so art should be in public places with no tickets.
Early iconic works
The northwest wall of the intersection at Houston Street and the Bowery in New York City has been a target of artists since the 1970s. The site, now sometimes referred to as the Bowery Mural, originated as a derelict wall which graffiti artists used freely. Keith Haring once commandeered the wall for his own use in 1982. After Haring, a stream of well-known street artists followed, until the wall had gradually taken on prestigious status. By 2008, the wall became privately managed and made available to artists by commission or invitation only.
A series of murals by René Moncada began appearing on the streets of SoHo in the late 1970s emblazoned with the words I AM THE BEST ARTIST. René has described the murals as a thumb in the nose to the art community he felt he’d helped pioneer but by which he later felt ignored by. Recognized as an early act of “art provocation”, they were a topic of conversation and debate at the time, and related legal conflicts raised discussion about intellectual property, artist’s rights, and the First Amendment. The ubiquitous murals also became a popular backdrop to photographs taken by tourists and art students, and for advertising layouts and Hollywood films. IATBA murals were often defaced, only to be repainted by René.
Some street artists have earned international attention for their work and have made a full transition from street art into the mainstream art world — some while continuing to produce art on the streets. Keith Haring was among the earliest wave of street artists in the 1980s to do so. Traditional graffiti and street art motifs have also increasingly been incorporated into mainstream advertising, with many instances of artists contracted to work as graphic designers for corporations. Graffiti artist Haze has provided font and graphic designs for music acts such as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Shepard Fairey’s street posters of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama were reworked by special commission for use in the presidential campaign. A version of the artwork also appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It is also not uncommon for street artists to start their own merchandising lines.
Street art has become more accepted by the general public, likely due to its artistic recognition and the high-profile status of Banksy and other artists. This has led street art to become one of the ‘sights to see’ in many European cities. Some artists now provide tours of local street art and are able to share their knowledge, explaining the ideas behind many works, the reasons for tagging and the messages portrayed in a lot of graffiti work. Berlin, London, Paris, Hamburg and other cities all have popular street art tours running all year round. In London alone there are supposedly ten different graffiti tours available for tourists. Many of these organisations, such as Alternative London, ParisStreetArt, AlternativeBerlin, pride themselves on working with local artists, so visitors can get an authentic experience and not just a rehearsed script.
Many of these guides are painters, fine-art graduates and other creative professionals that have found the medium of street art as a way to exhibit their work. With this commercial angle they are able to let people in to the world of street art and give them more of an understanding of where it comes from. It has been argued that this growing popularity of steet art has made it a factor in gentrification.
Street art, guerilla art, and graffiti
Graffiti is characteristically made up of written words that are meant to represent a group or community in a covert way and in plain sight. The tell tale sign of street art is that it usually includes images, illustrations, or symbols that are meant to convey a message. While both works are meant to represent or tell a message to viewers, one difference between the two comes in the specific viewers that it is meant for. One trait of street art that has helped to bring it to positive light in the public eye is that the messages shown in these public spaces are usually made to be understandable to all.
While both of these types of art have many differences, there are more similarities than their origins. Both graffiti and street art are works of art that are created with the same intent. Most artists, whether they are working anonymously, creating an intentionally incomprehensible message, or fighting for some greater cause are working with the same ambitions for popularity, recognition, and the public display or outpouring of their personal thoughts, feelings, and/or passions.
The term street art is described in many different ways, one of which is the term “guerrilla art.” Both terms describe these public works that are placed with meaning and intent. They can be done anonymously for works that are created to confront taboo public issues that will result in backlash, or under the name of a well-known artist. With any terminology, these works of art are created as a primary way to express the artist’s thoughts on many topics and public issues.
One defining trait or feature of street art is that it is created on or in a public area without or against the permission of the owner. This is a trait which falls in line with that of graffiti. A main distinction between the two comes in the second trait of street art or guerrilla art, where it is made to represent and display a purposefully uncompliant act that is meant to challenge its surrounding environment. This challenge can be granular, focusing on issues within the community or broadly sweeping, addressing global issues on a public stage.
This is how the term “guerilla art” was associated with this type of work and behavior. The word ties back to guerilla warfare in history where attacks are made wildly, without control, and with no rules of engagement. This type of warfare was dramatically different than the previously formal and traditional fighting that went on in wars normally. When used in the context of street art, the term guerilla art is meant to give nod to the artist’s uncontrolled, unexpected, and often unnamed attack on societal structure or norms.
Guerilla sculpture is the placement of sculptures in street settings without official approval; it developed from street art in England in the late 20th century. In addition to the nontraditional setting of the works of art involved, there are also many different techniques used in the creation of this art work. The artists tend to work illegally and in secrecy to create and place these works in the dark of night, cloaked in mystery regarding their origins and creators. The sculptures are used to express the artist’s views and to reach an audience that would not otherwise be reached through more traditional methods of displaying one’s work to the public. In performing these acts of artistic expression, they are not working to gain acceptance or love of the people that they reach, but at times may even anger those who view their work.
Although this type of art has become a staple of most cities around the world, the popularity of this form of artistic expression was not always so apparent as it is today. In recent years, street art has undergone a major transformation in public opinion to even become a socially accepted and respected accent to the public places that they adorn. Even with this push for public acceptance, the act of defacing public property with any and all message, whether it is considered art or not, has yet to become permitted or approved by the government. Today’s street art, while common and growing in acceptance, is largely placed in a middle ground between an act that is against the law and a beautifully respected act of artistic expression.
In the beginning, graffiti was the only form of street art that there was and it was widely considered to be a delinquent act of territorial marking and crude messaging. Initially, there was very clear divisions between the work of a street artist and the act of tagging a public or private property, but in recent years where the artists are treading the line between the two, this line has become increasingly blurred. Those who truly appreciate the work of famed street artists or street works of art, are in acceptance of the fact that this art would not be the same without the medium being the street. The works are subject to whatever change or destruction may come due to the fact that they are created on public or private surfaces which are neither owned by the artist or permitted to be worked on by the property owners. This acceptance of the potential impermanence of the works of art and the public placement of the uncondoned works are what contribute to the meaning of the piece and therefore, what helps the growth of street art popularity.
Around the globe
Street art exists worldwide. Large cities and regional towns of the world are home to some form of street art community, from which pioneering artists or forerunners of particular mediums or techniques emerge. Internationally known street artists travel between such locations to promote and exhibit their artwork.
New York City attracts artists from around the world. In Manhattan, “post-graffiti” street art grew in the 1980s from the then largely vacant neighborhoods of SoHo and the Lower East Side. The Chelsea art district became another locale, with area galleries also hosting formal exhibitions of street artist’s work. In Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Dumbo neighborhoods — especially near the waterfront — are recognized street art sites.
Programs in the Pennsylvania cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh provide funding to agencies who employ street artists to decorate city walls. The Mural Arts Program established in 1984 has helped Philadelphia earn praise as the “City of Murals”. The project was initiated to encourage graffiti artists toward a more constructive use of their talents. Murals backed by The Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh were named the “Best Public Art” by the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2006.
Street art in Atlanta centers on the Old Fourth Ward and Reynoldstown neighborhoods, the Krog Street Tunnel, and along the 22-mile BeltLine railway corridor which circles the inner city. Atlanta established a Graffiti Task Force in 2011. Although the city selected a number of murals which would not be targeted by the task force, the selection process overlooked street art of the popular Krug Street Tunnel site. Art created in conjunction with the Living Walls street art conference, which Atlanta hosts annually, were spared. Some actions taken by the unit, including arrests of artists deemed vandals, caused community opposition; some considered the city’s efforts as “misdirected” or “futile”. After being sued by a group of artists in 2017 the city of Atlanta agreed not to enforce an ordinance requiring artists to obtain city approval for murals on private property. Images and locations of over 200 works of Atlanta street art can be found on the Atlanta Street Art Map.
Sarasota, Florida, hosts an annual street art event, the Sarasota Chalk Festival, founded in 2007. An independent offshoot known as Going Vertical sponsors works by street artists, but some have been removed as controversial.
The Los Angeles neighborhood of Hollywood and streets such as Sunset Boulevard, La Brea, Beverly Boulevard, La Cienega, and Melrose Avenue are among key locations. LAB ART Los Angeles, opened in 2011, devotes its 6,500 square feet of gallery space to street art. Artwork by locals such as Alec Monopoly, Annie Preece, Smear and Morley are among the collection.
San Francisco’s Mission District has densely packed street art along Mission Street, and along both Clarion and Balmy Alleys. Streets of Hayes Valley, SoMa, Bayview-Hunters Point and the Tenderloin have also become known for street art. San Diego’s East Village, Little Italy, North Park, and South Park neighborhoods contain street artwork of VHILS, Shepard Fairey, Tavar Zawacki a.k.a. ABOVE , Space Invader, Os Gêmeos, among others. Murals by various Mexican artists can be seen at Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan neighborhood.
Montreal (Canada) has street art epicenters in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, Villeray, Downtown Montreal Le Sud-Ouest, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, and multiple art districts within the Island of Montreal.
Toronto (Canada) has a significant graffiti scene.
Richmond, Virginia has over 100 murals created by artists, many of whom are alumni of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts or current students there. Some of the murals are privately commissioned by individuals and businesses, some are created by solo street artists, and some are collaborative group fund-raising projects.
Denver street artists have been busy brightening (and enlightening) the urban landscape for decades by making canvases of the city’s alleyways, building exteriors, warehouses, garage doors and storefronts. The city of Denver has a whole area called the River North Art District (RiNo) that is dedicated to the work of local creative artists. Most artists in the RiNo district are commissioned by the local business owners who want to give their buildings colorful imagery.
Buenos Aires has developed a reputation for its large scale murals and artworks in many subway stations and public spaces. The first graffiti artists started painting in street in the Argentine capital in the mid-1990s after visiting other countries in Europe and South America. One of the first recognized street artists in Argentina is Alfredo Segatori, nicknamed ‘Pelado’, who began painting in 1994 and holds the record for the longest mural in Argentina measuring more than 2000m2.
São Paulo is also home to an internationally recognized street art scene.
An abundance of buildings slated for demolition provide blank canvases to a multitude of artists, and the authorities cannot keep up with removing artists output. “Population density” and “urban anxiety” are common motifs expressed by “Grafiteiros” in their street art and pichação, rune-like black graffiti, said to convey feelings of class conflict.
Influential Brazilian street artists include Claudio Ethos, Os Gêmeos, Vitche, Onesto, and Herbert Baglione.
Bogotá Has lot of walls dedicated to street art and a powerfull artistic movements. The tourist can apreciate serveral wall performances around 26 street (Avenida El Dorado), Suba Avenue and the historical neigbhorhood La Candelaria; even, street artist from Bogotá has an website, Bogotagraffiti to show they works in tours for tourists.
Recently, Bogotá’s street art suffered persecution by local and municipal governments that erase works in several public and private walls arguing vandalic acts, private property damage and visual contamination.
London has become one of the most pro-graffiti cities in the world. Although officially condemned and heavily enforced, street art has a huge following and in many ways is embraced by the public, for example, Stik’s stick figures. Dulwich Outdoor Gallery, in collaboration with Street Art London, is an outdoor “gallery” of street art in Dulwich, southeast London, with works based on traditional paintings in Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Bristol has a prominent street art scene, due in part to the success of Banksy, with many large and colourful murals dominating areas of the city.
Poland has artists like Sainer and Bezt known for painting huge murals on buildings and walls.
Paris, France has an active street art scene which is home to artists such as Space Invader, Jef Aérosol, SP 38 and Zevs. Some connect the origins of street art in France to Lettrism of the 1940s and Situationist slogans painted on the walls of Paris starting in the late 1950s. Nouveau realists of the 1960s, including Jacques de la Villeglé, Yves Klein and Arman interacted with public spaces but, like pop art, kept the traditional studio-gallery relationship. The 1962 street installation Rideau de Fer (Iron Curtain) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is cited as an early example of unsanctioned street art. In the 1970s, the site-specific work of Daniel Buren appeared in the Paris subway. Blek le Rat and the Figuration Libre movement became active in the 1980s.
Street art on the Berlin Wall was continuous during the time Germany was divided, but street art in Berlin continued to thrive even after reunification and is home to street artists such as Thierry Noir Tavar Zawacki a.k.a. ABOVE and SP 38. Post-communism, cheap rents, and ramshackle buildings gave rise to street art in areas such as Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain.
The second biggest city in Estonia, Tartu, has been called the Estonian street art capital. While Tallinn has been against graffiti, then Tartu is known for street art festival Stencibility and for being home for a wide range of works from various artist.
The street art scene in Greece has been active since the late 1980s but gained momentum in Athens leading up to the country’s 2011 financial crisis, with a number of artists raising voices of resistance, creating allegorical works and social commentary in the historic city center and Exarhia district. The New York Times published a story about the crisis in relation to street art, and art in general. Street art by Bleeps.gr, whose work has been categorized as “artivism”, can be found in neighborhoods such as Psiri.
In Spain Madrid and Barcelona represent the most graffiti populated cities, while Valencia, Zaragoza and Málaga also have a street art scene.
Italy has been very active in street art since the end of the 1990s; some of the most famous street artists include BLU, 108, and Sten Lex.
Street art in Amsterdam (Netherlands) centers on the Flevopark, on the east side, NDSM wharf in Amsterdam Noord, and the Red-light District. Artists who have gained recognition include Niels Shoe Meulman, Ottograph, Ives one, Max Zorn, Mickey, DHM, X Streets Collective, Bustart, Mojofoto, Mark Chalmers and collective CFYE. The city is home to the “Amsterdam Street Art” group, promoting street art in the city with aims to bring it to the same level as that of London, Paris, and Barcelona.
The city of Bergen is looked upon as the street art capital of Norway. British street artist Banksy visited the city in 2000 and inspired many to take their art to the streets. Dolk is among local street artists in Bergen. His art can be seen around the city. Bergen’s city council in 2009 chose to preserve one of Dolk’s works with protective glass.
In 2011, the city council launched a plan of action for street art from 2011–2015 to ensure that “Bergen will lead the fashion for street art as an expression both in Norway and Scandinavia”.
Street art came to Sweden in the 1990s and has since become the most popular way to establish art in public space. The 2007 book “Street Art Stockholm”, by Benke Carlsson, documents street art in the country’s capital.
The street art scene of Finland had its growth spurt from the 1980s onwards, until in 1998 the city of Helsinki began a ten-year zero tolerance policy which made all forms of street art illegal, punishable with high fines, and enforced through private security contractors. The policy ended in 2008, after which legal walls and art collectives have been established.
Wheatpaste and stencil graffiti art in Denmark increased rapidly after visits from Faile, Banksy, Ben Eine, and Shepard Fairey between 2002–2004, especially in urban areas of Copenhagen such as Nørrebro and Vesterbro. Copenhagen is home of TEJN, the artist credited with introducing the Lock On street art genre.
The street art scene in Switzerland saw the artist Harald Nägeli in the late 1970s. Activity from the nineties on included artists like Toast and NEVERCREW.
Since the collapse of communism in 1989, street art became prevalent in Poland throughout the 1990s. In the city of Łódź a permanent city exhibition was financed in 2011, under the patronage of Mayor Hanna Zdanowska, called “Urban Forms Gallery”. The exhibition included work from some of Poland’s elite street artists as well as globally known artists. Despite being mostly accepted by the public, with authorities occasionally allowing artists licenses to decorate public places, other properties are still illegally targeted by artists. Warsaw and Gdańsk are other Polish cities with a vibrant street art culture.
A monument in Bulgaria depicting Soviet Army soldiers was targeted by anonymous street artists in June, 2011. The soldiers of the monument, located in Sofia, were embellished to portray Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Superman, and others. The monument existed in that condition for several days before being cleaned. Some citizens were in favor of allowing the embellishments to remain.
Moscow has increasingly become a hub for Russian graffiti artists as well as international visitors. The Street Kit Gallery, opened in 2008, is dedicated to street art and organizes events in galleries, pop-up spaces and on the streets of the city. The 2009 Moscow International Biennale for Young Art included a section for street art. Active artists include Make, RUS, and Kiev-based Interesni Kazki (also active in Miami and Los Angeles). Britain’s BBC network highlighted the artwork of Moscow street artist Pavel 183 in 2012.
In South Korea’s second largest city, Busan, German painter Hendrik Beikirch created a mural over 70 metres (230 ft) high, considered Asia’s tallest at the time of its creation in August, 2012. The monochromatic mural portrays fisherman. It was organized by Public Delivery.
Melbourne is home to one of the world’s most active and diverse street art cultures and is home to pioneers in the stencil medium. Street artists such as Blek le Rat and Banksy often exhibited works on Melbourne’s streets in the 2000s (decade). Works are supported and preserved by local councils. Key locations within the city include Brunswick, Carlton, Fitzroy, Northcote, and the city centre including the famous Hosier Lane.
Perth also has a small street art scene. Sydney’s street art scene includes Newtown area graffiti and street art.
In 2009 in Auckland, street art decorated the city with sophisticated graphic imagery. Auckland’s city council permitted electrical boxes to be used as canvases for street art. Local street art group TMD (The Most Dedicated) won the “Write For Gold” international competition in Germany two years in a row. Surplus Bargains is another local collective.
Christchurch was devastated by 2 earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and as a result 8000 homes and 80 percent of the central city were condemned. It wasn’t until two and half years later that the city was able to host its first major cultural event – Rise Street Art Festival held at Canterbury Museum produced by Australasian street art organiser Oi YOU!.
Although street art in South Africa is not as ubiquitous as in European cities, Johannesburg’s central Newtown district is a centre for street art in the city. The “City Of Gold International Urban Art Festival” was held in the city’s Braamfontein civic and student district in April 2012.
The New York Times reported Cairo’s emergence as a street art center of the region in 2011. Slogans calling for the overthrow of the Mubarak regime has evolved into æsthetic and politically provocative motifs.
Street art from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya has gained notoriety since the Arab Spring, including a 2012 exhibition in Madrid’ s Casa Árabe.
Exhibitions, festivals, and conferences
In 1981, Washington Project for the Arts held an exhibition entitled Street Works, which included urban art pioneers such as John Fekner, Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones working directly on the streets.
Sarasota Chalk Festival was founded in 2007 sponsoring street art by artists initially invited from throughout the US and soon extended to internationally. In 2011 the festival introduced a Going Vertical mural program and its Cellograph project to accompany the street drawings that also are created by renowned artists from around the world. Many international films have been produced by and about artists who have participated in the programs, their murals and street drawings, and special events at the festival.
Living Walls is an annual street art conference founded in 2009. In 2010 it was hosted in Atlanta and in 2011 jointly in Atlanta and Albany, New York. Living Walls was also active promoting street art at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011.
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