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Over the last decade, there has been an increasing interest in a transient form of art that is marking urban settings around the world and has developed a thriving culture. Street art is becoming a formless creature embracing art which is found and inspired by the urban environment. Some people consider this kind of art as controversial and offensive, although on the other hand others find it appealing and attractive. By nature, humans are expressive; they have been drawing on walls since the beginning of humanity. Street art is an ancient art form in a more complex society which requires no formal artistic training or schooling and that in itself makes it so globally appealing for any person regardless of their background to express themselves in ultimate freedom. The use of media has evolved but the message has always remained the same which always translates into freedom. Some people consider this very disturbing, while others find it beautiful. Whether it is interpreted as vandalism or public art, it attracts interest around the world.
Street art today and what it has evolved into is part of our pop culture whether people understand it or not. Clothes, shoes, toys, and more are influenced by street art on a daily basis. To some people, this is beautiful as long as is not being seen on their buildings and walls. As soon as they see it on a wall, they consider it as vandalism.
This essay explores this long issue by researching the world of street art. Hopefully by the end of this essay a general conclusion will be extracted about how people react, feel and think about this way of expression but also what the society and the authorities could possibly do about it. The research for this project included an online survey that was answered by ninety six persons of different ages and nationalities.
What is street art and who are the artists that represented it?
Street art is any type of art created outside in public view and is usually connected with social and political meaning. There are many different types of street art such as graffiti, sticker art, stencil, wheat pasting-street poster art, falsification of a street sign or an advertisement. Toward the end of the 1960s and in the beginning of the 1970s, children started writing their nicknames on walls, mailboxes and even in tubes and this came to be known as tagging.
As hip hop culture spread from America, street art became a worldwide phenomenon growing in the 1980s as the symbolic language of the young population. It was then that street art became legally restricted and a conflict started between artists and the authorities. Even though this divergence arose, street art was widely spreading around the world during this decade and artists were adding more colours, different styles, creating or drawing comic heroes and imaginary faces. In addition, it attracted the attention of media, thus movies and magazines about street art begun to publish.
Although street art is being used by many people, not all of them do it for the same reasons. There are artists that use street art as a mean to express themselves while others use it to communicate or raise awareness for social and political issues. Simply put, people see the empty spaces of the city as a blank canvas and want to be creative with the use of humour while others are more willing to take the risk of creating some sort of an illegal art. In some cases street art is being used as a mean of a memorial to a fellow man or a great ‘artist’ that passed away. Through their work, artists aim to communicate with everyday people without the intent to offend or create a conflict but rather to create a connection with the general public through their artwork.
There are many ways in which the types of street art can be graded, while some are considered as simple drawings on a wall, others are classified as actual works of art, depending on whether the artist was given permission to create it. The techniques used remain the same but having permission to express it changes the whole meaning since without any permission it is simply considered as vandalism.
Vandalism is described as an inexcusable destruction of property, showing to have negative effects on its setting. Criminologists have also observed that vandalism has a ”snowball effect” on causing negative effects in its surrounding environment. Dr. George Kelling and Dr. James Q. Wilson have studied the effects of a broken window case, a disorder in an urban setting and concluded that even one instance of neglect can lead to the possibility of more incidences like that one to appear. Furthermore, an increase in actual violent crimes led researchers to the conclusion of a direct link between street violence, vandalism and the decline of the society (Broken window theory) (Art Radar Asia, 2010).
Whichever way is referred as, vandalism or art, this way of expression has been a worldwide phenomenon as well as the artists that represent it. There are hundreds of street artists whose work and projects made this type of art one of the most debated issue in the world of art. With their own unique way, they have managed to spread this phenomenon all over the world and put themselves on the map just by doing what they like. Using their skills and imagination they have found a way to express themselves and offer some people the chance to embrace something really beautiful and not to see it as something that others consider vandalism. Nevertheless, these refined artists have attracted the interest of the world.
Keith Haring was one of the first street artists and consequently, responsible for the spread of this kind of art. Haring was studying to be a commercial graphic artist but after two semesters in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh he realized that he only had little to no interest in that, so he dropped out. He kept working and studying on his own, but choosing to move to New York and enrol in the School of Visual Arts, came as an inspiration to work on an alternative outside landscape of creativity.
He was first inspired by an empty black panel that was used for advertising. Haring thought that it was a perfect place to draw on so he went after to buy a box of white chalk from a card shop and he started to do so. The white chalk was perfect on the black paper and that’s why following that, he kept drawing on all of the black spaces that came to his attention. People seemed to show respect for what they saw and surprisingly did not try to mess it up. The subway pictures evolved into a new medium of communication as the images created travelled the world through magazines and television. He was immediately actively involved in the city of New York and the hip hop scene including rap music, break dancing and graffiti. This kept on going for the following five years showing that it was reaching all kinds of viewers from various social and ethical backgrounds (David Sheff, 1989).
Banksy is another well-known street artist whose work is responsible for the popularity of street art as it is now. Despite the fact that he is from Easton, his artistic home is the streets of London. He began his career as a graffiti writer and later on he progressed to the use of stencils because it was quicker to apply and on effect it created a harder impact, which has always been essential for his work.
In his mind he cannot accept the fact that this kind of art could work indoors as he likens it with the domestication of an animal- turning a wild creature into a sterile and languid pet. He believes that this is an outdoor art and should remain as it is even though some people get a lot of comfort from being indoors. It is very different to paint in the street having to capture a burst of adrenaline enhanced by the thought of being arrested rather than to do it in a cosy studio while drinking coffee (Ossian Ward, 2010). It seems like for some people the search for inspiration goes beyond their limits.
‘Maybe the people who steal graffiti off walls are on to something – the edge is still there. But those people are funny – they ask me for a letter of authentication saying I painted a certain piece, but that’s basically a signed confession on headed notepaper.’ (Ossian Ward, 2010)
C215 is a French artist who started drawing as a teenager in the city of Orleans in France and now he paints portraits worldwide. He has a special technique in which he makes the stencils by hand without the use of computer. His work can be seen around the world in many cities such as Rome, Barcelona, London, and Berlin. C215 uses stencil because as he says the stencil allows him to combine his two passions, drawing and graffiti. He mostly paints people who experience the life of being in the street such as refugees, tramps and street kids. The great philosopher Heraclitus said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. Similarly C215 believes that no one can compare every life event and every period to anything else because they are unique (Vincent Morgan, 2009).
Jerome ‘G’ Demuth is a street artist from Paris. ‘G’ is the nickname he uses for his activities in the streets. He was a photographer and now he found a way to show his work in the streets using large scale technical print like a photo placed on a billboard. Pasting a photo on a billboard was actually the first thing he did nine years ago. He tries to illustrate the way he sees life and society. Through his work he wants to raise people’s awareness about respect and love for earth and other humans instead of caring only about money and success. In general, he tries to show them that they could have an alternative way of life. One of his most well-known projects is the installation of swings in many cities and calls them Swing Cities.
Another street artist is ‘Ink 187’ or also known as Oiler, coming from Los Angeles, California. The nickname Oiler as he says is due to the fact that he is too slick. He is a tattoo lover and that’s why he is called ‘Ink’. ‘187’ is in a memorial for a friend of him. Oiler is a graffiti artist and through his work, expresses his feelings and emotions. After being expelled from the state of California due to graffiti presence, Oiler became a mentor for young artists in North Portland and tries to help them practise their art legally. Putting his past behind him, he hopes for a better life and future. He tries to keep his graffiti on t-shirts and paper hoping to start a career in fashion. He has on his mind that if artists use their talents legally, street art could become profitable.
It does not matter where they are from and what techniques they use. Street artist just want to share their thoughts and believes. Others do it for their social concern and others for their own personal satisfaction. Nevertheless, they do not want to offend anyone with their work, rather than to raise their attention towards its prosperity. No matter what happens there will always be a conflict between people concerning street art. Most importantly, there will always be people against this type of art.
How do people and society perceive street art?
Today’s youth uses street art to portray their social and political views. In order to make their mark, artists choose high traffic areas to express themselves in order to spread their messages broadly. The reason is that by displaying a unique artistic creation people cannot miss it as they walk by, thus it serves their cause efficiently. They could easily use a social network to express an idea but unquestionably that is not as effective as street art. Over the recent years, it came to be as a form of communication. Since young people are not as interested in the news, the modern ‘urban’ feel of street art combined with its awareness of political and social changes makes it perfect for almost everyone. Some people even though they enjoy street art, they do not agree with it when it expresses political views. They prefer to see something entertaining and humorous instead of a message containing political views.
In some neighbourhoods, sometimes gangs use street art in order to mark their territory or their crew’s power and status. They mark their territorial boundaries as a warning to other gangs as well as to the police. Sometimes a gang’s graffiti sign or symbol may also be a memorial to a fellow fallen gang member. Because of the connection between gangs and street art, it has stereotyped the art and influenced society to relate it particularly with street violence and crime. However, the last couple of years, people have been accepting this type of art and the majority enjoys seeing it. They believe that living in a neighbourhood where street art is being displayed shows the uniqueness of every place, its identity. Grey bowing buildings are transformed into something alive and admirable. Even when a person sees street art outside his window, it has an effect on his mood. It can create a warmer atmosphere which at the same time can create a feeling of being somewhere different, a better, more desirable place. On the other hand, some people say that they do not like it in their neighbourhood. According to their views, it states a sense of anarchy, violence and moreover destroys the appearance of buildings, parks and streets. This of course depends on what the artist creates. (see appendix 4)
It makes sense when the members of the community get angry when vandals deface their properties, homes and public spaces making it clear that an effective approach to manage street art should incorporate the removal of unwanted or even offensive wall paintings. Nevertheless, the zero tolerance policy is self-contradictory. Many young artists experience frustration and disappointment towards the criminalisation of their art and as a result they rebel against the local authorities, perpetuating more illegal creations (Moo, E. Wardle, F. Lyons, S. Heim, J. Wodds Alum, E. 2009).
Paintings expressed on walls are not equivalent to the paintings hung on the walls and this is apparent by how street art is perceived by the general population. The act of taking the street art from the outside of a building and placing it inside of a building completely changes the work from anarchy to artistry and consequently vandalism gains value. There is a substantial increase in people who believe that street art should be displayed in indoor places. Some though may argue that by doing this, the meaning of this particular art changes completely. Nowadays the number of people visiting galleries is decreasing and even less of them have the funds to organise a gallery exhibition. This is one of the reasons why these artists have turned public walls into their canvases in order to express themselves and even evolve their skills, which could not be done on an average piece of canvas. It could be seen as a privilege to the society that so many people are given the opportunity to view such works of art free of charge. Some people find it as a nice vibrant change after seeing hundreds of generic bland advertisements on a daily basis. As soon as street art crossed over from criminal to commercial, it stopped being an expression and became an industry of its own.
The street art has started receiving international approval in the latest years with artists, such as the mysterious Bansky, selling their creations at Sotheby’s for huge amounts of money. Nowadays, prestigious galleries exhibit street art and collectives have been formed in many cities all over the world. Several books have published the colourful displays of public art which has reached critical mass around the world, even though it is still considered illegal as a form of expression and a street crime (Lonely Planet, 2010).
There is a correlation between the artistic approach of the artists and the cities concerns as it helps the culture programming for attracting the tourists, aids in the institutional communication of social action in poor neighbourhoods and informs about the local economy. Huge events attracting impressive crowds are developing street art and contribute to the European Capitals of Culture success. More than 100 000 people from Porto, Graz, Brussels and Copenhagen are drawn to these events as Lille has recorder approximately 600 000. They are mostly happening in the city centres while other areas and rural zones also have a social and spatial integration call on street art. These artists usually work in abandoned districts or problematic places such as former factories, participating in linking territories and developing their projects in areas with little access to cultural events and products (Fitzcarraldo, 2007).
An artist can paint the Mona Lisa on the front of a house and even though it can be considered as art by most people, according to the law it’s vandalism. Thus, reform comes into play and various actions can be taken to help legitimise street art. In order for this to happen, the government would need to cooperate with the general public and create a non-profit organisation which works to protect specific public spaces as well as graphic festivals could be organised and designated areas for artists to express themselves could be given.
In contrast with the societal views regarding street art, many benefits were raised that are usually ignored. As any kind of art, similarly, street art is an expression of the artists’ feelings and emotions. There are no legal opportunities for these young artists to create, develop and exhibit their work which is clearly and fundamentally a kind of art and not vandalism in action. Society should accept this form of art and protect it before the situation becomes worse. Street artists want to be considered, recognised and respected as ‘artists’ (Rae Ferris, 2008).
Survey findings and analysis
For the needs of this essay a survey was completed by the public. In the survey there were questions asking people’s opinion about street art in relation to their educational level, age, gender and the place they grew up. Due to the fact that each country deals with this issue differently, people may respond differently as well. Also their age and level of education is important since, it is possible to affect their opinion.
The results obtained from the survey were analysed by SPSS. Interestingly, the results show that most of the respondents find this way of expression entertaining, beautiful and appealing to the eye rather than offensive and violent. (See appendix 1)
On a question about whether street art should be displayed in streets most of the answers were positive. Nevertheless, it can be seen on appendix 2 that less people think it should be displayed in indoor places. They believe that street art should be displayed in its original environment. The age group thirty to thirty-nine, answered that they do not have a strong opinion about this kind of art being displayed in streets, but they strongly disagree with the idea of being displayed in indoor places.
Furthermore, results showed that people between the ages of thirties-thirty nine disagree with street art that expresses political views but they agree with it when it expresses the artists’ him/herself. According to the findings displayed in appendix 3 younger people and people between the ages of forty to forty nine agree with street art displaying political messages.
In the question whether people agree or disagree with graphic festivals being organized and designated areas for artists to express themselves being created, most people agree. By giving the artists a place to do whatever they feel, will reduce the unwanted. (see appendix 5) Overall, the feedback that was extracted from the survey was really positive and in most cases it can suggest that no matter what their age, gender, level of education or nationality people feel the same way about street art.
Art or vandalism; street art can be considered as both, due to the fact that is done on a public property which is more likely to offend anyone out there. However, there is no doubt that these people both influence and express the feelings of many other people in the society. This is the reason that there is great centralisation in each event they organise and the support they get from all over the world (Bret McNee, 2009).
The definition of what is considered as art can be argued to no end but the government cannot define what that is yet, therefore street art requires social acceptance through legitimacy to be accepted as “art”. These street artists do not aspire to change the definition of their artwork but rather question the existing environment around them in their own language. Through their works, they aim to communicate with everyday people about socially relevant issues without any intention to offend or to create a conflict but rather make a connection with the general public through their artwork.
People can argue for or against street art over and over again without coming up with a worldwide acceptable decision. There will always be disagreements. That is what makes street art interesting. It cannot be held, but it can be seen everywhere. It cannot be bought but it is often used to sell everything. Art is created to be seen and enjoyed, debated and discussed.
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