Art from the Streets

"Smokey the Rasta Guide" 2011, photo taken by JP Paul while searching for murals in Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica.
Once reserved for outsider artists and night-prowling opportunists looking for any flat surface to abuse with their self-aggrandizement, street graffiti has graduated far beyond the stamps, stencils and social statements hastily sprayed by anonymous hit-and-run specialists cloaked in hoodies. Today it's a multi million dollar global phenomenon.

Street art dates to the caves thousands of years ago. Visual art even pre-dates written languages as a communication device, with symbols eventually morphed into alphabets for writing. In more modern terms, graffiti was popularized by, amongst others, Keith Haring and SAMO (a NYC group featuring the late Jean Michel Basquiat) in the eighties. France's Blek La Rat, UK's Banksy and some very expressive Berlin artists worked parallel in Europe. Gritty urban art is now front stage in important contemporary museums, auction houses and leading galleries. Major collectors and young Hollywood celebrities fight over first right of refusal for the finest works. There is no limit to skyrocketing values even while the legitimacy of ownership remains the subject of fierce debate and even the occasional legal action. 

platobanksy-400This isn't a coincidence. Since the sixties, contemporary artists have explored arts containing words, slogans and popular symbols. The substrates were more traditional (read: collectable canvas or paper) but the social angst was similar. After Haring, Baldessari, Sharf, Richter, Kruger, Basquiat, Holzer, Fairey, Wool and dozens more achieved widespread acclaim from the inner art circles, it would have been hypocritical for the criterati to change tack to stifle younger generations of aspiring spraycan artists with their own concerns to vent... just like their predecessors.


 Among the talking points for consideration:

1. What is the allure of street art? Is it the freedom of open expression or the illegality?

2. Is it necessary to differentiate between art produced in public space and those obnoxious self-serving tags, or should it all be lumped in the same group as an afront to property rights and public choice?

3. Does a community's right to aesthetic approval trump the artistic freedom of an individual graffiti artist?

4. Are communities doing enough to provide public platforms for artistic expression? Can we protect property owner rights without threatening other core liberties?

5 If we consider graffiti art as an illegal act, why are companies allowed to install their unsightly billboards and other forms of "legal" public advertising, most of which that denigrate our public spaces and viewing lines despite our objection? Why doesn't the public get a vote before these billboards are installed? Sure, they're placed legally with consent on private property, but they are unavoidable for all passersby in public streets and parks whether we want to see them or not. Same could be said for music buskers, yes or no?

6. Does public street art maintain value after it is moved to a collector's wall?  Pitt, Jolie, DiCaprio. They've all went large on graffit art for their multiple homes. But doesn't the existential nature of "street" art negate any value it might have when displayed elsewhere? Doesn't the removal from its street "studio" cancel its most endearing value, especially for site-specific pieces? If so, why are millionaires still falling over each other to buy the best examples?

Here's a quick anecdote that relates loosely to a concern of many regarding the saleability of street graffiti sales: An anthropologist-artist acquaintance of ours frequently went scuba diving in search of lost treasures in the Mediterranean Sea. On one excursion, he uncovered an ancient artifact covered with coral and barnacles. Hammer prices for similar pieces surpassed low to mid six figures at auction on the rare occasions when they were allowed to bypass national patrimony restrictions to leave the country.

The artist took the piece to his studio, cleaned off the growth matter and salt damage, polished the artifact to its original state and pranced down to his favorite auction house to ask for an estimate. Hoping to profit at least one hundred grand or two from his find, instead he was surprised to hear that the restored antique was now virtually worthless as a collectable, post-restoration. On the positive side, continued the appraiser, it might be welcomed as a donation to an historical museum or perhaps garner a thousand dollars as a shiny decorative ornament. Another reminder of what can happen when we try to alter history for a quick buck.

My question is, shouldn't the same appraisal logic apply to graffiti art that has been hacked, chiselled or chopped out of its originally intended substrate -- it's place of relevance -- in order to sell it as a standalone artwork?

7. Is our society becoming too anal? Graffiti can be extraordinarily witty and moving. Some examples are hilarious, others politically poignant. Street art occasionally even demonstrates advanced aesthetic and technical achievement and yet many still complain that it is "unauthorized and thus unwelcome." Gift horse, meet mouth?

8. Two polarized camps: Defacing private property is always illegal. Period. Public arts enhance communities. Period. Certainly there is plenty of space between the two extremes for a compromise?

Please send us your suggestions, solutions and samples. Artfronts is compiling our notes, from 70s SoHo slogans on abandoned buildings to Vic Muniz's art made from garbage amongst the urban squalor surrounding the '14 World Cup in Brazil. If you have interesting anecdotes or images that you would like to have considered for inclusion in this evolving group article, please communicate with us through our Contact page. No payments are offered but bylines are always granted. If necessary, we will provide further information about submission of documents and image libraries via regular email.

This is a dynamic, evolving document. Submission consideration is open.