I’m not sure how my street art obsession began but it was definitely at some point during my travels, when my creativity was sparked and my mind opened up enough to explore what I had until then considered messy scribbles.
Perhaps it was in Cuba, walking in the shadow of Che Guevara or the Revolution.
Or in San Francisco, where artists can’t seem to bear the insulting sight of a plain wall.
Or maybe I just fell in love with the irreverence and rebelliousness I sensed behind those scribbles. Suffice it to say that the mere act of travel helps open up my mind to new forms of art - a creativity and curiosity fueled by the different sights and lifestyles.
That said I still dislike the kind of scrawls that cover pristine railway cars or whitewashed walls. I could throttle defacers who lurk, waiting for builders to move on before they strike.
They might think it’s art, but I think it’s garbage – because it’s painful to look at.
But go beyond that vulgar vandalism and paint me a mural or a meaningful sketch or socially important words and I might feel differently. And that’s where the worlds of graffiti, street art and vandalism part ways – or intersect, depending on your point of view.
I’ve been looking for a suitable definition.
According to the Asian site Art Radar, street art is “an amorphous beast encompassing art which is found in or inspired by the urban environment. With anti-capitalist and rebellious undertones, it is a democratic form of popular public art probably best understood by seeing it in situ.”
It’s a definition I like – the words urban, public, anti-capitalist and rebellious align well with me.
Art Republic says it “can include traditional graffiti art work, as well as stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheatpasting and street poster art, video projection, art intervention, guerrilla art, flash mobbing and street installations.”
I get that. Many types of street art. (One of its more enchanting facets is the utter confusion into which it can thrust the uninitiated. Like myself.)
It’s hard to keep them all ordered, but these are some of the more popular street art genres.
Mental Floss lists even more: a piece (for masterpiece), legal wall (what it says), crew (when… a crew gets together and paints), character (typical of a particular artist, like a brand or a logo). And there are certainly more styles of street art, undoubtedly being created as quickly as I can type.
In addition to being public and urban, street art in its early days was often anonymous. Now it has its heroes and heroines and most pieces of any note are signed.
Another characteristic is its ephemeral nature, here today, gone tomorrow.
According to Ron English, writing in the Huffington Post, “Street Art is an experience, and then it's a photo, a You Are Not Here moment. These moments are meant to mark time, and to remark on times. And times change.”
That said, efforts are being made to conserve certain pieces of street art deemed valuable.
So what differentiates street art from plain, ugly graffiti?
One person’s masterpiece is another person’s mess, and much ink has flowed in pitting the one against the other, like this ‘manifesto’ from Graffiti Action Hero.
It has existed throughout history – from the Mayans in Guatemala to the Vikings in Rome and Ireland. Everywhere human civilization has spread, we have stamped our opinions or beliefs for others to see.
In modern times it began surfacing in the early 20th
century but burst into the limelight in the 1970s, accelerated by the arrival of the aerosol can – and tagging.
I remember seeing slogans on walls, ugly scribblings that marred buildings speeding by the windows of a train – if indeed the graffiti on the windows themselves allowed anyone to see outside.
And then something interesting happened: those scrawls began to take shape, and morphed into images, complex, colorful and full of energy. I remember gazing in awe at abandoned railway stations and overpasses, trying to decide whether this was the work of daring artists or senseless teenagers on a suicidal mission.
Martin Irvine of Georgetown University encapsulates it well: “Street art began as an underground, anarchic, in-your-face appropriation of public visual surfaces, and has now become a major part of visual space in many cities and a recognized art movement crossing over into the museum and gallery system.”
The fact is that street art is globally accessible, and it’s not relegated to any subculture anymore – it is now mainstream, and in many ways that sets it apart from more traditional art.
I love this quote by Nicholas Alden Riggle, a philosopher at New York University: “Imagine an art practice that, instead of delighting merely the refined sensibilities of an elite few, has the power to engage, effortlessly and aesthetically, the masses through its manifest creativity, skill, originality, depth of meaning, and beauty.” In other words, not elitist, and that to me is a beautiful way to conceive art.
Just a few short years ago anything painted on a wall was a signal to take out the soap and pail.
These days it is often the other way around: street art can be more attractive than what it covers.
Often, it is more than just art.
It can be highly political. In Egypt, during the Arab Spring, walls became privileged spaces where everyday people drew their hopes and pains. More graffiti than art, slogans like “No to Mubarak” and “Antique Dictator 4 Sale” could be seen on Tahrir Square. Art became a form of massive democratic participation.
The same happened during the leadership protests in Hong Kong, and in Latin America, street art is an honored tradition and helps inform and entertain people.
Often, street art is just as much about purpose or emotion as it is about appearance.
Think huge Communist propaganda walls in the Soviet Union, or China’s Democracy Wall.
Art, yes, but for a reason.
Some cities now pride themselves on their street art, or public art, as many prefer to call it.
The city of Nantes, in France, is a northern industrial city now reinventing itself through art. In New York, one of the best attractions of the Highline Park is the street art you get to see as you walk along it.
These days you can see street art almost anywhere, but these cities with the best street art seem to appear on most lists: Berlin, Bogotá, Bristol UK, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Istanbul, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, Moscow, New York, Paris, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago (Chile) and São Paolo (Brazil).
After recent visits to Barcelona and San Francisco, I would add them as well. And in case you're curious about even more street art cities, here's another roundup.
The perennial discussion around street art is whether it is in fact art, or whether it is graffiti, as in destruction of property.
Here’s a sample of what's being discussed on forums all around the web:
So yes, there are plenty of naysayers out there.
But one question still niggles.
Sometimes it isn’t – and then it’s called graffiti or worse, vandalism. At other times it most certainly is – and is magically renamed ‘public art’.
To some people, the fact that street art is mostly illegal does make it vandalism.
Legal or not, exposure is everything. “While posting on private and city-owned surfaces ensures these works won’t be around for long, the street provides enviable visibility while they last,” says Steven Heller in The Atlantic.
I don’t care whether it’s legal or not – but I wouldn’t want it painted on the side of my house. Unless I loved the piece, of course.
So where will street art go from here?
It can get ever more complex, more striking, more three-dimensional, more full of movement or appeal to other senses… It can cover every single ugly bare surface surviving in an urban area. It can be erased because a lot of it is illegal. It can be obliterated by new buildings or painted over by angry, unappreciative residents. Or it can be preserved by such projects as Google’s Street Art Project.
It doesn’t matter. As I travel, whenever I walk down a street and see splashes of color covering up an otherwise drab wall, I’ll stop and take a picture, imagining hooded youngsters slinking around at night, with paints and brushes and cans under their jackets, furtively slingling brushtrokes at cement.
I’ll probably be wrong about the image – but I won’t be wrong about loving what I see.
Street art, like any other art, has its stars, some with world renown.
Possibly the most famous of these is Banksy, the British artist who rose on the coattails of his art, of course, but also of his anonymity and his political outspokenness. A headline that always sells well will run something like this: "Banksy Identity Revealed" or "Banksy Arrested!" Even a story about the hoax surrounding his arrest is so newsworthy it becomes viral.
What’s heartening is the generation of women street artists crowding into a traditionally male preserve, with stars like Bambi, called 'the new Banksy' by some, or these 10 women artists credited with being 'better than Banksy' - and more. Even in conservative countries – here’s an example from Dubai – women street artists are coming into their own.
Think street art is only for the young? Think again.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Trip4Real and Barcelona Turisme recently for a graffiti street art tour of the city. Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. If you use them to buy something, you don't pay more - but this website earns a small commission, which helps pay the bills, so thank you!