Street art originated in the late 1960s with the advent of graffiti and tagging in Philadelphia and New York City. It has been developing ever since as new styles, forms and techniques are created and utilized by street artists. But street art is not generally viewed as “art” worthy of the status of works in a gallery or a museum, although as Walsh says, it is not strictly denied the status of genuine art because it utilizes various aesthetic elements (1996). However, street art is often seen as radical or unconventional because of its location – on walls and doors, on train carriages and in tunnels.
Street art as vandalism
I’d like to explore some of the oppositions to street art, to understand why street artists are vilified and their work denied the status of ‘art’. Walsh argues that the only reason why this occurs is because of the location of street art (1996: 2-3). He strongly believes that street art cannot be disregarded as a criminal act simply because it is not presented in a conventional manner, that is, framed and placed in a museum or gallery (1996: 3). I agree with Walsh and believe that while street art may be unsolicited, and sometimes termed ‘vandalism’, that this does not mean it is not art. Nonetheless, the illegality of street art has stood in the way of it becoming recognized as a legitimate art form.
Here, therefore, I would like to make a distinction between graffiti as street art and graffiti as tagging. Tagging does not hold the same aesthetic or expressive qualities as other forms of street art such as stenciling or graffiti murals.
Anonymity, resistance and historic significance
Like taggers, acclaimed stencil artist Banksy does not reveal his identity to the public. This reinforces the idea that there is something even about his widely celebrated form of street art that is illicit. Similar is Melbourne street artist Deb, who goes only by a nickname and is hard to track down to a name or place. In fact, many street artists use either aliases or nicknames that ensure them privacy and no attention from lawmakers. The anonymity of street artists once again goes back to the beginnings of graffiti writing in the 1960s, when gang members and other individuals graffitied and ‘tagged’ urban spaces as a means of self-expression.
I would like to consider the idea of street art as resistance as the first part of my argument for street art as a valid artform. As a form of self-expression, street art is a creative method of communicating with the general public, in a forum much more open than an art gallery. Street art communicates the artist’s identity and his or her ideas, and because it is visual, it appeals to people regardless of their cultural, lingual, or racial differences.
Arguably, street art works to shape culture through resistance and rebellion while also influencing and ‘perturbing’ society because of its ability to straddle the line between vandalism and art. Because street art is unique both due to its location and often its themes, it has the potential to influence the viewer and create change.
Following Spitz, I would also argue that street art is important as an art form because it represents history through its acts of resistance (1991: 17). As Ferrell discusses, the fact that places like the Berlin Wall were decorated with images representing hope and freedom, and graffiti that denounced the separation of East and West Germany shows just how much street art can act as a symbol of the times (2004: 34). This makes me think of works such as Goya’s Guernica – a mural not unlike some of those on the Berlin Wall, that shows the horrors of war and suffering. If we are to think about street art as representative of such historic and often horrific moments, then it is hard to denounce it as ‘vandalism’.
Aesthetics of street art
While I have argued that the expressive, resistive qualities of street art are undeniable, analyzing the aesthetic qualities also show that street art is a viable art form. The production of street art requires established techniques and styles, most particularly in the use of spray paint. Spray paint is used in various ways for different artistic effects. The techniques learned to add to the aesthetic qualities of street art and therefore show how the image is linked to insight, which Spitz argues is of central significance to considering something ‘art’ (2004).
The impermanence of street art
It is interesting to consider Walsh’s ideas about the impermanence of street art as a unique artistic factor. He argues that because of its quick removal from surfaces by councils and other clean up services that street art needs to be appreciated as fleeting, especially as:
A piece which might be sixty feet long, twelve feet high, and take twenty to thirty cans of paint and at least eight hours to produce might be gone in a matter of minutes.
In that sense, it is understandable why galleries such as Sydney’s May Lane and Melbourne’s Graffiti Management Plan work to protect street art from being obliterated. May Lane provides removable outdoor panels on which street artists can work, and which are stored for the later exhibition, while the Graffiti Management Plan works to protect laneway graffiti. Although they failed in April 2010 by accidentally painting over a Banksy work in Hosier Lane, the Graffiti Management Plan protected another Banksy work by placing it under perspex to remain forever as a street artwork. And as more and more tourists flock to Melbourne specifically to see street art, the lanes of Melbourne are taking on the form of outdoor galleries – perhaps not that unlike traditional exhibition spaces, yet more public and therefore accessible.
In this paper, I have argued that street art in both stencil and graffiti forms should be considered viable forms of art. I have shown that while the location of these works might make them unconventional, and indeed deemed vandalism in many cases, that they are nevertheless important both as an expression of individual identity and as a mode of resistance. Like all art, they act to reflect the artist’s ideas and the historical period in which he or she lived. They provide a break from tradition and they inspire the viewer, while also being aesthetically pleasing.