Street Art

Street art is a relatively new term that loosely describes artwork in urban settings from murals
to stencils, stickers to posters, spray can graffiti to impromptu sculptures. It’s any form of artistic
intervention in a public space. It is playful and provocative, it draws on the history of graffiti
as an anti-establishment activity and it comments on what we see as social space and art. It’s
often temporary or ephemeral and, depending where it is and how it’s been made, it can be
welcome or a public nuisance.

Approaches to street art

Street art can encompass figurative illustrations, stylised abstraction and conceptual ideas,
with an emphasis on visual style, the identity of the artist and the social contexts in which the
work is seen. Repetition and variations of work are a common theme. Artists often develop a
trademark approach which is replicated across cities, using different spaces but a similar motif,
such as Invader’s space invader-inspired mini-mosaics which are stuck unobtrusively in corners
of cities across the globe.

Street art plays with scale. Artists such as Blu, Lucy McLauchlan, Sam3 and Ericailcane all
produce work on a very large scale, while Slinkachu’s Little People Project plays with miniature
social tableaux.

The artist Bansky has used a combination of stencils and spray paint to start a satirical and
often political commentary on the streets of his native Bristol and beyond. In Texas, a group of
women under the collective identity of Knitta have challenged the often male environment of
street art with their guerilla knitting movement.

Street art has allowed artists from outside the art world to have a platform for their work,
while for established artists the idea of producing site-specific work has been an alternative
to working inside the gallery. With this merging of approaches, street art has continued to use
spray cans and stencils but has also seen the transfer of traditional art materials, with artists
such as Jorge Rodriguez Gerada undertaking large-scale drawings on the sides of buildings. It’s
worth remembering that street art has its own precedents, such as chalk artists busking on the
street, murals and commercial signage, all feeding into the visual culture of the street. British
artist Ben Eine draws on the typographic tradition of signage within his work, while German
artist Edgar Mueller creates disorientating chalk drawings on the pavement that play with
visual reality.

Photography has increasingly been explored within street art with artists such as JR pasting
giant portraits of residents onto the walls of poor neighbourhoods around the world. Camilla
Watson works in a similar way but on a smaller scale, printing photographs directly onto the
surfaces of walls. Street art is multi-disciplinary, drawing on lots of different media and arts
traditions.

Graffiti and street art

In earlier periods of history, especially when paper was less easy to come by, writing on walls
was very common. It was a public way of expressing opinions and a private way of remembering
verses. Graffiti was a common sight in Roman cities as it was in Elizabethan houses. Our modern
attitudes to writing on walls have been shaped by graffiti as firstly a form of political activity
and increasingly as a private voice.

“Grafffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.” Banksy 2011

Depending on your point of view, street art is either a scourge of our cities or it’s part of
the cultural fabric that makes city living interesting. Lisbon has embraced street art, proudly
incorporating the images of giant illustrations as a marketing tool, turning derelict buildings
into an asset. Elsewhere, street art is seen as an eyesore as developing artists vie for attention.
The street is a shared space, so who gives street artists the right to try and interfere? Certainly
many people see street art and graffiti as an unwanted interference. Others see the street as a
place where dialogue can take place and believe that people can and should comment within
the social, institutional and commercial spaces around them. Artists don’t always get it right
and their work doesn’t last forever. Even Banksy’s pieces are routinely cleaned up and painted
over.

Site-specific work

The idea of making art with a specific place in mind is not solely linked to street art. Sculpture,
performance and mural artists, amongst others, have engaged with the idea of how you
respond to and change an actual place by making art to be placed within it. However street
artists approach making art for a location in the knowledge that often they are doing it without
permission. The response to their work might be hostile and often it’s seen as a deliberate
provocation. Consequently much of street art’s placing is playful, temporary or overtly
challenging. As a broad rule of thumb, think of site-specific work as adding something new to
a site, taking something away from a site, or changing an existing element within it.
There’s something very liberating about the idea of seeing the world as a canvas in which
any surface is up for grabs and an audience for your work is guaranteed, but this artistic
freedom comes at a price for those artists engaged in what is essentially a criminal act of
defacing. Many street artists have started to deal with this issue by working with communities
and arts organisations to sanction their work and provide spaces to work on legally.

Research Point: Street Art