To be done
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
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
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
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.
Identify examples of street art on the walls near you. If you live in a rural community this might be a problem as street art tends to be largely an urban phenomenon. If necessary, pick some examples from the references below or through your own research.
Write a short commentary about how this work interacts with the environment. How important is the context to understanding what the work is trying to do? Reflect on whether you think a particular piece of graffiti is ‘art’ or just vandalism.
Use your learning log to document your reflections.
Blu: Large-scale illustrations spanning wall pieces, animations and sketchbook work
Lucy McLauchlan: Contemporary artist working on large-scale illustrative pieces
Street Art in Lisbon
Crono Project: Large-scale street art project in Lisbon
Wooster Collective Celebrating street art
Banksy: Stencils and other interventions
Slinkachu: The Little People Project
Invader: Space invader-inspired mosaics
Jorge Rodriguez Gerada: Large-scale drawings
Ben Eine: Large-scale typography
Ericailcane: Large-scale illustrative work
JR: Giant photography pieces
Camilla Watson: Photography printed onto walls
Bast: Street collage and posters
Knitta: Documenting guerilla knitting around the
Edgar Mueller: 3D pavement chalk drawings
Sam3: Large-scale murals
Scrawl Collective: A network of grafitti and street artists
working on paper
Street Art Utopia: A blog documenting street art from around
Gavin, Francesca (2007) Street Renegades: New Underground Art
London: Laurence King.
Street art covered by The Guardian