It’s not hard to think nostalgically on the golden years of street art, when a city’s subways, alleyways and rooftops were the canvas for the voice of the people. From the late 70’s to the 90s, graffiti was the underground art scene’s way of beautifying the stale uniformity of a city, and though not all agreed with the methods, the tags and throw-ups that decorated almost every public surface gave a personality to the streets. Years later, as grittiness was shined up with political campaigns, crime dropped and misdemeanor fines for destroying public property rose, the walls that once screamed with public messages are silent, now caked with layers of cheap paint to cover the expression of the generation.
“The term “sellout” is funny to me. If you’re in galleries and being paid to do commissions, it’s no longer an act of vandalism”
But it’s not just the laws and times that have changed, the street artists have grown up too. The underground society of artists that once ruled the streets at night has now moved uptown, into the daylight of big buyer galleries and high budget productions, prompting those with nostalgic tendencies to wonder if street art has sold out .Graffiti artists who once ran from the cops with spray cans are now commissioned to paint large murals in up and coming neighborhoods. Celebrity artists like Banksy can’t seem to tag a wall without it getting stolen and then sold for millions in an auction. Even new street artists, like Kid Zoom, have changed the face of graffiti by bringing it to the suburbs in a large scale and expensive way. But is all this money and fame really killing the spirit of the outsider’s art form, or is it finally giving street art a new, cleaner home?
Probably the most culturally well-known street artist of our time, Banksy has made vandalism mainstream. Still questionably anonymous, Banksy creates a rare vortex with his political murals, ostracizing the public while also including them on the grand joke. He opened up the members-only club of graffiti artists with his 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and shared the inner workings of the movement with the general public, those who in the ‘80s and ‘90s wanted work like his painted over. Graffiti became trendy and introduced a new problem few graffiti artists have had to face (at least while they are still painting under a pseudonym): the hijacking of his own public art.
Banksy, No Ball Games
This past summer, a Banksy mural entitled “No Ball Games” was mysteriously removed from the side of a UK shop, and put up for auction a few days later by the Sincura group, the same company which sold a different removed Banksy piece for $1 million a few months earlier. What once was considered vandalism, a crime that could get you arrested or fined thousands of dollars, is now an invitation for theft. Not long after, what looked like a Banksy piece reading “Vandals found vandalising this vandalism will be prosecuted” went up in LA, only to be revealed later to be a copy by street artist Stromberg. It may not be the original artist’s work, but it says something about how the community of street artists have been affected by the possibility of selling public works. So why would any artist leave a million dollar painting out on the street knowing someone else will make the profit? It seems that for Banksy, the fame is worth more than the sale.
In a much more public and for-profit way, Australian street artist Kid Zoom, aka Ian Strange, has embarked on a new project that skips the middle man and takes graffiti straight to the buyer’s home: the suburbs. Strange traveled through America performing “interventions” on suburban neighborhoods, challenging the concept of the American home by painting whole houses red, burning down white picket fence homes, and spray painting a burdened x on one of a million identical McMansions, forcing these homes to stand out in the gated community of conformity. Although the images and video of these affected properties are jarring, the project is only a fabrication of street art in that it is legal, planned and completely manufactured.
Ian Strange, Suburban
With society’s tendency to romanticize art movements of the past and often blindly root for the underdog, it’s hard not to accuse these once underground street artists of selling out, going for the money or fame instead of the art itself, losing the grittiness and thus the real passion behind the movement. But those who know the medium best don’t think making money off your art is a bad thing, in fact, it’s the way it should be.
“The term ‘sellout’ is funny to me.” says San Francisco street artist KLEVR, who’s painted through the changes of the scene, with big names like DREAM and MSK. “Who wouldn’t want to make a living doing what you love?”
Erin Goldberger, the director of Half Gallery, an uptown New York gallery that has exhibited some contemporary graffiti artists like Andre Saraiva, agrees that street art can exist beyond the streets:
“I remember when I went through a Basquiat phase (everyone does right?) and heard about these guys that would steal doors, windows, pipes, whatever if it had a SAMO tag on it just so they could get some cash. The transportation of that special tag to inside a gallery or a money exchange is hard to understand. There are some things that are best left outside, in the spot the artist placed it. The artist gave their piece a moment in time that should be able to stay standing just like a historic plaque or an old black crusty piece of gum on the sidewalk. There is something unique about seeing Thör tagged in a bridge in New York and a dumpster in Pittsburgh. However I think that if the artist’s work can translate somewhere else as well, in addition to their public work, then bring it on. Steve ESPO Powers having a sign shop in Brooklyn is brilliant, as is Andre Saraiva having his Mr. A on a pair of Converse sneakers. It comes down to what works and what doesn’t. Street art is now full circulation. It will get washed over and uninvited, and then creep back in and start again. Graffiti is the immortal god of the arts.”
When we see the changes in street art in the past 30 years, it’s tempting to glorify the past, assume that the art was more real when it was done in the darkness, that it had more soul when people weren’t paying for it. The illegal nature of graffiti makes it dangerous, sexy and unattainable, but take it off the streets and we lose the rush of the story. But good art can hold up against time and space, keeping its power and relevancy no matter if it’s done in a studio or a subway or painted on a wall or hanging in a gallery. “Working your way to the top is not easily done.” Says KLEVR, “If you’re in galleries and being paid to do commissions, it’s no longer an act of vandalism, it’s art.”
Banksy, despite being famous and wealthy, still relishes in the secrecy of the process and finds the importance in the gorilla expression; he keeps the inclusive attitude of the art form alive while bringing it to the masses. Kid Zoom has taken the idea of public art in a new direction, out of the cities and into the untapped, rigid realm of suburbia, changing spaces by forcing people to look closer. Street art has always been about giving a visual voice to a city, and even if the venues for these expressions have moved uptown or inside or upstate, the loudest and strongest voices will still be heard no matter where you are, even underground.
Kate Messinger is an Arts and Fashion writer from New York City