In this first of a two-part blog, I look at the phenomenon of street art in general and its evolution from brutalist graffiti to some world class art work.—T.W.
I recently discovered street art. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have been looking at it for years but I never saw it or recognized it for what it really is. In my experience it is exciting original art worthy of the type of attention we give to other works in galleries and museums. And on occasion, it demands even greater attention through images that shock, delight, question or exalt. It’s been around only a brief period of time, from sometime in the 1970s, but I believe its power and influences are built upon the very foundations of the visual arts.
I look at these works and so many things come to mind. They seem to resonate with the energy of a glorious history including the great artists who created the cave paintings in France some 35,000 years ago; the Spanish artist and architect Gaudí with his melting ice cream houses; and the Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna (see image below). If you haven’t seen this astonishing series of buildings then you haven’t lived! They were imagined and then brought into the amazing light of reality by the artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in order to remind everyone of humanity, color, and life in the bleak, black and white times of post war Austria in the 1950’s. These buildings share the same world with Street Art and produce many of the same responses. I was introduced to this architectural wonder by a very proud Austrian taxi driver who insisted on diverting our route to Vienna airport to take in this sight. He was absolutely right too. It is quite life changing. And there was no extra charge.
Street Art has the same positive, life changing quality and, as such, it is frequently used to humanize alien cityscapes. This claim has been made to me over and over again, about its effect on cities, villages and neighborhoods all over the world. Take, for example, Ouzai in Lebanon, a small town on the coastal road outside the capital Beirut. Over the years of war and strife in that country, Ouzai had become a horribly impoverished and neglected shantytown. Someone had the idea of bringing in Street Artists to improve the look of the place originally because of a refuse and debris problem. But this became a much bigger project with the artists working on murals and façade painting throughout the town. The results are breathtaking. A serendipity of colorful “portraits,” flora, and fauna, the artwork has returned the town to a world of optimism and creativity. And the artists are still painting.
Or consider Fanzara, a tiny pueblo with just 323 people some 50 miles north of Valencia in Spain. It had been dismissed as one of Spain’s dying villages but now it’s come back to life as a cultural triumph with more than 40 murals by some of the country’s finest Street Artists. All the artists were employed with just one caveat, their work had to involve the residents in the creative act!
We are looking at an art form with huge energy and potential for positive social change. But what is it really and how can it have this power? I asked Benjamin Clavan, who for many years worked as an architect in Los Angeles, to give me his analysis. He recently came to live in the Mediterranean gem of a city, Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, drawn by its culture, history and, of course, Street Art. He has studied the work of Street Artists across the globe and taken some 2,000 photos of Valencian artists alone. His affection and understanding for Street Artists I found truly insightful.
First of all, he has been looking much closer than I. He talks about the genesis of Street Art dating back to New York City in the 1970s and 80s. The work from this time isn’t necessarily about art at all but about the dispossessed marking their territories and making a statement about their place in society. (See photo above) These outliers created brutal images of societal fragmentation and alienation often in the most violent and primitive of forms. Their graffiti found its way into movies of the time as savage backdrops to a society that had stopped caring. “The painters were seen not as artists but as part of the criminal class,” Ben Clavan said.
But, over the years, this excoriation of the form and the artists changed and morphed. As society improved so too did this form of expression reflective of a new environment. Today the work of Street Artists can be categorized just as you would styles of production at the turn of the C20 or in the Renaissance. So Ben goes through the various techniques: figurative and literal, which makes bold statements that either shock or beguile; geometric patterns that swirl before your eyes and seem to reflect the artist’s own world; and freeform and abstract works. Art can find its way into every part of a streetscape from walls to building facades and doorways, to street furniture such as bollards (see photo above) and benches. There is also a new “canvas”—roll-down store-fronts where the art (mostly painted) appears or disappears depending on the time of day, the day of the week , celebration of a fiesta, annual vacations or the state of the economy. And, not surprisingly, politics tends to find its way into all these forms somehow, even when the artist is commissioned to do something commercial for a shop or a restaurant or a neighborhood festival.
Ben talks about the variety of ways the work is created. Artists may still use the original iconic spray paint, which we all associate with this type of work. Spray cans have the advantage of being easy to carry, great for a quick getaway should the police arrive, and relative permanence. Many big murals are still done with spray paint but there are now many other media ranging from embroidery (do check out Arqui Costura run by Raquel Rodrigo for some stunning examples of her yarn cross-stitch street installations or look at video above), to decals which are made in the studio and then literally peeled off onto surfaces; stencils with cutouts for spray paint; and even the carving of three-dimensional forms from existing objects.
Street Art’s status has changed in a very short space of time from easily dismissed criminal scrawl to respectable, often admired, sometimes legal, social statements with decorative and commercial value. Indeed, some artists are being courted by corporations or design houses that want to use their images for T-shirts and clothes. But the Art’s main characteristic has not changed. It is impermanent and ethereal and it can last for a few hours or maybe a few months or until society generates a new challenge that demands a response. Street Art is a reflection not just of our world but the microcosm of that world contained in the cultural values of the street where the art is born. Picasso’s Guernica from 1933 could be seen as a great example of Street Art. It almost belongs on the street with its brutal narrative of the horrors of war. A similarly polemical but less fortunate work was Diego Rivera’s commissioned mural Man at the Crossroads, begun in 1933 for the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Attacked as “anti-capitalist propaganda,” it was torn down by its commissioner before completion. It clearly struck a dissonant chord in its intended venue, but it would have been right at home in the Street Artists’ political world.
Porto, the coastal city just north of Lisbon, also boasts some great examples of Street Art. While visiting there this summer, my wife and I saw city workers with brushes and paint apparently starting to remove some wall art. This was really sad as it was of a very high quality. To us, it felt like a work of vandalism akin to that of Rockefeller toward Rivera. When we returned later that night we found all the best Street Art still there. The city workers had been instructed to remove the “tagging,” the sometimes-unsightly graffiti that accompanies Street Art. I was really amazed at this. It meant that there was someone at City Hall making informed artistic decisions about the quality of the work and determining which works should exist. I am still not sure whether I am in favor of this as it feels like the art is being sanitized in a sort of Soviet way. But I suppose you can’t have it all ways.
Not only is Street Art gradually becoming legal, Street Artists can just about make a living now through commissions from shops, companies, and restaurants. Then, too, there are festivals, where Street Artists are increasingly the focus of the celebrations. There are even cities that have embraced Street Art to such an extent that they organize guided tours illustrating the best examples. I have never been on such a tour but given the impermanence of the work, it must be difficult to keep itineraries current. Even the police have accepted art’s place in the cityscape provided that artists have the requisite permits.
So does this new respectability soften the work’s cutting edge? Well, most artists will defend their remuneration by saying that they have to eat! And that’s an irrefutable argument. But they all admit that something is lost, a certain rogue magic, a unique escape from normal considerations, rules and obligations. But they also want their work to contribute positively to their city, to society and to neighborhood communities. So creating backdrops and surprise images on derelict or partially built buildings can spark a reaction, an instant dialogue between passersby and the artist and his subject. The work may contain a glimpse of beauty or discovery or quiet revelation. It may stimulate a smile or a chuckle. And maybe it generates just a nanosecond of reflection in a crowded life. The messages, sometimes contained in symbolism, can shout out the need for social justice or change, can speak truth to power, and make a connection with our culture and world in a way that no other art form can. None of us have planned on these interactions; we often don’t even know they are going to happen. But the art can peek at you from a door way or stop you dead in your tracks because there, suddenly before you, are 20 exquisitely decorated bollards you didn’t know existed. Or a mesmerizingly beautiful portrait (see photo above) of a woman on the exterior wall of a restaurant. (Which you can see properly only after you have asked all the diners to stop eating and move over to the left, which they willingly do because they know about the power of this work too.)
I invite you to share some of this power vicariously if you can’t experience it firsthand. A great place to start are the myriad photographs Ben Clavan has taken over recent years. Some of his favorite Valencian Street Art is linked here.
In Part 2, I interview some Street Artists from Valencia, Spain about their work, the messages they are trying to convey, their various techniques, the work’s impermanence, and their future as artists.