I can listen to this forever.
I can listen to this forever.
I love when you can break lyrics down into a science.
Street Art: The Progression of a Subculture
I see a lot of people, a lot of people. They walk right by me all the time. Busy on their cell phones, with their briefcases, looking at their PDAs. I want to follow them, but I can’t. I am a wall.
It’s night now. Not many people walk by me. Its dark and I can’t see well. Oh! Someone is coming my way! He looks like a pretty normal guy, but his hood is up. I wonder what he is doing at this time of the night? Hmmm… He has stopped in front of me. He is going through his backpack. This is strange. He is pulling out a big thing of paper, and spray paint! Is he going to paint on me? Make me one of those ugly graffiti walls like my cousin? Oh no oh no!
No wait, this paper thing is nice, it has a beautiful design on it of a little girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon. Oh wow, he is going to make me beautiful! He is working so quickly, but I look so nice!
Now it is morning, the sun has just risen. People are beginning to wake up and go to work. I can’t wait for people to see me! Here they come! Oh that man is sipping on coffee! He might see me despite his distraction. Yes! There it is, he saw me! He is coming over to me! He is taking out his phone and taking a picture of me! Awesome! That hooded guy is amazing!
Wow, it is the afternoon now and people are all around me! This is great! So many people taking pictures of beautiful me! I am going to be famous! All the other walls are going to be jealous of me, I am now a piece of art and everyone is taking pictures of me and loving me.
Street art is paradoxical: simultaneously the beautification of a community and vandalism of private property. It is the rejection of societal consumerism, while selling art in galleries to wealthy collectors. It led to an underground counter-culture that inspired the world of art and the industry of culture. Its relation to graffiti defines it, yet it is loved for its divergence from what so many consider mindless vandalism. Street art is a worldwide phenomenon that never wanted the fame and money, yet got it nonetheless. The art form emerges urban settings, arising from the communities and boroughs of cities and living on the walls of the metropolis. Yet due to its accessibility and wonderful aesthetics, its popularity grew beyond the city- making it a target for the culture industry and commodification. We can see that as the art form grew and the movement became better known around the world, street art- like many other countercultures- became commercialized and lost its connection to its roots. Although this paper will focus specifically on street art’s identity individually, it gives insight into the nature of countercultural movements of cities in a more general sense. The proliferation of street art into pop culture and the consumerist society tells the story of an art form and movement whose success led to its downfall, and then the adaptations it took to survive.
Street art, at its very core, is expression of creativity through unique mediums in unique locations, specifically urban locations. Yet this unique subculture often does more than just put up stencils, fly-posters, murals, sculptures and props in the streets- it presents thought-provoking ideas regarding social order, ethics, economics, current issues, and politics to the public while being aesthetically pleasing.
Street art has its roots in graffiti. Like graffiti, almost all street art is illegal. Technically considered vandalism or defacement of property in most countries, street art shares this common characteristic. Street art, as a descendant or offshoot of graffiti, uses many of the same mediums as its predecessor- the most notable of course being spray paint on any wall within an urban or suburban context. For these reasons street art and graffiti are often grouped together or confused, yet they are two truly distinct methods of expression. The street art collective based in Brooklyn known as Faile is quoted as saying:
“Street art is more about interacting with the audience on the street and the people, the masses. Graffiti isn’t so much about connecting with the masses: it’s about connecting with different crews, it’s an internal language, a secret language. Most graffiti you cant even read, so it’s really contained within the culture that understands it and does it. Street art is much more open. It’s an open society.”4
To the street artist, his/her work is about speaking to the public, the broad audience of whomever is in the vicinity to see the piece of art. This concept contrasts with the graffiti writer, who tags walls and other locations with the intent of one-upping or communicating with other graffiti writers. This distinction explains why the street art movement is more popular and phenomenal than the graffiti movement. More importantly, this distinction helps to define the street art subculture and its intentions in general. Another difference between graffiti and street art are the various manners and media utilized. Street artists use everything from stencils to posters, stickers, sculptures, literally anything to get their message across.
Each artist has his/her own style and manner of displaying creative ideas. Street art debatably has the widest range of mediums, each varying from artist to artist, of any genre of visual art. The only thing that keeps these diverse mediums coalesced and contained in one genre is their shared utilization of urban space. In order to understand the various types of street art that are possible, I shall elaborate on some of the more unique artists and their methods. One of the most infamous artists known for unique mediums is Invader. Named after the well-known arcade game Space Invaders, he creates mosaics depicting references to arcade games. He has put mosaics depicting games such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders in countless locations, most notably on the base of the Eiffel Tower. To this artist, the city is a setting for a retro videogame. Space Invader mocks the accepted order of society by portraying the city as a big videogame, and he reminds everyone of this by depicting the classic videogames that so many feel nostalgic towards. Another interesting artist is Brad Downey, who makes fake (but not maliciously intended) street signs. Some of his most notable works include a London Underground sign that tells commuters to sit and wait and a speed limit sign that has a baby. Downey simultaneously satirizes the authorities who put up street signs and draws attention to the city around us with all of his signage The artist known as ON_LY uses large multi-colored bandages to cover instances of urban decay or damage. ON_LY draws attention to the problems of the urban setting by symbolically mending the problems of the city artistically. The artistic collective Cut Up finds advertisements, cuts them, and artistically rearranges the pieces to depict images of struggle or poverty. Cut Up’s message is clear; advertisements are not all they seem. This theme of advertisement in street art is a recurring one, and will be elaborated on. Street art’s wide variety of medium not only makes it unique but interesting and alluring.
The phenomenon of street art is appealing to both the artists and the public. To the public, street art is a break from the norm. Usually artwork has to be viewed in a museum, gallery, or book. Yet street art puts intricate and meaningful pieces of art in the eyes of the everyday public, in locations like subways, alleys, walkways, literally anywhere. On top of this break in the monotony of urban life, these artistic pieces scattered throughout the city have an enthralling ambiguity and obscurity about them. Every artist and every instance of street art is different, but many similar questions arise when the public witnesses an installation of street art. Why is this here? How did the artist do this? What does this mean? Who is the artist? These are common questions posed by those who encounter street art. This thought provoking nature creates a desirability and interest associated with the art form. For the artists, there is a definite appeal to street art because it is a simple form of rebellion. The art they put up around the city they occupy is illegal, unsanctioned by any political body, and will only be visible to the public for a short amount of time (since the art is often taken down as “graffiti removal”). Street art is a non-malevolent form of rebellion against society. The act of “installing” street art is a rush mixed with fear, creativity, and pride in their work. This rush, along with their deeper intentions and meanings behind their work, perpetuate the act of street art.
Street art is not all just playful urban cleverness; there are some deeper themes and motivations behind these images depicted on the walls of the city. The motivations behind street art are not universal, yet there are many common themes between artists. One of the most common themes across street art is the “local” motif. Many street artists put up artwork in specific neighborhoods with specific meanings to the locals there. The Spanish artist Eltono said, “The technique I developed to paint in Madrid streets would not have been the same in another city.”3 Eltono gives insight into the mind of a truly dedicated street artist: he is making art specific to an area with the intended audience to be the people of that area. Essentially, Eltono says that street art is for the streets, the neighborhoods, and the cities that it is found in. Another artist, named Dan Witz, used a stencil of a figure in a hooded sweatshirt to signify a drug dealer in a neighborhood. Witz says, “ I intended the Hoody posters as warning signs, promoting awareness about a deepening problem in my own neighborhood.”5 These artists, along with many others, make neighborhood specific artwork to either beautify it in a locality specific way or for some other reason such as local awareness or outreach.
A more broad and prevalent theme in the street art world is the general discontent with capitalism and consumerism, giving the art form a reputation of being a counter-cultural movement. (See Figure 1) These political statements are evidenced by certain patterns that arise constantly in the street art world and the artwork itself. One very commonly referenced item is the television, a symbol of society’s brainwashed consumerism. The television appears in the artwork of multiple artists, all with similar intents regarding the social/political meaning. Another commonly seen item in the artwork of these artists is the gasmask. Representing the toxicity of the environment we live in, the gas mask makes a bold statement about society in general. Not only does this toxicity extend to physical decay, but to moral and ethical decay as well. This statement extends to entities throughout society: from schools to families, from churches to corporations. A common way the gas mask is incorporated is by the depiction of an innocent person or child wearing one. This seemingly out of context use of the gas mask allows for the viewer to draw many conclusions about the artist’s intentions, and the artist’s view on society in general. One of the additional representations of street art’s resentment for capitalism/consumerism is the tasteful vandalism and parody of advertisement. The artist Eine is quoted as saying, “It’s interesting the way advertisers use street art and street artists destroy advertising.”4 Street artists have two reasons that advertisement can be of special interest to them. The first of these reasons is to effectively ruin the ads that fuel consumerism. By exposing the scheming tactics of advertisements, by distorting the message delivered, or by simply bringing attention to the fact that life is saturated by advertisement, street artists make their message clear: consumerism is not something they approve of. The other reason street artists have interest in advertisements is to satirize them. Street artists often make advertisements for themselves as if they were a brand or a logo, satirically selling themselves as a product to the general consumerist public. This not only makes clear their feelings toward advertisements, it detracts from the ads’ effectiveness and success. Through a variety of symbols and tactics, along with repetition, street artists let the public know their feelings toward issues in society and at the very least get the viewer to ponder the ideas brought forth.
Where is the guy who painted me? Who is he? Why is he not here? I am famous now, I am pretty and everyone is coming to see me! But he is not here. He could be here, and everyone would love him, like they love me! But he isn’t here…
What is painted on me? Why did he choose that shape, that little girl with the balloon? Are there other walls out there like this, walls that were painted by this man, and made into art? Why would that man do that? Do I mean something?
Regardless of who he is, what I mean, and all that ambiguity- I am pretty! And everyone loves me!
Like any art form, there are levels of normatively defined quality associated with art pieces and artists, “good” art and “bad” art. There have been many talented, creative, and expressive street artists in the past, and there are many currently plastering the walls of urban spaces with their visions. In a modern context, two artists seem to be on a separate elite echelon: Shepard Fairey and Banksy. These two artists inspire other artists and the public around the world, and millions have seen their artwork worldwide. In order to understand street art as a movement, one must first understand some of the artists, and what better artists to choose than the most iconic? These are their stories.
Shepard Fairey’s art is iconic and widespread. His most famous image is that of Barack Obama, at the time Senator and United States Presidential Candidate representing the Democratic Party. The image is in red, off-white, and blue, depicting Obama with the large subscript of “HOPE” and resembling the impression of a complicated multi-layered stencil. (See Figure 2) One might say that this doesn’t necessarily sound like the work of a member of the street art community, yet Fairey’s origins are much more humble and interesting.
1989: an art student in Rhode Island named Shepard Fairey has an idea. Inspired by the skateboarding scene and punk rock music, two notable subcultures, Shepard decided he wanted to start a little joke and utilize his artistic talents. Using an image of the iconic and humongous wrestler known as Andre the Giant, he made stickers that said “Andre the Giant Has a Posse”, intended to poke fun at the many skateboarding gangs popular at the time by creating a fictitious gang led by a gigantic wrestler. This is the first truly notable act of a street artist whose art would one day be seen all around the world.
People began to see these Andre stickers anywhere Shepard travelled, but most prominently his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. As this fictitious gang found more and more popularity, Fairey had an idea. He stuck the soon to be iconic command “OBEY” under a picture of Andre the Giant. This stuck instantly. Shepard Fairey had created a mysterious and alluring image that would soon be engrained into the minds of anyone who saw it. His work gained its power through the street; Fairey intended his art to be seen by the public and was intended for the walls of the city. He continued to make artwork with this theme of Obey, portraying a concept similar to that of George Orwell’s iconic novel 1984 (Fairey would eventually create a cover for the book). The Obey posters were put up all around the United States and even sent to confederates of Fairey so that they could be put up simultaneously all around the world. The art student was now creating a fictitious coalition all around the world, and everyone was wondering exactly what it meant: “A lot of really paranoid people hated my images; people fear what they don’t understand.”4 Despite this ambiguity, Fairey had people thinking about his work. Fairey, speaking about the Obey Campaign, said, “It gained real power from perceived power.”2
Shepard Fairey had hit it big. His idea, starting as a joke, had spread around the world and everyone that saw it was talking about it. Yet at the core of this joke was a theme, and a common theme in the street art world. As Fairey explains:
“The project had a connotation of sinister indoctrination, whereas advertising usually has the connotation of, ‘If you don’t buy this product you’re less of a good American’, which to me is more sinister than the artworks I use.”4
The Obey campaign had hit one of the most significant and dogmatic concepts in street art: distaste for the consumerist way of life. This view was incorporated into and ended up driving the Obey Campaign. One might ask: if Shepard Fairey was inspired by the same concept as many other street artists, then what makes his work original, unique, or elite? Two things separated the Obey Campaign from the other street artists- how widespread the artwork was and the manner in which the message was delivered. Firstly, Shepard Fairey went to great lengths to personally proliferate the streets of urban settings with his artwork. He often thought of it as more fun than a work project, explaining how he was able to keep up such momentum over a long time. His desire to put his art throughout urban settings, and subsequently his message, was unmatched: and is a great example of the passion for the street held by these artists. Additionally, Fairey utilized his friends, family, overseas confederates, other artists, and even his spouse Amanda Fairey to get as many posters, stickers, stencils, and images of Obey onto the streets and into the eyes of the public. Besides being widespread, Fairey’s art is unique in its approach to conveying the common theme of street art. The Obey Campaign demonstrates the flaws of the consumerist system by depicting very authoritarian and commanding images. This unsubstantiated command of “OBEY” quickly reveals the ridicule behind manner in which we live our lives. Corporations tell us to obey by means of advertisements, and Fairey tells us to conform simply by showing graphic authoritarian figures and telling us to “OBEY”. This unique parody of commercialism and consumerism helped lead Shepard Fairey and the Obey Campaign to street art celebrity status.
Fairey is one of the most celebrated street artists, known around the world for his contributions to the art form. Without a doubt, the most well known street artist is the British artist known as Banksy. His name is almost synonymous with the street art movement and culture. His work has been seen around the world, and his stunts have gained infamy due to their clever and insightful nature. He is praised as one of the most outspoken, original, and influential artists of this generation, much less of the street art world.
It all started for Banksy in Bristol, United Kingdom. A struggling graffiti artist, he turned to stencils, a better medium for him to express what he wanted. Not much else is known about his beginnings besides the fact that he began painting about whatever he wanted; addressing the issues he thought needed recognition. Banksy’s art is often darkly humorous, giving a clever yet saddening perspective on the society and world we live in, a viewpoint acquired by his exposure to the urban landscape. One of his most common themes is to depict a rat doing something in the city. This symbolism has both meaning and humor; Banksy is speaking to the state of the city and its inhabitants by depicting rats, yet doing so in a way that one can appreciate and even smile at. As his artwork became more recognizable and appreciated, his ideas became bolder and bolder, and his performance became more precise. Shepard Fairey is quoted as saying: “Banksy is the best. He’s got the best concepts and execution of anybody.”4 One of his most infamous pieces shows a rioter with a bandana over his face and his arm back to throw a brightly colored bouquet of flowers (See Figure 3). This piece showcases Banksy’s ability to surprise the viewer, but also shows that his art is often controversial and political in nature. The rioter throwing flowers suggests that the rioter truly wants what is right, something the authorities would disagree with. Bansky’s work is powerful, and speaks out about the state of society. Banksy says, “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses that make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff.”1 Banksy’s goals are clear, and the thematic purposes behind his work are paradigmatic of the street art world. He conveys his message so cleanly and in such an iconic manner that it has to be recognized as art genius. His ideas are clever, his intentions clear, and his status as a rebellious leader firm.
Banksy’s art is a major aspect of his incredible media presence. Banksy pulls high profile stunts that gain international attention all the time, yet his identity remains mostly unknown. Although recently, after years of anonymity, his mascaraed is beginning to unravel, much is left uncertain. All interviews he commits to are done in a manner to hide his identity; even his movie did not reveal his face or his true voice. Recently, pictures have appeared online that claim to show his face, yet much of this is speculation, and he has not fully revealed himself to the media yet. Nonetheless, the media loves him due to his very public and very controversial artistic stunts. These stunts include attaching a blow up child to a large McDonald’s balloon and having it sail away, putting artwork on the Israel-Palestine Segregation Wall, placing fake artwork on the walls of the Tate London, creating and distributing fake British pounds that had Princess Diana’s face, and inserting a blow up doll resembling a Guantanamo Bay prison inmate at a photo location in Disneyland park. Such stunts gained international press attention, giving street art as a movement a figurehead with seemingly limitless talent, creativity, nerve, and counter-cultural opinions.
Banksy’s work gave street art a face, albeit an unknown face, that others could aspire to and the world could enjoy. His opinions, which closely mirror those of much of the street art world, are literally broadcast around the world. His relentless artistic passion, clever application of common mediums, and deeply rooted counter-cultural opinions have permeated or at least been recognized around the world, making him one of the best or at least most recognizable artists of the generation.
It is night again. I am feeling great! I had such a great day! Oh wow, more people coming to see me. Oh no, what are they doing? Why do they have picks and hammers? No! Why? Oh no they are hurting me! They are taking my beauty from me!
No no no! I am a piece of art, but I am also a wall! I belong here! This is where I belong! That nice man painted me and left me here! I am supposed to be here! What are all the people going to look at on their way to work? What are they going to take pictures of? What are they going to admire? I belong on this wall, in this city, right here!
What are they going to do to me? Why are they chipping me away? Where are they taking me? Why?
Vendors selling tee-shirts with a large stencil design of Blek Le Rat, celebrities buying Banksy originals for thousands of dollars, the names of street artists on the lips of every teenager trying to keep up with the newest trend. Such are examples of the effects of the commercialization of street art. Men in suits and ties and women in pants-suits came to the realization that street art was interesting, alluring, original, cool, and –most importantly- profitable. Corporations, studios, and retailers made a product out of a movement that has a mantra of non-conformity and is fundamentally opposed to consumerism.
Street art is not the first countercultural movement to be the subject of such commodification. One of the most infamous movements of the late 20th century was Punk Rock. Punk was notorious; its mantra was simply one of nonconformity in any sense. Punk was a subculture that grew out of anger towards society and the social norms that were established. For this reason, it was the subject of a lot of attention within the media and mainstream culture. Punk, led by groups such as The Sex Pistols, became more than just an art form or type of music- it became a way of life, a unique subculture. Unfortunately for the integrity of Punk as a culture, this counter-cultural lifestyle and mindset ironically became pop culture. Advertisers flocked to punk rock artists, retailers began to sell studded items of clothing, radio stations played anarchist tunes to the masses. This influx of money and success almost inevitably led to the commodification and commercialization of the punk rock movement and lifestyle. Suddenly the grungy, anarchist punk rockers were millionaires- and much of the authenticity behind the subculture was lost. The radical views were censored, and the unique scene became mainstream and popular. Eventually, the punk “trend” passed, and the counter-cultural movement was written into the history books.
The similarities between the punk movement and the street art scene are strikingly similar. Both have a fundamental disliking for the established order of society; both have strong political undertones; both stem from the middle or lower class. Street art has the same mysterious and alluring appeal that advertisers saw in punk. In a sense, the commodification of street art by the culture industry is inevitable; the movement of street art is too interesting and potentially profitable to corporations to not be marketed.
Despite the efforts of capitalism and corporations to reap the benefits from street art, the rebellious attitude and idealism stays strong in the most dedicated artists. One of the best examples of this rebellious attitude is embodied in Banksy, especially his piece titled “Morons.” Banksy depicts a typical art auction: an auctioneer at a podium pointing to an enthusiastic auction-goer, with multiple other pieces behind and around him. A large amount of money is on the ticker on the podium beneath the auctioneer. Yet Banksy’s message is plain and simple, scribbled in all capitals on the canvas of the painting being sold: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”(Figure 4) Banksy, stubborn and unflinching in his dedication to his passion, essentially insults the entire art industry by claiming that those who buy his or any other street artists’ work is a “Moron”. He has the opportunity to make thousands of dollars in galleries, endorsements, products, and countless other mediums- yet he stands strong and defiant to those temptations. Not only does he resist these pressures, he mocks and satirizes them in a very street-art-esque way that any street art fan can snicker at. Banksy figuratively flips off the art world by becoming a major player in it, and then rejecting and mocking it. Ironically enough, this painting sold at an auction for the astonishing price of 5,250 English pounds7. Even this monetary success is rejected by Banksy- a large portion of his profits end up being donated to charity. It seems that no matter what Banksy does, he finds success, mocks it, and makes his success an additional joke or statement, all while avoiding and preventing his work and passion from becoming commercialized and profited from.
Banksy rejected the process of commodification of street art in his Academy Award nominated documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” The movie, narrated partly by Banksy with voice modification, follows a French man living in Los Angeles whose filming endeavors lead him to the world of street art. As time progresses, this man, Thierry Guetta, becomes more deeply involved in the movement. Thierry gets exposed to Invader, Shepard Fairey, and even Banksy. The man becomes so enthralled that he becomes an artist himself, and ends up throwing one of the biggest single-artist shows to ever be shown in Los Angeles. His art is a terrible conglomerate of pop and street art with no passion and no meaning. The movie ends with Banksy commenting about how some people simply shouldn’t be artists. Although there are many takes on the somewhat ambiguously purposed film, most of those who admire and understand Banksy have settled upon a single theme. The conclusion arrived at is that the whole movie is an elaborate Banksy hoax and statement. One might ask: how is this possible? The answer to this question is simple: Banksy instructed Guetta to became a fake, over-the-top, sell-out street artist in Los Angeles as one of his biggest and most elaborate pranks of all time. Thierry Guetta, under the instruction of Banksy, made a fake persona, fake art, and threw a fake art show that was praised by many who wanted to seem “cool”, “cutting-edge”, or “mainstream.” The statement behind this act is one that resonates throughout the entire street-art world: that selling out, giving in to the pressures of capitalism, and making art for money goes directly against what street art fundamentally stands for. Through the use of Thierry Guetta and his documentary, Banksy shows his peers, his fans, the world, and himself that he will not be a sell-out, and that in no way will he change who he is or what he stands for under any circumstances.
The commercialization of street art is partially inevitable. Street art is cool, inspirational, and creative. Its integration to mainstream culture has partially taken place. What artists like Banksy have attempted to do is mitigate the effects of this integration by preserving the attitude that is so vital to the subculture. By mocking the process of commodification and rejecting much of the money, Banksy has attempted to maintain his artistic integrity and therefore the culture’s as a whole.
Despite the efforts of artists such as Banksy, commercialization of street art as well as the encroachment of pop culture will continue to take place. In some ways, this process has helped the street art world gain more notoriety. As more and more money is spent on street art associated products, more people learn of it and are exposed to the art form. The media will cover stories about the purchase of an original by a celebrity. Consumers will proliferate street art imagery and messages throughout city with their newly bought street art associated products. This is similar to the way that street artists use advertisements as a way of spreading their message, it simply grabs the attention of those they want to see it. In this way, the commodification actually helps the street art movement. Unfortunately for street art, this commodification is not all positive. The influx of money to the artists distracts them from their previous goals, making them focus on how to be more popular or valuable instead of actually attempting to spread their goals. Their anti-consumerist mantra and mission are delayed (or even ironized) and are replaced by intentions of making more money. Now the connection to the community is gone. They are not painting for people- they are painting for money. Suddenly the art form that is illegal is being condoned, and paid for. And then the street art is lost. When the art is on the street, unsanctioned and unwarranted, then it is street art. But when it is being asked for and demanded by paying crowds, it is no longer by definition street art. When the money is incentivizing the commodification, the art form becomes a product, and then completely loses its roots.
I am in a gallery, but I am no longer a wall, I am a commodity for people to collect. No longer am I part of the city, just a piece of mortar and brick covered by plaster, with a little paint.
I am a price. I am a value. I am a collector’s item. I am a lucrative product for an industry.
Nobody sees me anymore. No passerby strolling by on his phone sees me, and smiles anymore. No woman sipping on her hot coffee stops to ponder about me. No fan photos are taken on cell phones anymore. Nobody gossips about me, asking what I mean or whom I am by.
I miss the city, and the city misses me.
Street art, recognizing that commodification was inevitable, has chosen to adapt in order to mitigate the damage done to the subcultural identity. Street art, from its inception, has been about changing the social wrongs in society as perceived by the artists. Thiese social wrongs referred to anything from the advertisements of corrupt corporations, to the presence of a drug dealer in a neighborhood, to the unjust treatment of prisoners, to the urban decay we see all around our cities. The movement of street art, knowing it could not resist the onslaught of commodification, instead has adapted in order to really inspire social change in a way that is consistent with the art form’s original intent. The two artists profiled in this paper (Shepard Fairey and Banksy) have spearheaded this sort of adaptation in two similar yet unique ways.
Shepard Fairey keeps the street art spirit alive by directly soliciting as well as supporting social change via his artwork and his clothing brand. A graphic artist by trade, Fairey uses his large following and influential artwork to support multiple foundations, initiatives, and programs which endorse the sort of societal changes consistent with the views held by street art as a movement. Fairey has directly and publicly supported causes with aims of stopping hunger in America, encouraging the adoption of pets, donating shoes to African children, assisting disaster areas such as Haiti after the earthquake, immigration reform, green energy, biking initiatives, and many others. His most famous piece ever is an example of support of social change; his Obama piece reflected his support of the Obama campaign. Campaigning for politics does not sound very consistent with street art, yet as a leader in the movement and an artist embracing social change, Fairey felt the presidential candidates goals were sound enough to support. Fairey has undoubtedly reached celebrity status due to his countless pieces, yet his motives and actions still reflect that of a street artist mentality. Fairey is simply a successful street artist, one that has been able to gain the popularity of millions and directs his followers to causes that he deems worthy. Shepard Fairey uses his Obey Campaign just as he did when he was still on the street, yet now he has definitive goals and instantiations of his visions instead of simple paintings depicting lofty notions of society.
Banksy has taken a similar role in preserving the street art movement, yet much more indirectly. Banksy utilizes the pop culture aspect of commodification to draw attention to social problems that he feels are most important. Banksy indirectly solicits societal change by just doing a piece. Banksy has kept doing what he has been doing for years- yet due to all the inevitable coverage that the media and pop culture will give anything he does, street art by Banksy is no longer soliciting a local message, but a global one. Banksy, with his fame and popularity, can give his street art minded opinion about any world topic because the whole world is watching him. He lobbies for the social change he wants to see in the world not by directly changing it directly, but by showing the world the problem and open-endedly encouraging change. Banksy is a puppeteer, controlling the puppet that is pop culture, spinning the cameras to whichever world topic he feels is worthy of his attention. Banksy showcases the problems he sees in the world to the world. The best example of this is when he put up multiple pieces of street art on the Israel-Palestine Segregation Wall. By depicting images of tearing down the wall or bursting through it, Banksy told the world how he felt about the wall. Suddenly, the world media was discussing his act, but also the repercussions of the wall. Banksy is an indirect activist, and despite his ability now to make money and be famous off his work, he remains anonymous and leads his followers in directions of positive change.
Both artists employ different techniques in attempts to save their art form from complete loss of meaning. Which one is better? It is hard to tell. Fairey directly changes the world in accordance with the views of street art. Banksy indirectly calls for change by utilization of the media following his work. Both seem consistent with street art’s mantra, yet simultaneously seem to contradict it. Both artists are praised as visionaries by some, and condemned as sell-outs by others. The truth may be a mix of the two. More important than the individual artist integrity is the integrity of the art form as a whole. And somehow, despite the past examples of subcultures lost to commodification (Punk), street art seems to be mostly intact. The desire to draw attention to change using the street as a canvas seems to have remained constant, despite the influx of potential money into the movement.
Countercultural sects of society seem to be inevitable and influential parts of urban settings yet are often lost in the act of commodification. Street art, an opinionated and controversial artistic movement led by charismatic and clever groundbreaking artists, has defied this trend. Street art has shown that urban subcultures are not dead, and can survive intact after commodification. Street art has contributed to pop culture, remained true to itself as best as possible, while contributing to the betterment of society.
I am no longer on the street, but I am known. Pictures of me are everywhere. I am in a gallery now, but my message is worldwide.
That man changed me from a wall, to art for people that walked by me when he drew on me. Then I went from being art on the street to art in a gallery. Yet my transformation was not over.
I am now art for the world, with a message to everyone. I am the progression of a subculture, but also the change people want to see in the world. Now I am more than art, I am a step in the right direction.
1Banksy, Robin. Bansky: Wall and Piece. London: The Random House Group Limited, 2005. Print.
2Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. * Banksy. Perf. Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Shepard Fairey, Space Inavder. Revolver Entertainment, 2010. DVD.
3Gavin, Francesca. Street Renegades: New Underground Art. London: Laurence King, 2007. Print.
4Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution. New York, NY: Abrams, 2008. Print.
5Manco, Tristan. Stencil Graffiti. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print.
6Peiter, Sebastian, and Goetz Werner. Guerilla Art. London: Laurence King Pub, 2009. Print.
7"Banksy’s Morons Sells at Auction." Now Public. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2012. <www.nowpublic.com/culture/banksys-morons-sells-auction >.
8Clark, Dylan. 2003. “The Death and Life of Punk, The Last Subculture,” pp. 223-36, in David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl (eds.), The Post-Subcultures Reader. Oxford: Berg.
Figure 1: Brad Downey’s opinion of Corporations
Figure 2: Shepard Fairey’s Obama
Figure 3: Banksy’s Protester
Figure 4: Banksy’s Morons