Graffiti struggled for years to find acceptance as art, precisely because it came from the streets and the working classes. Emerging with with the artistic expression and social commentary in hiphop, it was far removed from the usual art gallery crowds. Unlike most modern street art it also rarely had permission to be painted and for years was seen as vandalism. There were huge efforts by the New York City Mayor of the 1980s to stamp out the ‘graffiti problem’; he stated that graffiti disrupted the visual order in a psychologically damaging and fear-inducing way.
Graffiti was subversive, and like much of hiphop and the Chicano influence coming in from Latino artists, became an expression of protest, frustration, and social commentary. Even the process of creating an original artwork was a rebellion against the efforts of the city to protect its walls from their paint.
Art critic Johannes Stahl once said “…there has always existed something outside of official art history, an unruly and recalcitrant art, which takes place not in the sheltered environs of churches, collections or galleries, but out on the street.” Graffiti created an entirely new art world, and broke out of neighbourhoods like the Bronx through the determination of the artists to be seen.
Graffiti reaches the art gallery, and the art world ventures onto the streets
Whilst the traditional art world influenced little in early graffiti, graffiti certainly influenced it. Soon the forward looking art galleries and critics were starting to embrace it through works from New York artists inspired by the work they saw on the streets. These artists often explored complex social problems affecting their society at the time; Keith Haring on the AIDS epidemic, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, who began his career as graffiti artist SAMO, considering themes of race and self identity.
More graffiti techniques and styles began to evolve within this new ecosystem. Stencils and wheat pasting were practical solutions to painting a wall illegally and quickly. Reverse graffiti (creating art on a dirty wall by cleaning lines into it, rather than painting them) hacked the law entirely by making the city cleaner.
Around the same time the mainstream art world was seeing something exciting in moving out of the art gallery or studio. Artists began looking at ways they could take their art to the streets. Sometimes this was simply as street murals in a diverse range of artistic styles, but other approaches like sculpture interventions drew from the illegality of graffiti, the tradition of sculpture, and the protest art and activism of Chicano artwork.
From mainstream acceptance to Banksy art prints; modern street art arrives
Amidst all of this creativity, the mainstream contemporary street artists started to attract money, and new perspectives and appreciation that this ‘vandalism’ was often very beautiful and improved on the environment. Cities began to fund street artists to create murals and installations, and graffiti by certain artists, such as Banksy, ZEVS, or Shepard Fairey, became increasingly valuable to collectors, finding their way into art galleries and auctions, selling for vast prices, and creating an entire industry of cheap art print rip offs.
Even as street art has gradually been through a gentrification effect, some artists continue to innovate. Invader creates graffiti art from ceramic tiles, Vihls carves images into the layers of paint, brick and masonry that make up a wall, and Shannon Spanhake plants flowers in potholes. Of course, it may be that street art is already falling away from the cutting edge, as it’s styles and influence are already absorbing and evolving into new forms as we find ourselves at a point of rapid technological change.
Digital art, blockchain art like NFTs, and advanced printing processes such as lenticular art prints are bringing us new kinds of image in unique new ways, combining fields like photography, video art and animation as they do. A very different speculative art buyer is emerging from the new money found in youthful crypto-currency wealth, which values work in different ways, and sometimes with a very short-term view on rapid trading rather than long term investment.
Art forever changes, but always leaves something behind. Whilst most art simply beautifies a space in an art gallery, street art, and the worlds of graffiti and Latino protest murals that preceeded it, have beautified our public spaces and concrete cities, and are already driving a whole new wave of artistry and debate.