The often forgotten roots of the contemporary street art movement lie in Chicano art murals and the graffiti scene. Though man has always drawn onto walls in the interests of making his surroundings more attractive, the Chicano and graffiti movements added a spirit of artistry, independence, and defiance to it, often featuring social and political themes.
Chicano art was often influenced by post-Mexican Revolution ideologies and Mexican-American socio-political issues, raising awareness of collective history, culture, and opportunity. Graffiti drew on this spirit but from an urban American experience, acting as both a protest and awareness-raiser, as well as a way for underprivileged kids with little future, to make their name known across the whole of New York City.
It’s hard to say exactly where graffiti became street art, or even to draw a clear line between the two styles. Street art can be widely applied to almost anything, including very commercial mural projects with little purpose other than adding a splash of colour to a city centre. The point where art started to take notice of graffiti is easier to pin down, with the emergence of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring’s original artworks appearing in galleries.
Graffiti comes to the gallery and becomes street
Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist, but always had a slightly different feel to his work which heavily featured satirical slogans. Haring came from a more conventional route of art colleges and study, and conceived a project making white chalk drawings on empty advertising boards in the subway system; drawing on the graffiti idea of using subways to get his work seen, but taking a safer and more legal approach than spray painting actual trains.
Both gradually got noticed, and both largely moved away from the streets to making modern art pieces for art galleries and collectors that sell today for millions of dollars, but the idea was there; great art could exist literally in the street, and get noticed by people. Flyposting had boomed alongside punk rock as a cheap way to promote gigs, and collectives like AVANT took the idea to a higher level creating thousands of art posters to flypost across New York. Their work also extended to three dimensional sculptures attached to street sign poles and advertising lightboxes; AVANT made the streets a contemporay art gallery.
AVANT combined much of what had gone before, and inspired much more art in a similar vein, which became known as guerilla art; art placed in the street, without permission, often to make some socio-political commentary or other artistic statement. Guerilla art provided a necessary purist element to street art; it was art for art’s sake and to make a point, while mainstream murals were getting increasingly commercial, with numerous artists being adopted into the mainstream in the hope they would bring some of their cool with them.
Born in modernism, contemporary street art remains high profile
Street art in all it’s forms has become increasingly popular throughout it’s long life; graffiti remains at the edges, often rejected from city centres and associated unfairly with crime, except where it crosses into guerilla art, with something to say. Stencil artist Banksy is the classic example of that, with quite simple, big, political themes underlying most of his work, which is created without permission like graffiti, but widely loved.
Guerilla art remains responsible for many excellent pieces of work; such as the unknown artist who added slaves and a slave ship to a town centre monument of philanthropist and slaver Edward Colston in the UK, which had a striking impact. A few years later protestors tore the statue down and threw it into the harbour, only for the vacant plinth to become occupied overnight by a sculpture of a female Black Lives Matter protestor. This whole process could be perceived as something of a guerilla street art happening as people took control of the public space.
And commercial contemporary street art bounds from strength to strength, being widely adopted into town centre planning, and adding incredible colour, and sometimes a good message, to city centre walls.