Whether you call it “street art” or “graffiti” painting on the sides of buildings, billboards, subway cars—ostensibly any surface of the urban (and sometimes rural) environment—is a modern phenomenon. With the availability of spraypaint, artists/hooligans create large murals and paintings with their trademark “tags” that help beautify an otherwise dreary downtown or enforce the “broken window” theory and cause urban blight. Or both.
“I’m not trying to make an argument that graffiti is art and not vandalism,” sociology professor Gregory Snyder of Baruch College told the New York Times. “I hope I’ve made it clear that it’s both.”
Regardless of your opinions on the phenomenon, some of the work created is undeniably a new movement in contemporary art. Famed British street artist Banksy held an art show in Los Angeles during the birth of the movement, attracting art collectors, celebrities and media, retaining his secretive identity. His pieces have been literally carved out of concrete walls, and his installations have sold for millions of dollars. Shepard Fairey, known famously for his “HOPE” posters from President Obama’s campaign, originally gained notoriety with his “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stickers and symbols. His “OBEY” tags, stencils and stickers are a continuation of his message of subjugation of the status quo.
The argument against graffiti stems from a 1982 social science article written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, and essentially claims that if a broken window goes unfixed, the surrounding neighborhood will fall into disrepair. It suggests that people see the broken window, assume nobody cares about the neighborhood, it falls into decline, and becomes blighted. This argument has been directed at graffiti artists, with the justice system and legislators viewing the act as a crime that results in the degradation of cities. In the last session of the Idaho Legislature, there was a bill—which ultimately failed—seeking to make graffiti in this state a felony.
Graffiti is the focus of a blog, Vandalog.com, that is continually the ultimate source for all things new in the street art world. Whether it be a new piece by Banksy, or his continued rivalry with fellow UK artists Robbo, or the recent coverage of New York’s Underbelly Project, Vandalog is a street art-enthusiasts eyes and ears on the ground. Created by university student RJ Rushmore in 2008, when he found an interest in street art, the blog has grown with Rushmore’s interest. Rushmore and his team of four regular writers seem to reinforce the “street scene as art” theory; they’ve curated modern art exhibits, interned in London art museums and sport their own street art cred.
The Underbelly Project is a simple idea: give one graffiti artist per night access to a decaying, unused subway tunnel of New York City. The 100 year old concrete chasm, the site of a future expansion that never was, is now an “elusive pirate treasure of contemporary art”, the project claims. Intrepid journalists from Vandalog accompanied the artists, and snapped pictures of the works in-progress, from up-and-coming artists—going by one-word alter-egos—such as Surge, SE3, SheOne, and Kid Zoom. In an effort to get a glimpse of the underbelly, numerous arrests have been made by the NYPD, of both amateur artists and those looking to catch a glimpse.
An upstart artist named Bäst takes images and symbols of capitalism and consumerism—such as dollar signs, price tags, advertising slogans—and cuts them up to make a statement about the very nature of purchasing. His exhibit “Botulism” questions the over-emphasis of “cheap” in society, using dollar signs and prices to create something more beautiful. One particular poster that stands out shows Darth Vader in a dress kissing a young boy, pasted over the American flag, which seems to question views of homosexuality, mixed with a bit of pop-culture and good old-fashioned patriotism. Bäst is a popular artist with Vandalog.
Even if you enjoy the images produced by street artists, their canvases—buildings, billboards, etc—are private property, and it’s illegal to paint over them. While you may agree with their “the world is grey, let’s pretty it up” mentality, know that subverting the law, even if it’s for art’s sake, is illegal and as many street artists can attest, you’ll get caught at least once.
"I don't have this obsessive need to do street art all the time because it's already opened doors for me,” Fairey told the Los Angeles Times. “I'm now able to do things that won't be cleaned in a day, that won't get me arrested."