Cobbled streets, white wooden houses, a cathedral of modest proportions dating back to 1150, impressive views across the water and a colossal bridge that links the islands together. It’s Stavanger in a nutshell. A pleasant and quiet coastal town with some 132,000 inhabitants which in former times used to live off fishery and the canning industry, but is today known as the oil capital of Norway. The Norwegian economy prospered for decades, until in 2014, due to a sharp price drop of crude oil, jobs in the province in Rogaland dried up and many expats were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Regardless of the ups and downs of the petroleum industry, Stavanger has managed to put itself on the map for yet another, totally different reason. Those who have an eye for it will soon notice that there may be an artistic surprise around every street corner: from giant murals to interventions on a small scale, such as the garbage collectors of Brussels native Jaune, who are seen scattered across the city centre having a chat, drinking beer or taking part in sporting activities. You would rather expect it in a metropolitan area, but by being the host of ‘Nuart’ since 2000, Stavanger can boast what is probably the most prominent annual street art festival in the world.
That’s owing to the many artists from all corners of the globe who have left their traces in the city (even the air traffic control tower at the nearby airport has gotten a paint job), but above all, to the multiday symposium (Nuart Plus) that is a key part of the event. Unlike the vast majority of the hundreds of street art festivals that are today organised throughout the world, Nuart is not limited to decorating walls. It distinguishes itself with lectures, discussions, interviews, film screenings, workshops, an educational programme and the publication of a (partly scientific) journal which, like the festival itself, centres around a specific theme. In this way, the social role of a steadily growing global movement is repeatedly defined both in theory and in practice, and as a result, street art taken as a whole is raised to a higher level. Since 2017, Nuart is annually held also in the Scottish twin city of Aberdeen on the other side of the North Sea.
It’s not easy to describe street art. For ease of reading, I frequently call it a ‘movement’, although there is something to be said against that. In essence, street art is a catch-all term that’s just as appealing as it is meaningless. It emerges in such diverse forms and the messages expressed in its name are so disparate, that chaos rather than order prevails. Moreover, a number of inconsistencies that characterise the movement in no way contribute to a clear notion of the phenomenon. No wonder that people have very different (both positive and negative, correct and incorrect) thoughts about it.
Let’s first take a look at the properties that indicate that there is in fact some coherence in street art, and that it didn’t come into existence out of thin air around the year 1998. Common ground with the disruptive nature of Dada, the visual language of pop art and the nonconformism of the punk subculture isn’t hard to discern. However, the art-historical family tree shows that it is, more than anything, a branch of ‘artivism’, a movement that came up in the ‘90s whereby artistic expression goes hand in hand with social protest and political activism. With regard to society and the city, artivists and street artists have been inspired by, among others, two French thinkers.
In his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967), de facto leader of the Situationist International Guy Debord argues that the mass media, advertising and the ensuing consumerism create an artificial reality behind which real everyday life is hidden. Through the widespread dissemination of images, life is represented as an accumulation of spectacles. To his discontent, not human interaction (which street art aims to encourage), but such (commercial) images, according to him, determine the social relationship between people.
Ten years earlier, on the basis of what he called psychogeography and the ‘Naked City’ (the map of Paris cut in 19 pieces and reassembled at random), Debord explored inventive methods trying to lure pedestrians into walking unusual routes (‘dérive’), hoping this would heighten their curiosity and awareness in relation to the urban environment and the possibilities it has to offer. People should take ‘‘spontaneous turns of direction moving through the surroundings in disregard of the useful connections that ordinarily govern their conduct’’, wrote Debord.
In the year of revolution, 1968, Henri Lefebvre in turn wrote the book The Right to the City, in which he defends the right to configure urban space to the needs of society, rather than to the principles of capitalism, whose continued existence partly depends on ever-increasing urbanisation (public space is increasingly privately owned). Making art on the streets on one’s own initiative is a way to appropriate the city and to contribute a tiny little bit to shaping it as one sees fit. Sometimes we are reminded of this right almost literally by means of a slogan.
Following on from Lefebvre, professor of geography David Harvey in 2008 wrote that ‘‘the right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city’’. This is very much the view of street artists too. That’s why they try to challenge the habitual use of public space and the norms and conventions that apply in it. Exactly the kind of thing that the Situationists had in mind when, in 1958, they asserted that ‘play’ should take on an important role in society. They regarded play as well as artistic practice as means to reconquer urban space. It’s play whereby the element of competition must disappear and whereby the only success that can be conceived is the immediate success of its ambiance, and the constant augmentation of its powers. So there is something at stake after all. As Dutch historian Johan Huizinga is quoted in the first edition of the Internationale situationniste, ‘‘[...] the consciousness of play being ‘only a pretend’ does not in any way prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness’’.
Although Guy Debord and co failed to go beyond abstract terms and specify what the concept of play was to look like in everyday life, it would probably at least translate into playing on the streets the way everyone knows it. Trivial as it may sound, it’s an activity that photographer Martha Cooper was enthralled by. In the ‘70s and ‘80s she acquired fame by capturing the emergence of graffiti and hip hop in New York and by publishing, together with Henry Chalfant, what was to become a highly influential book of photographs called Subway Art. In that period, she had actually started out by pointing her camera to something else: the imaginative world of kids’ play. Cooper was frequently on the lookout for kids in run-down neighbourhoods who played games in and around abandoned buildings and had fun with basically anything they happened to find outdoors. ‘‘What interested me most was that they didn’t need complicated playgrounds or expensive toys to enjoy themselves’’, she explains in a PBS clip from 1984. “They could do all kinds of creative things with minimal materials.” Flick through her 2005 book Street Play, and you will come to realise that a direct line can be drawn between the things that children do on the streets and the way in which street artists deal with public space.
Whereas most people will associate public space with squares, greenery, all sorts of signage, street furniture, a statue here and there, but also particularly a whole heap of advertising, street artists, for their part, consider the city as a canvas which provides many opportunities that can never be offered by a museum. They are first and foremost united in the belief that the streets belong to citizens, not to commercial parties that impose their flashy images on all and sundry. Who has the power to show images and convey messages in the streets? Why would advertising in public space be allowed, but not DIY art?
In this respect, Naomi Klein’s No Logo strikes a chord not just with the anti-globalisation movement but also with artists of all sorts. In her best-seller, Klein targets the power of multinational companies and their corporate branding, and examines protest movements and guerrilla tactics that try to challenge this. One of these tactics is ‘culture jamming’, which was devised by the American band Negativland in 1984 and was at a later stage elaborated further by cultural critic Mark Dery and activist Kalle Lasn. It concerns forms of resistance to the dominant culture. For instance hijacking billboards and making parodies of ads so as to convey the precise opposite meaning of the one intended by the corporation. ‘‘In one simple deft move you slap the giant on its back. We use the momentum of the enemy’’, Lasn once wrote. Like few others, Ron English, ‘Adbusters’ OX and Vermibus and ‘Subvertiser’ Dr. D have mastered this modus operandi.
Street art may be recalcitrant, it nevertheless opens itself up to the city and its inhabitants, who are considered an ‘inclusive’ public. Potentially, it is art of and for everyone. When street art emerged, it was revolutionary in the sense that it concerns art that is not intended to end up in a white cube – typically a place where an admission fee is charged, where you have to keep your distance to the works exhibited, where attendants keep an eye on you and where taking pictures may not be allowed. Instead, it is art meant for anyone to enjoy without restriction. Anyone who’s on their way to an appointment, the office, the supermarket, or is roaming the streets aimlessly. In fact, it’s art which is also, either implicitly or explicitly, a call to action. Viewers are empowered to engage: they can modify, add or remove at will.
Just as groundbreaking was the fact that street art overcomes the barriers put in place by the art world. It simply evades discussions about what is art in the first place, about which works deserve to be displayed and what has historic value. According to Nuart director Martyn Reed, it’s street art’s call to reclaim and broaden the terms ‘Art’ and ‘Artist’. Furthermore, it should challenge “the notion that only a select few people with special talents and understanding can participate in its production and only the moneyed and cultural elite should own and define it”.
Contrary to street art, the graffiti scene is fairly ‘exclusive’ in nature: it seems to be rather turned in on itself. Street art does, however, derive directly from graffiti art, which is a few decades older. At least as far as the clandestine use of the spray can and the city as an artistic resource is concerned. In some instances, the hazards of the job are inherited also: venturing out at night, potentially at dangerous spots and security personnel or the police that can be hot on your heels.
So, what do attentive passers-by see on walls, lampposts, traffic lights, downspouts and electrical cabinets? Commonly found are ‘pieces’ made with a spray can, either with or without the use of stencils (with which templates can be reproduced infinitely), paste ups, stickers, decorated tiles, pixel art, sculptures such as little 3D figures, knitted fabric, hacked street signs and other installations, either large or small and consisting of different materials, including even trash. Portuguese artist Bordalo II makes tremendously realistic ‘trash animals’ of bumpers, plastic pipes, rubber mats, pieces of metal and basically everything else available in the scrap yard that can be of use shaping a bear, fox or whale against the background of a chemical-like colour. The environmentally conscious Bordalo II gives a new lease of life to stuff that has been written off, ‘‘not to turn the trash into something beautiful, but to create images of the victims [the animals] with what kills them.’’
Before the art is intuitively and almost exclusively illegally installed in haphazard places (which, to be precise, doesn’t apply to the animals described above), usually the necessary preparations are first made at home, or at least some place inside. A work of art can be cleverly embedded in the urban fabric, but may just as well entirely ignore artificial demarcations. When stumbling upon a street art or graffiti hotspot, don’t expect a clear presentation as said forms of art are all jumbled together. Then there’s the unique transient character: something spotted today may look different tomorrow, or in fact no longer be there at all. Painted over by someone else, blown away by the wind, washed away by rainfall, faded by sunlight or removed by upset homeowners or the city cleansing department.
As long as that’s not the case, there’s a lot of communication going on. Apart from ‘isolated’ works that can’t really be classified in terms of what is expressed, most of the time it concerns political messages, social criticism, allusions to art history and cultural references (from literature to films, from pop stars to cartoon characters), while street art about (making) street art is yet another often recurring theme. By way of words and images, the artist enters into dialogue with the observer, who may be stimulated to reflect critically, or simply be amused, surprised, shocked or puzzled by what they see. A lot of street art is quaint to say the least, if not downright nonsense. The train of thought of the ‘transmitter’ (anonymous or not) often proves difficult to fathom.
That though, is of no concern to genre enthusiasts. Street art tours in large cities are in great demand and Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr bulge with pictures of art that was encountered by chance or specifically scavenged for on the streets. It is indeed owing in large part to the internet that the expansion of the movement has been so dramatic, and that artists can rest assured of continuous global outreach. However, it’s questionable whether street art which is shared (and frivolously liked) en masse on social media, today still contributes to the grassroots power-to-the-people mentality that was so typical at the outset. In this regard, researcher Ulrich Blanché has noted that ‘‘street art can now fulfill its democratic promise often only digitally, via photographs’’.
As soon as something that has potential draws a crowd of millions, the inevitable happens: it then (partly) falls prey to commercial interests. Whereas most artists vow to remain underground, there’s a growing number of them that cannot resist the temptation to serve the marketing purposes of large companies. It should be noted, however, that there is a substantial difference between selling and selling out and views on this can strongly vary from artist to artist and from country to country.
Meanwhile, art dealers, galleries and museums have embraced the movement to the extent that street art is sold for hundreds of millions of euros each year and is thus being institutionalised more and more. The moment that street art will be offered for sale at TEFAF seems near. Increasingly, we’re dealing with mainstream art that is produced, exhibited and sold inside. It barely needs mentioning, however, that a framed picture is unmistakably something different than an image on an unpolished wall in an alleyway or in a parking lot. What was once rebellious, has by and large been assimilated by society and the art system.
When it comes to commercialisation, an obvious example is Shepard Fairey. Even though ‘‘Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989” is stated prominently on the homepage of his website, he does not recoil from linking his name to that of well-known brands. In the two decades prior to 2008, when the LA-based artist designed the iconic Barack Obama ‘Hope’ election poster (possibly the most famous work of art of the 21st century), he had already secured global acclaim with the slogan ‘Andre the Giant Has a Posse’ and ‘OBEY’ through the unsanctioned distribution of stickers and paste ups. The clothing brand that goes by the name of that Orwellian imperative and which was founded by Fairey in 2001, quickly grew into a multimillion-dollar business. Productive as he is though, he deserves credit for the fact that he spends most of his income on the realisation of new projects. What’s more, besides his commissioned work, Fairey is still active on the streets clandestinely, with all the arrests and lengthy court cases this involves.
The typical anti-establishment attitude is susceptible to erosion in yet another way. Some seven years after street art had seen the light of day, a comeback was made by another type of art outdoors – one that is legal, likely takes days to create and for which the use of a cherry picker is indispensable. In the tradition of Diego Rivera and, for example, the painted houses in Belfast, ‘murals’ rapidly gained popularity. As a result of this development, around a decade ago, many people, as well as municipal councils, started to mistakenly think that street art is synonymous only with (large) wall paintings.
Graffiti artist, researcher and lecturer from Madrid, Javier Abarca, contrasts in various ways 21st-century muralism with the small-scale art forms described above. ‘‘Today’s huge institutional murals have very little to do with the ephemeral, contextualised, human-scale pieces scattered across the landscape we used to call street art some years ago. These are two very different practices with diametrically opposite roles regarding power in public space.’’
However ingenious and stunningly beautiful many murals may be, almost all of them are made on commission (usually within the context of a festival) by artists who more often than not have no relation to the city in question. Like advertising, murals, Abarca argues, are an instrument for exerting control over the environment. Rather than blending in with the surroundings, they come to dominate it. ‘‘They validate the status quo by arranging themselves obediently where architecture and property dictate. Instead of questioning the logic of money, they reaffirm it, and do so in a very visible way.’’ Static and vast as they are, and situated in predictable spaces, according to Abarca, murals demand admiration from passers-by, but do no more than that because they’re essentially a one-way communication channel monopolised by power that viewers can’t interact with. This is not beyond dispute, but wandering on your own and unexpectedly coming across something wondrous at eye level is undoubtedly another experience than being in a crowded street staring upwards at something which already by its size alone makes its presence felt.
No question, a massive amount of paint that makes for a spectacular design on an apartment building is preferable to the appearance of bare concrete. Still though, anthropologist and curator Rafael Schacter very much agrees with Abarca’s points of view. This British critic is of the opinion that such works are to blame for the fact that street art is placed in a misleading frame of reference. After all, murals do not reflect the material and ideological categories that the movement once stood for. And so, at dedicated festivals the other (original) forms of expression are usually nowhere to be found, with a few notable exceptions such as Bien Urbain in Besançon, Stencibility in Tartu or The Crystal Ship in Ostend. ‘‘It is not simply that street art no longer exists’’, Schacter writes in a persuasive essay, ‘‘but that it is in a state of radical, utter confusion’’. What had been ten years of innovation, evolution and maturation, according to Schacter began to transform into repetition, imitation and simulation by the latter date of 2008. And what is called street art today should, to his mind, actually be termed ‘neo-Muralism’, or for that matter ‘Creative City Art’. Entranced by the belief that ‘more is more’, it’s street art on steroids whereby a clear turn has been taken toward kitsch and ‘saccharine sentiments’. The artist feigns subversion, but is actually sacrificing autonomy.
For municipalities, street art – that is to say murals – have proven to be a relatively cheap way to cheer up certain parts of town and, at best, bring about more social cohesion. That’s a positive trend. But as soon as art projects are used as vehicles aimed at ensuring a rise in real estate prices, at spurring gentrification, at promoting a certain lifestyle or at serving the purposes of city branding with the intent to obtain financial gain (as is the case in Wynwood, Miami, to give but one example), scepticism is due. Especially when it turns out that, simultaneously, artistic expression may not flourish freely, but should rather be channelled. What is produced on commission is naturally given the green light. What, on the other hand, is brought into being on the artist’s own initiative, i.e. is unsanctioned but is likely no less aesthetically pleasing or intriguing because of it, may pitifully fall victim to municipal cleansing.
This brings to mind a small blunder in the French city of Reims. A few years ago the local council requested Paris-based street artist Christian Guémy (aka C215) to paint a stencil somewhere on the street. Shortly thereafter, an anti-graffiti squad was instructed to remove it. To be sure, this happened on the basis of a misunderstanding, but it illustrates the attitude of ambivalence that many municipalities have in respect of street art. ‘‘I am not a vandal’’, C215 once fittingly wrote on his Twitter account, “but a contextual artist trying to interact with reality, travelling to paint stencils in the streets or on found objects.”
Notwithstanding twenty successful years of street art, in summary it’s quite fair to opine that the movement still isn’t very well understood by the general public. That’s due primarily to the fact that street art is easily confused with graffiti and/or vandalism, while (instead) we are confronted with, not one clearly identifiable type of artwork in public space, but a hotchpotch of heterogeneous art forms that may pop up in a lot of different locations. In turn, the influence of big money has meant that the dividing lines between illegal and legal and between inside and outside have become blurred, that the distinctive concepts of revolution, adventure and play now feature less prominently, and that the envisaged target group has on multiple occasions shifted from local community to a certain elite.
With many hundreds, if not thousands of astounding murals that have left their mark on innumerable cities around the globe, and that have acquired a monumental status, muralism is equally not beyond reproach. Without wanting to detract anything from such works in and of themselves, or from those that produce them (quite a number of whom I personally admire), size XL wall paintings have quite simply not benefitted the overall understanding of the term street art – have in fact seized that very term. Moreover, as noted by the already cited Martyn Reed, in order to make street art more commercially viable, some people in influential positions now cynically seek to rebrand it as ‘urban art’ or ‘contemporary urban art’, names they regard as better attuned to a type of art in cities (i.e. murals) that to them is acceptable.
Street art the way it started out around the turn of the century (and which, in spite of the developments expanded on in this article, can still readily be found) not only manifests itself physically in public space, but theoretically speaking does so too at the busy crossing where philosophy, politics, sociology, geography, architecture and urban development intersect. Both individual artworks as well as, ultimately, the entire world of street art can be better understood only when the movement is rightly contextualised and there is more awareness of what it actually entails in all its diversity. For one, that would make our relationship to the city a lot more exciting. Do always bear in mind what the Situationists propagated in all earnest on the walls of Paris exactly 50 years ago, and what is today’s slogan of Nuart: Beauty is in the Streets.