Art in museums is carefully preserved and, if necessary, restored in order to be kept indefinately. Street art, on the other hand, is finite by its very nature. Fleetingness is in fact one of its defining features. Some street art may be around for years. This holds true particularly for murals. Depending on the materials used, the location, the degree of exposure to weather conditions, the level of inconvenience experienced by property owners or, for example, the diligence of municipal cleaners, other (uncommissioned) works of art outdoors may last only as long as a number of months, weeks or a mere few days. Five minutes is probably the dismal record for the shortest life-span.
Coming across a piece of crumbling street art evokes somewhat of a paradoxical feeling as you obviously happen to have arrived on the spot too late to enjoy seeing it in its entirety. That can be a bummer especially when you’re able to tell by its remnants that the creator had put in a nice effort to embellish public space. Simultaneously, you’re aware that transience is part of the game, so better luck next time. All the same, a disintegrating work of art may still merit taking a gander at, if only because that selfsame transience oftentimes comes with an aesthetic value of its own.
Essentially, the inevitable process of decay begins at the very moment the artist is done putting the finishing touches to his or her creation. This implies that photography of unsanctioned art on the streets is, among other things, the documentation of decay. A piece of street art will look (slightly) different each time it’s caught on camera. In light of this, researcher Ulrich Blanché has noted that ‘‘every photograph of a street-art-work is both the work itself and an individual interpretation of the work’’.
While in many places street art is still deemed vandalism and is therefore being removed, increasingly often in recent years, illegal street art pieces by popular artists are marked from on high as being of value and measures are taken for them not to go lost (or, exceptionally, to get reinstated). However, dealing with street art as if it were heritage in the traditional sense of the word raises a number of issues, as the likes of Susan Hansen and Laima Nomeikaite among others have pointed out. Particularly so when bringing works of art onto the art market appears to be the primary goal. Some of Banksy’s creations, for example, have de facto been stolen from local communities with the express purpose of putting them up for auction.
By appropriating street art in such a way, it’s essentially being privatised, commodified and given elite status. Installing plexiglas or perspex in front of art on a wall as a means of protecting and preserving it (which is a more commonly used method), equally flies in the face of what the movement stands for: the right to the city, the right to experience and interaction as well as a subversive, anti-commercial and transient nature. And that’s even irrespective of the fact that a lot of street art is site-specific, which entails that a piece maintains its artistic meaning only as long as it’s kept in its original environment. In a certain sense, removing works from their original location means inflicting harm upon them.
When it comes to (the preservation of) cultural heritage in relation to street art, it’s not about objects from the past with a defined value and significance. Instead, it’s about personal experiences in the present, about the emotions generated by works of art as part of their surroundings, and about the opportunities to interact with them. Moreover, as the appearance of unsanctioned artworks are altered by the traces of time, this type of ‘heritage’ is subject to continuous change. Put differently, these are intangible occurrences which run their natural course and which can, at best, be preserved as memories.
With the exception of scientific articles, generally speaking not much attention goes out to the ephemeralness of street art. Nearly all books, websites and social media pages dedicated to the genre tend to give a distorted picture of what is there to be seen, showing mostly works of art that are fully intact. Images of artistic expressions on the streets that are flaking off, fading, transfigured by passers-by or damaged in other ways, seem to be considered less fit to print or to be shared online. In fact, most people are less inclined to take pictures of something that’s had its day in the first place.
In order to put an underexposed side of the movement centre stage, the photo series below presents an arbitrary overview merely of street art that’s in a state of degradation. It’s street art, in other words, that may be losing its fight against evanescence, but that can readily be found basically everywhere and has just as much right to exist as those brand new wheatpastes, stickers and stencils that, for the time being, are still in their prime.