Enter New York during the 1970’s and 1980’s where besieged urban communities were under pressure from renewal schemes. In a desire to improve the quality of lives and create avenues to make money, over-crowded ‘troubled’ neighbourhood blocks were being bulldozed to make room for highways and real-estate opportunities for entrepreneurs. However, an unexpected twist arose when the citizens of these communities, based on a creative response to these conditions, created the urban culture of hip hop and graffiti art. The youth set about on a mission to challenge the industrial power at hand. They did this by throwing up graffiti over the walls of the city, and on the trains that could be seen across the five boroughs.
Fast forward to the 20th Century and a post-graffiti subculture known as street art was emerging. Unlike traditional graffiti artists, who went about to destroy and vandalise property, pioneering artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Space Invader, aimed to beautify banal urban landscapes. Through the use of wheatpasting, stencil graffiti, mosaic tiling and street instillations, these artists were changing the playing field forever.
One of the main dynamics that helped push the growth of the street art movement was the emergence of social media. Through the use of these websites, what was already a reasonably democratic and accessible art form was now made even more readily available. Melbourne born, London based, pointillism street artist Jimmy C explains, "New art forms are often a reflection of the culture and in a way, street art could be considered to be 'glocal', holding a meaning and position locally as well as globally.”
As the movement was brought into the public eye, people became more educated about it, realising the freedom and power it possessed. "Street art is the quickest way to get ideas out there. There are no curators or gallery owners to sweet talk, you just get up there and do it. The street will let you know if you're on the right track. Street art is the biggest art movement in human history. Anyone can be part of it,” said prolific UK Street Artist, Stik, who is well known for his portrayal of stick figures around the walls of London.
A common factor that seems to be raised when discussing street art is its adaptability in style, making it almost a hybrid that absorbed everything from illustration, realism, pop, surrealism, installation, performance, high brow and low brow, into one unrestrained, eclectic, and accessible mode of expression.
The point of difference in street art, when compared to more traditional styles of art, is the fact that it is temporary. Australian artist Vexta summed up the cycle beautifully, stating, “I guess street art and graffiti are basically destruction creation expression all at once. Maybe that’s it: create/destroy/create/destroy/create/destroy.”
While street art and graffiti is still, for the most part, illegal, almost all large cities worldwide have some form of urban art. Amongst these cities, there are a few locations that are beginning to foster a pro street art culture. At the forefront of these are places such as Berlin, Paris, Melbourne and London. These cities are often harbouring internationally renowned street artists looking to exhibit their work.
For the artists, painting in different places or countries often links them to the context and culture, creating a unique work and experience. “I have enjoyed painting in London over the last few years because of the dynamic energy in the East end where the walls are changing on a daily basis" stated Jimmy C.
The culture of street art that has been created in these cities has not only been noticed and revelled by artists, but has been picked up by corporations. In Berlin for example, there is an artist hub called Kunsthaus Tacheles, well known for its colourful street art painted interior and exterior walls, and modern art sculptures featured inside. The building has a strong history with regards to the art form, and is also a hotspot for locals and tourists wanting to get an insight into the culture. Knowing this fact, footwear heavy-weights Nike commissioned a large scale mural behind the building to advertise their product, which goes to show how far the movement has come with regards to its popularity and effectiveness in portraying messages.
Recently, Australia has had their own celebration of this growing culture with the Outpost Project. The event was responsible for transforming Cockatoo Island's gritty industrial spaces into an explosion of urban art. Artist Adnate thoroughly enjoyed the experience and saw the befit in it saying, “I’ve been to a lot of different street art festivals overseas and Outpost was definitely on a world class level. I hope that more of this stuff can happen, because although there are many well deserved artists who don’t get to be a part of it, in the end it benefits the whole scene, from graffiti to street art." Sydney Artist Bennett also shared a similar view stating, "Outpost Project was great; it was an amazing opportunity to expose myself to the public along with some amazing artists in similar fields."
A true test of street art's popularity will be take place in London, with the 2012 Olympics just around the corner. Many of the artists are uncertain of how it will affect areas renowned for a flourishing street art culture. “The Olympics has certainly tried to brand themselves as ‘street’ with their graff style lettering. It remains to be seen how they will be regarding our own street art,” explained Stik. However, it is well known that there have been a number of proposals for authorised murals for the Olympics by Tower Hamlets and Hackney Council, who have already been surprisingly receptive to street art.
This commercialisation of street art has led some people to believe that it is a fad. However, most artists disagree as the main premise of street art is to reach people. The only downside they see is the negative effects it may have on the culture. Artist, Shida stated, "I believe its created a schism between street art and the puritan side of graffiti, as well as between grass roots street artists and the small elite class that have become very successful. I wouldn’t call it a fad, street art is the most popular and powerful art movement in history; it’s the first to be developed globally on such a massive scale and to be practiced by every social strata of society."
While there is no way to know with any certainty what the future of street art will hold, if we examine the movement to date, one would think big things lay ahead. What it really comes down to is councils becoming more receptive to the culture. If there are open minded and supportive people in influential positions, changes can and will be made. In the mean time, it is fair to say that artists will not stop what they are doing and street art is here to stay.