Fuck Art? Street art lost in transition

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By Ed Little

Abstract: This paper delves deep into the process of ‘commercialization’ of street art while looking to question why outsiders use the label ‘commercialization’. It not only garners the opinions of Amsterdam’s most renowned street artists but also tracks the history of street art in the city and its interconnectedness with graffiti. Through contrasting the life worlds of street art and fine art, it illustrates how subcultural misperceptions originate from different value systems. Contemporary fine art strives towards profit and success (with a tinge of elitism thrown in there as well) while graffiti writers and street artists (at least at first) tend to thrive for fame and reputation. Only once street art becomes commercial do definitions and labels begin to overlap as street art starts to weigh in on the fine art commercial space. However, while street art is transitioning into new spaces and market places, this transition in reality is much more natural and organic than presupposed and thus should be seen as a positive abridgement as the subcultural life world takes its first steps into the mainstream world.

Introduction

‘Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, where anyone could draw wherever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colors and phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. Imagine a city like that, and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet!’ (Banksy)

My research was amazing. I got to share ideas with some of the most inspiring and interesting people I have ever met. Coming from a fairly structured and wealthy London background it was beautiful to see a different way of living life and loving life; to see expression and activism through a different and more creative means rather than just being resigned to the confines of the ‘ballot box’. Art, in whatever form, is a brilliant way of being reflective, being productive, being critical and of sharing ideas with others. Having done my own mural and trying my hand at tagging, I fully realize how addictive and gratifying ‘street art’ can be. I now see public space entirely differently. I am increasingly critical of advertising and am always looking in the nooks and crannies for those little statements of ‘I exist, I am here, I am individual’. A city with more expression is more alive. And a city that is more alive lives on[1].

This project was underpinned by two underlying assumptions. First, I thought that graffiti and street art were two very different and arguably separately existing entities. However, through my research endeavor, I have realized that the two are actually intertwined and feed into each other. Second, I originally thought the ‘commercialization’ of street art was de facto incongruous because I assumed it could only exist on the street. However, it is not the ‘commercialization’ of street art that is incongruent, but the actual use of the word ‘commercialization’ in order to describe a process that is in fact extremely organic and natural. Both of these misperceptions were the result of misleading and inappropriate labels. Thus one of the main purposes of this paper was to understand to what extent the label ‘commercialization’ leads to the misinterpretation of natural developments within the street art world.

For the purpose of this ethnographic paper, I will seek to avoid the over-use of academic ‘labeling’, using generic terms such as ‘street art’, ‘commercial’ and ‘graffiti art’ as referential rather than definitive. Furthermore, this inductive ethnographic account seeks to prioritize the qualitative experiences of individuals in the street art world rather than trying to deductively (and sometimes dogmatically) apply sociological theory to reality.

For this project I initially wanted to explore the ‘commercialization’ of street art in this time of transformation (Burham 2010b). It was thus logical to lead interviews with this term. It was only in hindsight that I understood I was committing a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. I was arrogantly using the term as an outsider, as a consumer, as an academic, all looking to label and categorize, to box up the experiences of others in an attempt to make understanding easier. However, the only true way to understand is to forget binary definitions and reductionist terms, delve deep into the world of street art through ethnographic practice and really feel the ‘vibe’[2].

Street art in transition

‘Street Art’ is in transition, and it is so for a number of reasons. First, it now has a history. Second, the subculture has expanded and a number of legal opportunities have arisen from this growth. Third, the internet and increased ‘digital connectivity’ have changed the so called ‘rules’ of the game. It is clear that both locally and internationally we are in a ‘post graffiti’ era where street art has been heralded as the more accessible ‘progeny of graffiti art’ (Dickens 2010: 1). As Scott Burham writes, ‘there are few artistic genres that have experienced a feverish and exponential a rise as street art in recent years. Once rebels such as Banksy are now publishing coffee table books and setting sales records at Sotheby’s, while Brazilian duo Os Gemeos have progressed from ducking prosecution in Sao Paulo to undertaking mammoth commissions from London’s Tate Modern’ (Burham 2010: 1). In Amsterdam, graffiti and graffiti art have had a 30 year history dating back to the 1980s. Alex Pope ex-graffiti writer and part-time Alltournative Street Art tour guide in Amsterdam (he also wrote his thesis for the UvA on the history and development of graffiti) recalls that much has changed since then.

‘Back in the 80s it was all new, now it’s been institutionalized, it’s been around, it’s not new.’ (Alex Pope)

There seemed to be a common consensus that ‘back in the 80’s’ graffiti was ‘pure’. This pure, genuine and exciting new movement slowly started to attract more writers, fans and admirers. One example of them was the now renowned typographer and fashion designer Pieter Ceizer.

‘At the old Museumplein I got inspired by graffiti writers who did pieces on the back of the half pipe. I liked the fact that they made stuff where, when and how they wanted. Plus I was fascinated by all the letters and colors, by the early 90’s graffiti it was still kinda new and fresh you know.’ (Pieter Ceizer)

Pieter Ceizer is a key exemplar of how graffiti evolved. Nancy MacDonald, in her book ‘Going underground: A Journey into the Graffiti Subculture’ (2001), illustrates the progression or ‘career’ of the graffiti writer, starting with tagging and then usually progressing to more detailed pieces such as ‘throw-ups’ and murals. Here we can (loosely) personify Amsterdam to fit this model. Back in the early 80’s, at the start of her graffiti career, ‘art’ on the street was limited to simple tagging and graffiti writing. However, as time progressed and Amsterdam developed, as did her street art, slowly she started to come into contact with the commercial world. Ceizer is exemplary because he started experimenting with graffiti writing in the 90’s but then developed his own unique highly elaborate and aesthetically pleasing typographic style which proved to be lucrative in other spheres to the point that he no longer regards himself as a ‘street artist’.

‘I don’t think of myself as a street artist actually. I evolved from the street into a typographical artist. I just bring as specific form of typography and philosophy to fashion.’ (Pieter Ceizer)

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Fig. 1: Pieter Ceizer doing a commissioned typographic mural in Amsterdam

Ceizer has been arrested in the past, his development as an artist illustrates how ‘there has been a gradual development of a type of graffiti that is not of an illegal nature, is socially legitimate and sometimes, even sponsored by public and private entities’ (Austin 2010: 3, Kramer 2010; Schacter 2008). This is given credence by how several researchers who have noted the professional opportunities that have arisen from being involved in these practices (Campos 2013; Dickens 2010; Snyder 2009). These opportunities have been excelled by the internet and the ‘digital connectivity’ of contemporary society. The internet gives a tremendous capacity to bring consumption into people’s everyday lives (Cawson et al 1995). It makes street art more approachable but also makes it accessible. This coupled with relatively affordable prices for prints and other merchandise opens street art up to a large demographic. This is evidenced by Luke Dickens in his paper ‘Pictures on Walls?’, where he explores ‘the phenomenal rise of the street art collector’ (Dickens 2010: 73). However, street art, in contrast with fine art, has a different and arguably less elitist audience, sticking with its roots and, on the whole remaining accessible, both visually and monetarily, to everyone. Nevertheless, street art is still in transition, it is “‘neither ‘simply graffiti’ nor ‘simply art’”, but is in fact a new kind of visual cultural production that exceeds both categories’, leaving it lost in transition (Austin 2010:1).

The internet has changed the rules of the game. As Ottograph, former street piecer and now professional artist said in our interview:

‘It’s complicated now, especially because of the internet and shit. From the days when OBEY started, he glued like a million stickers, he really did it but now people glue like ten stickers, take pictures, put it on the internet and call themselves street artists which I think is bullshit, but then again I don’t give a fuck. If they want to do it, whatever.’ (Ottograph)

Ottograph’s story proves, to some extent, the validity of MacDonald’s ‘moral career’ of the graffiti writer. He grew up in the suburbs of Amstelveen and first came into contact with graffiti back in the 80’s when he watched a video of ‘this guy on roller skates doing graffiti’. Then he started to practice in his room until he thought he was good enough to go outside. His story is in fitting with MacDonald’s model because his graffiti career started at 11 and ended at 21, when after a lot of trouble with the police he just quit. ‘I just got bored with it, tired of running. Then I went to art academy and since then I’ve been painting’ (Ottogaph). He now paints everyday of the year doing commercials for the likes of Nike, Mars, Red Bull and Volkswagen as well as doing street art murals for the ASA (Amsterdam Street Art, discussed below), for train stations and for festivals all over Europe.

However, while part of his career is in fitting with MacDonald’s model, his development also offers an opportunity to critique the model. First, he skipped a number of steps. Instead of starting with tagging and slowly moving onto more intricate pieces, he started piecing and doing throw-ups straight away. Second, he grew up in an area where there was very little graffiti and he just saw it on a video rather than learning from peers. This suggests that the beginning of his career is incongruous with MacDonald’s model. Third, aged 21, he quit and went to art school. MacDonald poses binaries suggesting that at the end of a graffiti career the individual either ‘Kicks the can’ or ‘Goes legal’. However, Ottograph’s case suggests that these definitions are not necessarily satisfactory. He quit street art, so one may see that as ‘kicking the can’. However, he returned to become a professional artist and still does commissioned murals. This would suggest that he also went ‘legal’.

Even though MacDonald acknowledges that her model is not infallible, I would argue that her academic ‘labeling’ and categorization can be limiting and reductionist of not only the experiences of graffiti writers but also for those students or otherwise who read her book without properly investigating it for themselves. For instance, if I had just read her book, I would assume that once a graffiti writer gets to 21 (or there about), they consciously decide whether to leave the scene or seek to become a professional street artist. However, Ottograph’s case, as well as many others, suggests that this model does not fit every scenario. It also suggests that with the power of the internet the model is already becoming outdated. For instance, graffiti communities can now exist online as well as the career being a lot less rigid as some upcoming artists may delve straight into street art without having either a legal or graffiti beginning. Later in the paper I will seek to argue that the process of ‘going legal’ does not represent a fully conscious or rational decision but is in fact a much more organic and natural process than one might expect. In this respect an ‘evolution’ rather than a ‘career’ may be a more informative metaphor for describing the life and development of the graffiti writer.

Legitimacy

As Ottograph suggested, new technologies, namely the internet as well as the ‘gallerization’ and ‘commodification’ of street art, have brought questions of legitimacy to the foreground. These questions of legitimacy are related to the appropriated assimilation of the supposed core essences of ‘street art’ by both insiders and outsiders. As Joe Austin writes, ‘an important failure in the attempt to locate graffiti art within modern art coalesces around matters of private and public property, matters that deal with ownership and authority as much as aesthetics, at least at first glance’ (Austin 2010: 40). It is true that ‘graffiti art’ has added a new and important repertoire of iconic elements to the discussions and narrative of visual order in the modern city and to modern art (ibid). However, there still exists large antagonisms between the fine art life world and the street art life world, ultimately leaving street art lost in transition (Habermas 1985).

For instance, art dealer Jeffrey Deitch was recently appointed Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Boehm 23/07/2013). Charged with improving the ailing museum’s finances and increasing visitor numbers, Deitch curated an exhibition on street art. The exhibition, although very popular with visitors, was responsible for a massive uproar at the museum, with numerous important artist trustees stepping down from the board. Deitch has since resigned largely due to the feeling that he had turned the museum into a laughing stock by lowering the academic content of its exhibitions. Contemporary fine art curator Henry Little of BreeseLittle believes that this is ‘indicative of the strong, clear distinctions that the “‘art world’” sees between contemporary art and street art’ (Henry Little).

Having spoken to representatives of both the fine art world and the street art world, it is clear that, even though times are changing, each world has its own value system predicated on ‘very different origins and traditions’ (Henry Little).

‘Contemporary art is primarily seen in the continuum of visual practices throughout art history which are designed (to a greater or lesser extent) to engage the intellect. Street art, by definition, resides outside of the establishment, academic or intellectual apparatus with which contemporary art is typically associated. And in fact often relies upon for its identity as such.’ (Henry Little)

You can tell, even from the verbatim and diction used by Henry, a representative of fine art, that the two worlds have different value systems and are subsequently at odds with one another. As Alex Pope said in our interview: ‘Fine art is another ball game. Just as they don’t value our stuff the way we do, we don’t value their stuff in the same way they do. We have different rules and regulations.’

With juxtaposed value systems such as these it is easy to see why the ‘commercialization’ and more importantly ‘gallerization’ of street art may be interpreted negatively. For instance during the Manhattan art boom of the 1980’s when graffiti artists such as Blade entered the gallery space, many art critics saw it as deeply negative. They saw it as ‘the subculture selling out to the aggressive art market’ (Austin 2002: 2, Creswell 1992,). Similarly, some people see artists such as Banksy, ‘the notorious flagbearer of the contemporary British scene’ as a ‘sellout’ (Dickens 2010: 2). Selling his work at Sotheby’s or having his work displayed in galleries such as Vanina Holasek Gallery [3] provide the liminal space for conflict between the distinctive life worlds of fine art and street art. The Vanina Holasek Gallery provides a great exemplar of the differences between first hand ‘commercialization’ orienteered by the artist, and second hand ‘commercialization’ that is appropriated by others, usually in search of profit. For instance there is a crucial difference between an artist actively searching out profit and an artists’ works being profited on. An example of this is how Brooklyn ‘gangsters’ decided to profit off Banksy’s residency in New York by charging street art enthusiasts money to view and take pictures of the art work (Hamilton 2013). Similarly, there is a difference between an artist making work to sell and an art work being sold. However, the difference is very subjective and hard to verify factually thus blurring any distinction.

We must remember that while the worlds of street art and fine art may be at odds, it is the public (sphere), as Henry pointed out in our interview that dictates the market. Despite the two worlds targeting different audiences most of the street artists and graffiti writers I interviewed did not see the ‘commercialization’ of street art as negative, nor did they perceive figureheads such as Blade or Banksy as ‘sellouts’. As Alex Pope said:

‘Blade is one of the best but he’s also one of the most collected guys working on canvas, under this so called ‘graffiti art’ name. Maybe some punk 20 year old college white boy who’s only done 5 subways but has never done anything legal can get it in his bold mind to say that Blade is a sellout cause he works in a gallery but so fucking what!’ (Alex Pope)

Clearly, for Alex, Blade’s commercial career is legitimated by his illegal career. ‘Can you tell him that he’s commercial, I mean he’s bombed like 5000 trains’ (Alex Pope). This not only validates MacDonald’s ‘moral career’ trajectory for legal artists like Blade but it also illustrates how important an illegal past is for the legitimization of their commercial future. However, what MacDonald’s model fails to recognize is that some artists such as Banksy, and similarly Laser 3.14, rely on their continued illegal work (as well as their anonymity) to sustain and support their commercial endeavors.

Laser 3.14 is arguably Amsterdam’s most prolific and renowned street poet with a long history in graffiti writing and street art. When asked why he still does illegal graffiti on wooden boards and scaffolds Laser 3.14 replied saying: ‘It gives it a here today gone tomorrow effect’ (Laser 3.14). For me it is clear that his illegal work, especially for upcoming audiences, definitely supports, sustains and promotes his legal work as well as legitimating himself within the street art world. I definitely would not have bought the piece ‘She Controls The Knob’ for 300 Euros if I had not seen his work dotted around the streets of Amsterdam.

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Fig. 2: The piece I bought at Laser 3.14’s exhibition

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Fig. 3: One of Laser’s ‘illegal’ pieces in Amsterdam

Ironically, while hypothesizing this project on street art, Banksy started his residency in New York named ‘Better out than In’. In an exclusive interview with Village Voice magazine he wrote:

‘There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.’ (Hamilton 2013)

Banksy raises a very valid point here which links directly to intention and re-interpretive outsider labeling. If we believe what he says, it is clearly not his intention to make money from his residency in New York. Nevertheless, outsiders may assume that he is only doing it for media attention and to market his product. Then they may resentfully label him a ‘sellout’. Amusingly, before launching ‘Better Out Than In’, Banksy’s website featured a FAQ with the question: ‘Why are you such a sellout?’, followed by the answer, ‘I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that’ (Hamilton 2013). Nevertheless, I believe that Banksy wants his pieces to be discovered in alley ways next to dumpsters and not displayed in some sterile museum. With such undeniable fame and success Banksy is able to position himself between these two structures, namely the street art world and the contemporary art world, thus having the power to exert a considerable degree of agency. With this agency he is able to walk a fine line of ‘playful oppositionality’, ‘wagging a playful middle finger at the mainstream art world’ (Luvaas 2010; Hamilton 2013).

This again suggests that the two worlds are in confrontation and that the word ‘commercialization’ has different meanings for each respective value system. The word ‘commercialization’ has positive implications and connotations for the fine art world but negative ones for the street art world. The semantics can and often do lead to the misinterpretation of developments in street art.

Banksy is one of Ottograph’s favorite artists and when asked what Alex Pope thought of Banksy he said ‘It’s food for thought, it challenges people. I’m not mad at him, I salute him for it, it’s funny, it’s clever and makes me think of some serious shit in the world.’ As emerged in the interviews I carried out, it is very easy to criticize but much harder to go out there and do something better. Nevertheless, there seems to be an inherent and intrinsic contradiction of ‘art for sale’.

Julia, a young woman who runs the Mini Galerie in Amsterdam said there is always ‘a negative sound when an artist tries to sell their work. For an artist to make money it is always a bad thing. Our idea of a true artist is someone that lives in a cabin in the woods and just makes art.’ Here she touches on one of the core problems of art and especially of street art which tends to invite a ‘free’ audience, namely the ongoing struggle to strike a balance between commercial success and artistic integrity. For instance, Dickens in his article ‘Pictures on Walls? demonstrates that Banksy’s print distributors, POW, undertake social enterprise schemas in order to ensure the fair distribution of his prints. They try to make sure that no one buyer can procure more than one of each individual print. This is to try to negate second hand markets on Ebay. Their aim is to ensure that all the loyal fans can afford and can get hold of an original Banksy print rather than purely seeking out the highest profits. Similarly, Laser 3.14 rightfully respects artistic integrity and all its considerations. When asked how he felt about ‘Street Art in the Gallery’ he responded by saying:

‘I have no problem with it whatsoever as long as one doesn’t betray the integrity of their works by making it more accessible to sell more.’ (Laser 3.14)

Rather amusingly, when asked what if the term sellout was directed his way he said, ‘I wouldn’t care. I sell art but I don’t sell out’ (Laser 3.14).

There seems to be a lot more pride in integrity in the street art world than the fine art world. Exploring the semantics, ‘commercial’ is a very positive word in the fine art life world and it is ingrained within their operating ‘habitus’, especially in a financial climate where the value of money is uncertain (Bourdieu 1977). The ‘commercialization of art’ is ‘doxic’ and is cemented as a form of ‘economic capital’ (Bourdieu 1986). However, when outside commentators use the same word and apply it to street art, with its very different value system, the word is negatively polarized. This is because the term has been appropriated by the fine art world and thus has negative perceptions if perceived by those in the street art world that place themselves in a space of ‘playful oppositionality’. Thus, because of the friction between these two very different structures, the word ‘commercial’ can be misleading especially when describing the progression and development of street artists and graffiti writers who enter the ‘commercial’ world. As Julia said in our interview:

‘‘Commercialization’ is a very difficult word because it has a really negative sound and it depends really on what you mean by it. For profit or shown in the gallery?’ (Julia)

Most street art, in comparison to contemporary art, is affordable and accessible even when within the gallery. It is a lot more homegrown and less elitist. Over this course of this project I volunteered at the ASA pop-up shop where they were selling street art and street art products such as T-Shirts and bags. The ASA is run by a collection of street artists and street art enthusiasts that seek to promote street art in Amsterdam through a series of innovative and creative projects. The vibe there was exceptionally friendly and welcoming. No one was wearing suits, everyone was fairly chilled and relaxed. However, the ASA pointed out: ‘it’s hard to be independent about art. Prices are ridiculously cheap, too cheap and people still complain’ (ASA). It was clear that these guys were not trying to make a vast sum of money or were purely profit driven. They were merely trying to promote their artists and try to make back some of the money that their artists had spent on materials. ‘Art is labor’ (Austin 2010: 1) and it takes time and money.

However, in these situations the extent of ‘commodity fetishism’ and ‘reification’ (Marx 1961) is seemingly far less than in fine art commercial circles. The work is sold at prices to compensate for materials and time. Most of the artists were present and there was a lot of social interaction between artist and consumer, thus not corrupting Guttungswesen or ‘species essence’ (Marx as cited in Wartenberg 1982: 79). The labor to price relation was a lot more realistic, thus the market was not overly distorted and the process was not reified in the same way. ‘Subcultural capital’ is still being converted into ‘economic capital’ (Bourdieu 1986) but not in excess. Similarly, Laser 3.14’s artwork, displayed in The Battalion Gallery was still being sold at affordable prices. As former street artist and now installationist RoyalSteez said ‘Street art has no value. It has the value you give it. It is subjective.’ (RoyalSteez)

As noted, the label ‘commercial’ is perceived as misrepresentative. It was clear from all my interviews that these artists had a disdain for labeling (but not necessarily for ‘commercialization’ per se). It represents the lovechild of stigmatization and categorization which can be reductionist and limiting. As Ottograph said: ‘I think we should just see it all as art. I think whole definitions are silly.’ Similarly, Julia from the Mini Galerie doesn’t ‘use strict categorization. ‘The street artist is also just an artist. I try to see them as an artist rather than anything else.’ (Julia). For a ‘movement’ in transition it is really important to remove the use of these reductionist terms as to enable natural artistic growth. Labels are a form of social control that seek to crush and curtail creativity; as Laser rightly said: ‘that’s what rules and regulations do, they kill the heart and soul of Amsterdam’ (Laser 3.14). Julia highlights the dichotomy with art on the street and street art exceedingly well:

‘It’s always street art, that an artist will do something in the street and people be like oh this is the real thing, but for me it is not really that strict. A street artist is just an artist with ideas and express them in the street, express them in the studio, in the gallery. It’s not that the thing he does on the street is that different from what he does in the studio. The authenticity is in their ideas and not whether it is in the street or not.’ (Julia)

She highlights that in a time where street art is in transition, it is better to not reduce ideas and expression because that creates a stigma surrounding the question of authenticity. Instead it is the art that should be valued first and foremost. That is one of the reasons why Laser 3.14 likes to remain anonymous.

‘I feel and have always felt that the work should be what people primarily should see without the noise of the person behind it. In my case I think that the work should be seen separate of the artist.’ (Laser 3.14)

Similarly, Laser does not like to explain his work as he believes it ‘can take away from the spectators own interpretation’ (Laser 3.14). Thus we should look at ‘street art’ as just another form of art and judge it for ourselves and by ourselves. We should try to ignore in what space the art is situated whether it be the street or the gallery and try to remain focused on the art itself and the subjective value it holds to us. As Alex Pope explains: ‘If you want to be commercial with what you think is graffiti but some other guy doesn’t then why give a fuck?’ The message is clear here, don’t become too fixed on the labels because they are limiting and can lead to misinterpretation.

The bridge and the label ‘commercial’

MacDonald illustrates that the illegal career of the graffiti writer ends with the individual either ‘Kicking The Can’ or ‘Going Legal’. It is noteworthy that her definition, ‘Going Legal’, appeases mainstream positive vernaculars [4] in an attempt to reconsider the career of the graffiti writer as a ‘moral career’. However, she fails to accurately locate ‘Going Legal’ or develop this ascription. For many ‘street artists’ ‘going legal’ not only means that ‘a writer does not have to break the law or risk arrest’ (Ottograph), but it also has commercial implications. For instance I asked Pieter Ceizer ‘Do you still do art in the street? Or is it mainly commercial now?’

‘I don’t do stuff in the street anymore. However, my work is not only commercial. Most of the time I make only what I wanna make and I don’t care if it will sell big time or small time or not at all. To put everything out there is my main mission, how or how much is secondary.’ (Pieter Ceizer)

It is evident that like Laser 3.14, retaining artistic integrity is a core factor in the capitalization of their artistic talents that originated in the streets. This is a reality that is not often portrayed when considering the ‘commercialization’ of street art. However, here identities are ‘less about “roots” and increasingly more about “routes”’ (Stuart Hall 1996:4, as cited in Campos 2013:9). They may explore commercial avenues but commercial success and profitable validation do not seem to be the driving force. Instead it seems to be the promotion of their artwork and the promotion of their message. There are a unique range of ways that street artists are able to translate their edgy, exciting work on the street into commodity form (Dickens 2010).

However, the demand that is (usually) driven by outsider consumptive ‘habitus’ (second hand commercialization) and is not (usually) led by the artist themselves. This value is ascribed to talent and productive yield. Not fully considering these factors can lead to misrepresentation. Nevertheless, ‘commercial legal works moves writers out of the boundaries of the subculture. Here, writers can claim the best of both worlds.’ (MacDonald 2001: 89). When street artists evolve and ‘Go Legal’ they tend to (technically) become ‘commercial’. However, as stated above, the actual process of going ‘commercial’ is not negative as often implied but is in fact a very positive and very natural process.

Julia highlights how the process of gallerization of street art is actually very organic and genuine:

‘You really want to promote artists who also do art in the street, and also show it to a different audience who don’t go to the walls or follow them on websites and blogs. You open it up to a different audience who want to see it in the gallery. So you’re like a bridge between two audiences who don’t really connect in the normal world. Exhibitions are a really easy way to connect.’ (Julia)

In this respect, ‘commercialization’, which is usually seen as negative due to the differing value system of the street art life world, can actually act as a bridge between the subcultural life world and the mainstream life world. This can lead to the creation of new audiences as the life world expands and starts to overlap and assimilate with practices of the mainstream life world. In this respect we should not see the subculture in conflict with mainstream culture in the manner that street art and fine art are in conflict with each other. Instead we should regard this subcultural expansion as a compromise. The relationship between the two cultures cannot be simplified to a zero-sum unilateral power game. The subculture is not ‘selling out’ and neither is it being engulfed by capitalism as I had previously thought. It is just the natural progression of individuals within that subculture wanting to exert agency within a capitalist structure. As Pieter Ceizer puts it:

‘A lot of subcultures got bigger, so the culture is able to provide jobs and evolve. I guess that’s good. As an artist, fan, lover or even hater, you always have to judge for yourself what you like and what you feel is original, fun and fresh, no matter how big or small the culture is.’ (Pieter Ceizer)

Similarly, Alex Pope who runs street art tours in Amsterdam through ‘Altournative’ said: ‘With the tours, they know the bridge is there.’ The tours, like the galleries, represent access points for those wanting to experience street art in some way. Now this can be a very superficial experience or it can be a lasting one. For instance, my first full encounter with street art was while on a street art tour in London’s Bricklane which I had chosen for a date. Since then I have fallen in love with this artistic medium, I have been on more tours, met with street artists, done my own murals and even bought my first piece of street art. Alex Pope and I am now in the process of writing a series of articles on street art in Amsterdam (see our article for Brooklyn Street Art). This not only highlights my own natural progression and growth but it also illustrates how my perceptions of street art and graffiti have changed, developed and evolved. This demonstrates that these access points are vital in bridging the gap between worlds and for altering erroneous perceptions. Education and understanding is the crossing of this meta-bridge.

‘If you don’t know who he is or why he’s done that particular piece then it doesn’t resonate but if you know, if you have the bridge, then you can look with different eyes.’ (Alex Pope)

As mentioned above, this bridge is natural and organic. It has a number of key positive functions. First, different spaces like the galleries, exhibitions, tours, websites and blogs all represent valuable, useful and insightful access points. Second, these access points enable the individual to express their own agency. Walking these bridges can allow people to question the structure that surrounds them. This ultimately reduces labeling and misrepresentation. For instance, I originally saw graffiti as mindless vandalism. Now that I understand it, I see it in a different light and have more respect for it. Third, these bridges can increase the merits of art and inspire artistic excellence and progression. For street art, this aids the negation of the rules and regulations ingrained within their own value system but that are changing and transitioning. This can lead to the creation of new forms of art that move beyond the street and move beyond reductionist ‘street art’ labels.

Street art is in transition. While the street art world and fine art world are in conflict for now, this may change. Over time, as bridges are made, we may see a greater appreciation and mutual respect for each life world. Pioneers like Jeffrey Deitch may even be reinstated and street art may one day find its place in museums next to pieces of fine art. It is important to remember that the word ‘commercialization’ has drastically different meanings for the two different life-worlds. While it has positive connotations for the fine art world, it has negative interpreted ones for the street art world. That is why we need to try not to ascribe descriptive labels that may be misconstrued without understanding the subculture you wish to describe first. Going ‘commercial’ or going ‘legal’ as MacDonald puts it, as I have argued has many positive implications and can act as a bridge making the subculture not only more accessible but also more applicable to wider society. Instead of seeing the progression of the graffiti writer as a ‘career’ it was clear from my research that an ‘evolution’ is a more accurate vernacular to use. A career is intentional and planned. For street artists and artists alike, the passion that drives them is not money but a love for what they do and this evolution is natural. To conclude, street art is in transition but when I asked Alex Pope ‘where will street art go next?’ he said ‘I don’t know but I hope it goes somewhere I can’t even imagine right now, cause that would be best’.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

Notes

[1] When returning to London after submitting this paper, I was able to reflect on the lack of graffiti and street art in certain parts of London, especially in central London and in the city. There is a lot more of a focus on materialism, everyone is busy, few people smile and there are flashy cars everywhere. I’d love to see more color and more expression in my home city.

[2] This refers to the process of ‘going native’.

[3] Banksy’s lawyer in 2010 wrote that Banksy “is not represented by any of the commercial galleries that sell his work second hand (including Lazarides Ltd, Andipa Gallery, Bank Robber, Dreweatts etc),” claims that the exhibition at Vanina Holasek Gallery in New York City (his first major exhibition in that city) is unauthorized.

[4]‘Career’ is a very positive and legitimate word used to describe an activity that is typically seen as ‘deviant’ or as vandalism. By using the word ‘career’ or ‘moral career’ she seeks to legitimise the development of graffiti writers through discourse (Foucault 1972).

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