Street Art. Adding vibrancy to public areas, it proves that anything can be a canvas. For artists, the streets are spaces for expression, for voicing their thoughts and opinions. For people out on the streets, graffiti images and writings are either an eyesore, or a deeper insight into the mind of the city and its culture.
French artist, JR’s playful installation on the Mexican side of the infamous US-Mexico border (2017). Image courtesy of the artist.
Street art culture dates back to the World Wars, when soldiers, complete with their own stenciling techniques, used to mark the streets to communicate with each other. From the beginning, an essential element of street art has been the adventure and danger associated with leaving markings behind. When the graffiti subculture first began brewing in New York in the 1970s, there was a sense of rebellion associated with it. It went against most governments’ ideas of keeping cities clean. In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Thai artist Bon, recalls his fear “that the police would come after me or people passing by wouldn’t understand what I was trying to do.”
Thai artist, Bon’s tribute to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, where one hand hides his graffiti gear (2016). Image courtesy of Coconuts Bangkok.
In New York, till today, the law clearly prohibits the sale of aerosol paint cans and broad tipped indelible markers to persons under the age of eighteen. In their own ways, city officials try to crack down on street art. 2011, the city of Atlanta's Grafitti Task Force was funded $10,000 to crack down on graffiti. In the name of ‘vandalism’, this task force arrested several American street artists.
Today, the laws still remain but street art is trendy. The trend, as a result, has found its way into closed private spaces of galleries. While this allows street artists to avoid brushing up close with the law, it has also led to the rise of a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow street art – street art that exists freely and openly on the streets, and graffiti works created for a gallery setting.
In Saving Banksy, a documentary about American street artist Banksy’s work, several street artists that were interviewed expressed how art they make for the streets is very different from art they make for the gallery. The two spaces invite very different emotions and reactions possibly because the rationale and conditions for creating works, as well as the audience being made privy to the work are both very different in a gallery as compared to on the street.
King Mindon by Myanmar street artist, Wunna Aung exhibited at Intersections Gallery Singapore, 2017 (2014). Image courtesy of Thavibu.
Several artists continue making work for both spaces. On the open streets, graffiti is art at its purest – it cannot be bought. It attracts attention from people who otherwise might not venture into a museum. That being said, the commercialization of graffiti through its presence in a gallery does not imply the death of street culture. It just means that there is a growing interest in the skill, technique and social messages associated with the art form. In an interview with CNBC, Colombian-born Singapore-based artist Didier Jaba Mathieu explained the way graffiti has managed to become a brand. “Street art is just a more sellable word; it sounds better than graffiti, which is associated with counter culture," Mathieu said. "Street art is on everyone's mind, but what graffiti writers are doing in the streets — that's the true essence of the art form.”
Artist Didier Jaba Mathieu’s mural on the streets painted during the Street Dealing Festival XI Jakarta (2017). Image courtesy of the artist.
Where the art form is viewed, naturally impacts the meanings associated with the art itself. As an audience out on the streets, one may stumble into a mural or a piece of writing without actively looking out for it. In a gallery, museum or art fair, one would make his/her way there with the intention of seeing art. Moreover, the artist showing his work in a gallery setting would have created it with the intention of being seen. In a way, the artist would be conscious of what he or she intends to express through the artwork. It might not be the same for works spray painted on the streets. While it is natural to assume the public would see the artwork on the street, the artist might not have planned what to say or paint. There is a greater element of spontaneity associated with works on the street. This is true also because the artist cannot plan the conditions of the environment out on the street while he is painting.
Street art has had its impact on the way galleries function and vice versa. In Singapore too, galleries have contributed to changing perceptions surrounding the art form. Through spotlight exhibitions with street artists, more and more people are becoming aware of the communal spirit of street art and are perhaps even beginning to appreciate its beauty and strength in spreading messages and causes. Although labeled ‘highbrow’, it has somehow found its place in the gallery.
Still, some street artists continue to be purists, operating only in public, at random, anonymously, when it is least expected. The ethical lines get blurred when galleries and collectors go out of their way to extract pieces of murals from public spaces. For instance, a specialist-scaffolding firm was hired in England in 2014 to remove a piece of wall with a Banksy mural. Owners of the building sold the Banksy-marked wall part to a gallery in London. While instances like this call for a moral discussion of their own, they also form case studies for audiences to be aware of the history, background and intention of street art when chancing upon it either on the street or in a gallery.
Upcoming street art exhibitions in Singapore:
Art From the Streets, 13 January - 3 June 2018 at the ArtScience Museum
Genesis: God’s Terrarium by Jahan Loh, 17 January - 18 March 2018 at The Culture Story
M.A.T.A.S (Make a Terrific Artwork Someday) by RSCLS x Ryf Zaini, 18 January – 11 February 2018, Aliwal Arts Center
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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