In Defense of Street Art

I
was a street artist. If you prefer, I was a vandal. I started out, as
most artists do, humbly. A can of russet Rustoleum with a couple of
friends, scrawling vague leftist slogans on the abandoned railroad factory
buildings in my hometown. Alleyway dumpsters and streetlit governmental
properties were my first canvases. Then came small stencils: a tiny
smokestack to spray on the outside of the asbestos-stuffed empty shells
of our small town’s industrial past. They were just little gestures,
not even aesthetically pleasing, but to us it was the start of
something incredibly thrilling. We were honor students, very straight-laced
for the most part, and no one would have suspected that we were living
double lives, our backpacks and car trunks filled with neon ordnance.
We learned the lore of the street here and there and on the internet.
Don’t breath in the paint. Carry the paint and stencils in an empty
pizza box. Use spray-adhesive to attach the stencils to the surface.
Spray carefully to avoid overspray. From the small stencils, the tiny
disobediences, we moved on to bigger, more ambitious projects.

But as we matured we grew to realize that street art is much more than
scribbling your name on an alt-weekly dispenser box or sticking your
priority mail sticker in a bathroom stall. After working on the street
for some time, I became convinced of the legitimacy of the medium. Because
just what is the role of the artist? Is it purely aesthetic? To politicize?
To inform? To provoke, to offend, to educate? Just what makes someone
an artist, anyway? When do they become an artist? Certainly, there are
very many varied reasons and motivations that drive each individual.
But something every artist has in common is their primary responsibility
to follow their vision, wherever it may lead them, even if that is into
alleys and train yards. And at that time in my life, that’s where
my vision was leading me. I had never considered myself an "artist"
before, didn’t take any classes in school, but I saw a way that I
could help make the world more beautiful (or at least more interesting)
and relieve the monotony of my small-town life at the same time.

For
a year or two, I worked exclusively in stencil graffiti and wheatpaste
media. I have since moved on to new media, but it was an exciting and
informative time in my life. I vandalized dozens of public places and
broke many laws; yet I feel that the gifts I and my associates gave
the public outweigh whatever laws we broke. But I won’t claim that
the desire to give beautiful art to the public is every street artist’s
motive. Of course there will always be those people who just want to
scrawl obscenities in alleys and on storefronts. Just remember, everyone
has to start somewhere, and often people graduate from crudities to
more expressive works.

Working
on the street has many virtues. If you choose your place wisely, many
more people will see it than in one of the many small galleries that
the average artist can reasonably expect to be exhibited in. Think of
some of the busy intersections in downtown Minneapolis: if an artist
was enterprising and determined enough, he could have more people see
his work every day than do pass through the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa.
The street is an unintended refutation of the insular art world; most
street artists do not have the advantage of an expensive art education
and contacts within the industry. An abundance of good art often does
not get exhibited, for whatever reason. Many artists do not want to
spend time applying to galleries, making friends in the industry, and
waiting months or years for a show. They want people to see their art
right now, as soon as possible.

Think
of the high cost of starting to paint- you have to buy oils, thinner,
brushes, canvas, etc. Then you have to learn to paint, which is typically
requires an expensive art education if you want to learn with any proficiency.
All the street artist needs is a cheap can of Krylon from the local
hardware store. And who’s going to teach them? The only way the street
artist learns is through practice and self-motivation. There is no street
artist’s college (although the Minneapolis College of Art and Design
does teach a class on street art, and as artists such as Banksy and
Shepard Fairey gain prominence in the art world, perhaps it will become
an accepted BFA program somewhere). This need to figure out everything
for themselves leads to innovation, technical prowess, and self-sufficiency.
Street art is the most egalitarian of art movements. One cannot go to
art school for it, the production costs are much more affordable, and
the artist can choose to exhibit wherever he or she pleases.

And
what interest they create on bland surfaces! Last year I lived in Marcy-Holmes,
one of the most "graffitied" neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Walking
through the neighborhood was a constant fascination, viewing the struggle
between the area taggers and the maintenance men. The back and forth
between the whitewashes, paint pens, spray cans, and stickers was like
a hyperaccelerated archeology, in which eras of art could be seen day
to day. It’s the logical continuation of the cave paintings at Lascaux.
Each side tries to evade the common tautology; the cycle of life on
the street. The artist seeks to innovate by creating new visual forms
of expression in new places (up telephone poles, underground, skywriting),
and the street-cleaner seeks to establish more effective modes of repression
(increasing the police force, new paint removers, neighborhood watches).
The street artist has an almost unlimited opportunity for exhibition,
scrawling a sociology on the walls of our caves.

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