Street Art: Public Nuisance or Counter-Cultural Force?

To a large proportion of the older generation, graffiti is nothing more than vandalism. However, much of the younger generation is waking up to the innate creativity involved in this art form,  Editor-in-Chief, Reece Parker, investigates where the line should be drawn as to the merit of such work.

From the start of human civilisation, we have had a propensity to write on walls. Graffiti has been found everywhere in the ancient world, from the Catacombs of Rome to the destroyed city of Pompeii, and has been an ever-present feature on the walls of every society throughout world history. Despite being steeped in history and informing a large degree of modern contemporary art, be it street artists themselves such as Shepard Fairey or weaved into the canvases of the iconic Basquiat, street art has been widely deplored as being little more than vandalism. This article explores whether this label is warranted, or whether this is a an unfair stance against the avant-garde form.

The discussion over whether street art is justifiable as a form is often hinged on two issues, whether it has artistic merit, and whether the artist has the right to produce their art in the public domain. The former debate is interesting in that normally, those who claim it lacks artistic merit do not apply this to every piece of work. Indeed, larger pieces such as the ‘Athena Rising’ mural, which is painted in Leeds City Centre and is the UK’s tallest piece of street art, was met with widespread approval both critically and amongst the local population. Instead, critics target ‘writers’, those who express themselves through lettering, be that in ‘tags’ (the most basic graffiti form), through a ‘throw ups’ (a more elaborate, bubble-style of writing), or more complex and developed forms of these such as ‘wildstyles’ and ‘blockbusters’. Critics of these forms argue that simply writing your name on a wall is not a form of artistic expression, no matter what techniques, colours or combinations you use to create the work.  

For writers who engage in these forms however, artistic merit is often the least of their priorities. Writers are fuelled by the desire to mark their own territory, claiming space as their own by putting their own writing in the most visible yet difficult to reach places. This battle for space brings me onto the second point of contention over the merit of street art, that which queries who owns the space in the public domain. Those who criticise the work of street artists often argue that it is vandalism on the grounds that it is defacing buildings or other structures which are owned by individuals who do not consent to the work. It can be argued that those who have their property painted on can see their market worth drop, and also that, if it is a commercial property, this can lead to a loss of reputation and thus a loss of customers. At the other end of the spectrum, if the artist who painted the work becomes popular after it has painted, this can potentially lead to an unexpected windfall for the ‘victim’ of the crime, with a house in Bristol recently being priced at up to one million pounds as it has a partially obscured Banksy piece on its side.

Those who are pro-street art often take a much more ideological line on this debate, arguing that street art can be perceived as those who do not have a chance to control their surroundings through ownership of buildings instead doing so in the only way they can. If advertising agencies can populate a city’s streets with their own slogans and ideals, why can’t those who walk the streets everyday do the same? If not, we allow the rich and powerful to dominate the narratives of our communal areas. One recent example of this in practice was when it was revealed just before Notting Hill Carnival that Boiler Room had received a grant from the Arts Council England totalling almost £300,000 to go towards the event in 2018, whilst the London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust received only £100,000. Where the well-financed Boiler Room dominated the streets with their expensive sound systems and DJ bookings, locals voiced their protests with a large graffiti piece which read ‘Fuck Racist Met Police and Fuck Boiler Room Too’. As a famous quote about street art goes, “if your back’s against the wall, turn around and write on it”.

The argument as to the merits of street art is both complex and multifaceted. I would argue that this is because street art itself is complex and multifaceted, and that you should not dismiss counter-cultural aggression as a throwaway gesture, as it often has both artistic and ideological worth.

Reece Parker

(Image courtesy of Hypebeast)