Art in the Street
Posted In: Berlin, Blu, Collingwood, debate, Keith Haring, Melbourne, mural, ROA, Sao Paulo
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An essay by Sophie Splatt
This week in Melbourne, passing through the same streets I always do, I’ve seen street poles cloaked as though clothed in multicoloured knitted wraps, the tiniest of cows grazing on strips of faux turf on the 2cm-ledge of brick that juts from a wall, and a striking mural, hidden in a patchwork of pieces, that I fail to notice but that my friend drags me back to, so we can examine and discuss. None of these pieces of street art existed last week, but on discovery they all make me stop and think about who did them and why. They remind me that I’m living in a city that’s constantly evolving, a city where people create.
Of course it’s not just in my hometown that street art thrives: it exists the world over, with particularly vibrant scenes also in New York, Berlin, London and São Paolo. In recent times, its status has evolved — no longer limited to the type of illegal tagging that was once (and in many places still is) considered sheer vandalism, street and public art is now achieving the kind of acclaim and recognition once reserved for pieces in galleries. In fact, it’s even in galleries itself, and can be seen elsewhere ‘off the streets’ in almost every type of media.
Websites like woostercollective.com, founded in 2003 in New York (the city considered by many to be the birthplace of modern graffiti), have succeeded in making street art from all corners of the globe accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The collective even launched their own YouTube channel in 2009 where they are further showcasing developments in street art. With this just one example of many such sites online, it’s become apparent that street art has never been more visible; and this visibility has brought with it a new level of appreciation for the form. It’s art that people will now travel to see.
Tourists flock to cities like Berlin, drawn by its influential design tradition and contemporary works, which are symbiotically reflected in its thriving public art scene. Berlin is also home to one of the most iconic and symbolic graffiti-covered walls in the world: the West side of the former Berlin wall. Before the fall (in 1989), the West side was covered in constantly evolving colourful art, in stark contrast to the untouched East side, which mirrored the open and repressed societies it divided. After reunification of the city, the East side was also painted, a noteworthy example of street art evolving along with the social fabric of a city. A 1.3km stretch of the wall, covered in over 100 paintings and now known as the East Side Gallery, still stands today and is a popular attraction.
Possessing a wealth of homegrown talent, the scene in Berlin naturally lures a host of international artists eager to contribute to the tableau of the city. Belgian artist ROA visited in July, 2011 for his debut solo show in the city at Skalitzers Contemporary. ROA is most famous for his naturalist paintings of animals. His larger-than-life works make clever use of not only space, but also of negative space, with his creatures inhabiting the environments he chooses for them — whether a wall, a silo, the side of a boat — as though they were somehow a part of the city that everyone, but ROA, had forgotten. A stunning recent mural in Kreuzberg, Berlin, has a hare, a crane and an antelope dangling by string from the roof of a building, the last draped onto two creatures that slump, stacked at the bottom.
Another artist who works inside the urban landscape is the Italian artist, Blu, who creates epic wall murals that seemingly transform public spaces when later viewed as animations. Blu was one of six internationally acclaimed street artists from around the world to be part of an exhibition held at the Tate Modern in 2008 — the first major public art museum to have an exhibition of this kind. Works were commissioned for display on the façade of the building, making the pieces accessible outside the confines of a gallery space. More importantly though, this exhibition meant that street art, which was already being successfully exhibited and sold in private galleries, was now being recognised by the art establishment as a legitimate form. While the very idea of such a curated exhibition seems to go against street art’s roots and nature, the commission and sale of works in galleries has given artists a viable way to sustain their practice, as well as increasing the scope of the audience for their works. Increased interest off the streets also inevitably fuels and inspires artists working on the streets.
At the same time that São Paulo artists Os Gêmeos and Nunca’s works were being lauded at the Tate exhibition, their 680-metre-long approved mural was being unceremoniously removed in their home country. This was an unforseen consequence of the Clean City law brought into effect on 1 January 2007, which effectively banned any form of public advertising in the city. The law was created to combat the overwhelming visual pollution that had overtaken public spaces, but along with the removal of 15,000 billboards came the destruction of many pieces of graffiti for which the city had become famous. Following this incident, and given the critical acclaim and recognition the artists had gained in London, a registry was created to protect street art works of significance in São Paulo.
Similar incidents have occurred in Melbourne. Although known internationally for its colourful art-filled laneways, it seems not everyone shares an enthusiasm for these works. Last year City of Melbourne council workers ‘cleaned up’ a stencil of a parachuting rat — lost amid a sea of tagging considered mere graffiti — by notorious street artist Banksy, after a request for a clean-up of the area from residents. Although other works in Hosier Lane were protected, the Banksy stencil, thought to be the last remaining work from the artist’s visit in 2003, was not. Street art lovers were aghast and suddenly it seemed as though the intrinsic ephemeral nature of street art was no longer a given.
The debate over heritage protection for street art in Melbourne has since been brought to the fore, and several artworks have already been added to Victoria’s Heritage Register, including New York artist Keith Haring’s 1984 mural at Collingwood Technical College. How to best preserve the work, one of Haring’s only remaining unrestored works worldwide, was also the topic of much discussion. Some thought repainting would destroy the original piece; others believed that reworking the piece was the only right choice, as reinvention is as integral to essence of street art as creation is. After a year’s research by conservation specialists selective retouching was decided upon, although repainting in the future has not been ruled out.
Debates like this, which are occurring the world-over, reveal a growing level of social engagement and community passion for this once-derided form. After overwhelming public support, a work by ROA — a giant rabbit painted on the wall of Premises music studio and cafe in Hackney, London, with permission of the owners — was last year ultimately saved from removal by the local council who put work by the renowned artist on par with any other piece of graffiti. Such discussions also provoke lively conversation about ideas behind ‘what constitutes art’, as well as serving as a reminder of the absolutely fleeting nature of such public works of art, which can appear or disappear overnight. Street art is art that evolves with the landscape. It’s a snapshot in time. It’s art not just for people who are into ‘art’ or who seek out these types of works in galleries, but also for anyone who chances to walk by.
So whether or not you can travel to the street art hot spots across the globe, it doesn’t matter. The best street art is that which you stumble across; and if you keep your eyes open, wherever you are, you never know what you might discover.