Street Art, Space, and Public Democracy
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall spent much of his working life focused on the politics of popular culture. As a lyrical New Yorker piece notes, Hall saw popular culture as a site where the “struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged”. And Hall sought to excavate how that struggle was played out — how popular cultural products could be outlets for oppression, as well as rallying-points for resistance.
I want to think a little about how street art involves a struggle for and against “a culture of the powerful” — in particular in its sense of authorship, its accessibility, its relationship to ideas of private property and public space. Politics, for me, is centrally concerned with power — with how individuals, identities, and institutions gain or lose power — and I want to contend that it is possible to see street art as related to, and part of, that tussle for power.
Street art is a diverse and varied form, stretching from small scribbles on alleyway walls to tags, murals, and multimedia installations. (Some commentators try to bracket murals out of street art, but it is difficult to maintain this distinction.) What unifies all street art, or graffiti (the term sometimes reserved for certain types of wall writing, but which I’ll use interchangeably with ‘street art’), is the presentation in streets — usually in urban spaces — of some kind of visual expression: often writing, drawing, or painting. Street art is difficult to understand without reference to a broader culture: street artists have often been associated with dissent, activism, and hip-hop in particular. (Graffiti was originally seen as one of the four pillars of hip-hop, as Neil Kulkarni recounts in his excellent book, The Periodic Table of Hip Hop.) And it is worth noting that some street art, perhaps most famously the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, is now housed in galleries and museums.
I began to take an interest in street art a few years ago after passing pieces repeatedly on walks or in new cities. It was initially a backdrop to photographs with friends: a way to hint at a sense of subversion or a rebelliousness that we probably never really had. But in the last two years I’ve started to reflect a little more seriously on it. Like anyone exploring a new form, I’ve noticed patterns (in style or colour) and developed a kind of taste for some pieces more than others. On trips I’ve been lucky to make of late — to Lisbon, Athens, Berlin, and Reykjavik — seeing street art has occupied a significant part of my time in a new city. There is something playful about much street art that I am drawn to: again, it may well be a way that I try to offset an embarrassing earnestness. But street art is also often visually dazzling, confounding, and complicated. I find that combination of qualities intensely attractive.
I write about street art, however, as a merely amateur admirer, observer, and critic. Where I have some more limited expertise is in political writing and thinking — in reflecting on the power of political ideas, and the way they manifest in different ways over time. I bring to street art an interest, too, in creativity as a political value. I recognise, though, that those political preoccupations can provide both beneficial background and unhelpful blinkers for analysing the art of the street.
I illustrate the analysis with some images of street art I’ve come across, in particular from Europe and the United States (a selection shaped by the places I’ve travelled to). I’ve considered whether to include these images: as I discuss further below, there is a risk that in cocooning them within this essay I pervert their public character by using them for private benefit. There is also a danger that I give insufficient credit to artists, since I have not (in almost all pieces that I’ve viewed that do not contain a signature) been able to discover the artists behind the art. But, as I’ll explain further, questions of authorship are far from straightforward in street art; often artists do not want to be acknowledged and seek to remain anonymous (though this is not true in every instance). Moreover, I present images below in the good faith hope that including them will help to advance the general appreciation of street art, and will support street art’s public character by allowing pieces to be shared with a broader audience.
American graffiti, the history of which is partially told in the John Waters-narrated documentary Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence, took off in the 1970s with a series of tags in New York and Philadelphia: signed designs, such as ‘TAKI 183’, referring to the name of the tagger. (I say that Wall Writers tells a “partial” history because it tells a story focused on Greek-American and other white American taggers, neglecting other histories of graffiti, including the history of black artists; it also says very little about the history of graffiti in other countries.)
These tags drew attention to artists — they were in some ways a defiant assertion in the face of authorities trying to outlaw street art — but they were also ambiguous visually and in the fact that they tended to lack a surname. This early approach to possession of art throws light on street art’s complicated relationship with authorship. Some street artists, like dscreet, have a well-known style that serves as a kind of visual signature: dscreet is known for painting distinctive spiky-head creatures with wide eyes and seemingly mechanical talons. Others, most notably Banksy, have a moniker that is known but an identity that remains anonymous. (There has recently, of course, been speculation that Banksy is Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja.) Taggers often seek to leave their imprint on a visual landscape. Many street artists, though, have neither a traditional nor a visual signature. It seems a fair generalisation, overall, that street art is distinguished by a foregrounding of the art — and a relegating of artist ego to the background. Certainly, other forms of art can also relegate authorship or be anonymous. But street art is characterised, perhaps even defined, by enigma surrounding the precise identity of an artist.
That enigma has a political significance. The relegating of artist ego in street art could be seen as a way to resist the individualistic, perhaps neoliberal model of artist as auteur, as virtuoso, as genius. It is a counter-intuitive act in our celebrity-obsessed world, where a person’s identity and ego are so often celebrated. More importantly, the minimising of artist ego or specific identity in street art allows viewers to imagine anyone as the artist or author of a piece. There is a democratic, egalitarian commitment in that act of imagination. The ethos is embodied visually in the mural of a hooded Athenian presented above. The face of the hooded man is left in the dark. But in the building’s alcove that sits in front of the face, a figure has been painted in: capable of being painted over, or replaced with others.
The contrast between street art’s approach to authorship and the norms of our time is brought out by thinking about what a ‘tag’ now means to most people — in the world of Facebook. A tag is a way to identify people, to gain social capital by showing association with a particular community, to mark individuals out. This is a long way from the tags of Taki and others, which may have represented distinctive contributions to the landscape, but nevertheless involved a certain ambiguity or enigma around identity that is nowhere to be found on Facebook. Tagging in street art prefigured Facebook tagging, but the move from tags on the street to tags online also says something about the entrenchment of egotistical norms today.
The ambiguity towards authorship in street art connects to a second politically significant feature of street art: its relative accessibility.
It’s important to be cautious when making sweeping claims about how accessible street art is compared to other forms of art. It is easy, almost clichéd, to draw crude conclusions about the inaccessibility of art, especially contemporary art. As well, it would be to reduce street art to say that it always involves simple messages or straightforward imagery. To be sure, some street art contains direct statements or clear metaphors. I’ve seen this in Northern Ireland and Palestine, where such art can have an important function. I’ve also seen this slightly more subtly in the somewhat didactic (but interestingly presented) Bristol piece on knowledge and power, or the Lisbon rendering of vulture capitalism in a suit:
But street art is often textured, indirect, and multi-layered too.
Perhaps the most that can be said about the accessibility of the substance of street art is that it is often connected to the contemporary: to current events, culture of the moment, and recent political developments. This makes it appropriate, I think, to describe street art as part of popular culture, and to understand analysis of street art (even analysis of the slapdash kind, presented here) as cultural studies in the Stuart Hall mode. To take just one example: soon after the international relations stoush between US President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-Un in 2017, a nifty piece appeared in Richmond, Melbourne showing Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump straddling nuclear warheads, with Trump gripping the warhead and holding his arm out, rodeo-style. Street art is, in many or even most cases, a pronouncement on the present — an attempt to make sense of the moment we find ourselves in — and that tends to make it legible to those who are engaged in the world around them.
More persuasively, street art is accessible because of where it is situated: on the street, in a public space. There is no price tag for viewing it. Anyone on the street can view, observe, and reflect on a piece of art. It could be said that many galleries and museums are free, often due to public funding. All too often, however, there is an invisible price to be paid for entering these spaces: the price of being, and feeling like, a member of the community comfortable in galleries and museums. Galleries and museums in many places are working hard to get rid of this invisible price. But the physical design, the conventions, and the location of these spaces can create an atmosphere of exclusivity. There is less of this on the street. Street art is outdoors. It exists across a range of suburbs and urban spaces. There are no real expectations of how graffiti is viewed or talked about. These features serve as a reminder of the importance of where art is placed. They also highlight street art’s close connection to political values of inclusivity and democracy.
There is another political dimension of street art’s placement or location. Street art involves a claim about the importance of public space. Sometimes street art is done in public spaces: in squares, on government buildings, in communal areas. But in other instances, it is done on private property: on the front of houses, on walls jutting out into alleys, even on corporate high-rises. Take, for example, the striking image below of a clenched fist rising out of the Earth, in downtown Reykjavik. Whether street art leaves its mark on public or private property, it entails a demand that more space be shared. In spaces where street art appears, our gaze is directed to a common object. We are asked to have an experience of a piece of art in common, outside, while we rub shoulders with each other as part of a community. The claim is perhaps clearer where street art is left on private property. In these instances, street art may involve a more aggressive assertion of the need to beat back the expansion of exclusionary private spaces. More public spaces is the obvious alternative.
Any discussion of street art’s relationship to private and public property runs quickly into two thorny aspects of street art today: its increasing commercialisation and its legal regulation. It is true that more and more, companies are using street art — often presented as if it were spontaneous and bottom-up — to add a radical edge to their brand. Companies are making profits, too, from street art tours. We ought to be sceptical of such co-opting of street art’s subversive, dissenting potential, and we should seek to highlight where corporate branding masquerades as genuine graffiti. This corporate branding is not a claim for public space. It’s a tool for enhancing private profit. Such veiled branding should be a source of significant frustration when we remind ourselves that independent street art is, in many cases, banned or highly regulated. This is not the place to offer a review of the legal position of street art in different jurisdictions. It is enough to say that acknowledgment of the expressive content of street art — acceptance that street art is a form of political expression in so many cases — might prompt more circumspect regulation of public space than is currently in place in many countries.
One particularly delicate — and perhaps difficult — issue is the posting of photographs on street art on Instagram. I have used my Instagram account to catalogue the street art that has most impressed me. But I have wondered whether that denies the public value of street art, by bringing artworks within the domain of my Instagram account. The problem is perhaps amplified by the fact that Instagram famously claims copyright to all images posted there. Posting street art on Instagram, in one sense, involves a transfer of art from the public realm to the corporate realm of Facebook, which acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion. I continue to wrestle with whether this transfer is sufficiently offset by the benefit of sharing street art more widely, and encouraging its viewing.
The claim by street artists to genuine public space (even in the face of intrusive regulation and corporate creep) acquires heightened significance when we consider the broader political context in many countries around the world. The neoliberalism of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s — a package of economic reforms (including privatisation, deregulation, and reduced progressive taxation), backed by a set of maxims and ideas about the free market and government — rolled back public services in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It simultaneously gave weight to private wealth, and to the notion that individuals should be free to spend their money and to use their property however they like — without the interference of government. Neoliberalism resulted, as Wendy Brown has hinted in Undoing the Demos, in an emasculated vision of what ‘the public’ is. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “there is no such thing as society”. Public spaces — including parks and libraries — were underfunded or, in some cases, directly privatised.
One of the tasks facing us all, as we survey the rubble left by neoliberalism and search for an alternative political model, is to rebuild the idea of ‘the public’. Part of this project involves rehabilitating the State, and renewing the arguments in favour of regulation, redistribution, and other functions. But it also involves rejuvenating community more generally. The State has some role in that (it can, for example, support co-operative economic models or seek to address loneliness), but artists and activists must also be given space to strengthen social bonds away from the State. In that endeavour — that push to prioritise a ‘public democracy’ that addresses the shortcomings of the social democratic model — it is no stretch to say that street art might well be an emblem of a new political project.
Stuart Hall wanted to trace the “struggle for and against a culture of the powerful” in popular culture. I’ve tried to show that street art is one arena where that struggle can be mapped. Street art has been turned into a weapon for a culture of the powerful where it has been corporatised, as I’ve just mentioned. More often than not, though — in the best work of Basquiat, in the first tags of Taki in 1970s America, in the throws I’ve seen in Lisbon and Athens and Reykjavik and elsewhere — it is part of the struggle against a culture of the powerful, particularly through its approach to authorship, its accessibility, its relationship to public space. It is a tool of the counter-culture, a site and symbol of subversion. And, I’ve suggested, it may yet be an important part of struggles still to come.
Lead photo by Jonas Bengtsson / Flickr.