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2005 12 04
An Introduction to Street Art, Part I
Image: Artist unknown, photograph by Emily Raine.
By Emily Raine
This week’s Reading Montreal postings explore new directions of local street art, often allowing the artists to speak for themselves in interviews with other artists. The enties over the next few days will seek to illuminate radically different approaches to creating art in the streets, and as such pay less attention to more traditional spray painted graffiti and wall images (which, of course, still breathe tremendous life into street art, composing the majority of the works and displaying an incredible depth of skill and breadth of creative interests). Rather, we will look at diverse approaches with very different agendas, such as Glen LeMesurier’s toxin-cleaning statue parks, Nader’s street-refuse taxidermy art, and Roadsworth’s now-infamous street stencils.
Graffiti—at least as it is commonly known today—is widely accepted to have emerged from the subway tunnels of New York in the late 1960s. It was exciting and revolutionary and political; it was the aerosol scream of a thousand kids nobody would listen to, sending their names out of the ghettoes and into the rest of the city, in technicolour. Traditional graffiti continues to be a means for writers to assert their existence on every inch of their hometowns and, paradoxically, it allows them to do so anonymously, except to one another. Graffiti’s ability to satisfy some particular need of its practitioners— its power to speak of the personal among a blur of nameless faces is clear— as is demonstrated by the form’s continuing popularity. In urban environments where only corporations and governments (or those few operating under the aegis of their good graces) are allowed to create images, signs and symbols for display to the public at large, graffiti provides an outlet for the disenfranchised and excluded, to remind everybody else that they are still there.
It is more difficult, however, to identify the point when street art might have begun. Street art, a.k.a. guerilla art, a.k.a. post-graffiti (each category having its own tetchy set of criteria) by most accounts includes graffiti, but it certainly goes beyond it to include everything from chalk or spray-painted portraits to stenciled figures to street installations to images painted on paper and wheat — pasted onto buildings. It certainly sprung from graffiti’s lineage, but it also bears the seeds of graphic design, hobo scrawls, traditional painting and pastels, conceptual installations and political campaign posters. If we were to make a quick rule-of-thumb distinction between the two forms, it might be marked by a move away from the alphabet character bias of graffiti toward more portraiture, cartoons, mosaics, memes, rendering of found objects and logos and installations (although there is certainly street art that makes use of the former and graffiti that incorporates the latter). Street art is mostly illegal, largely created through unpaid labour and is always about reacting to and upon the city. It evidences countless affinities with traditional graffiti culture, but the sheer diversity of its forms requires a new term to step beyond the expectations and standards of “graffiti.”
Street art has found a natural home for the exchange of images, techniques and ideas on the web, where artists can exchange legal and illegal work in anonymity with likeminded creators from around the globe. There are numerous sites dedicated to theoretical discussions of street art and graffiti, to methods of application and tips for execution, and for the exchange of images, such as Art Crimes and Graffiti.net. The New York-based Wooster Collective blog is among the best, featuring the editors’ finds and impressive submissions from virtually everywhere, and there are numerous other sites dedicated to specific locales or sub-genres, such as stencils and stickers. Many artists maintain photo logs and other caches of their own work, including locals Other, Labrona and HVW8.
Emily Raine's 'An Introduction to Street Art' contiues tomorrow.
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