Street art and ‘authority’

Once again, it’s been a long time between posts. The main reason for this is that I contracted whooping cough just before Easter: it turns out that whooping cough is a highly nasty illness and there’s good reason why we vaccinate kids against it. Anyway, while convalescent, I spent a lot of time online: reading blogs, browsing through some great street art websites, and, of course, spending a bit of time on Facebook. Amidst the productive procrastination of all those mad quizzes, recently there’s been some fascinating reading provided by the responses to questions being asked on Facebook by the Wooster Collective (questions which range from ‘what’s your favourite hangover cure’ to ‘what is the best city for street art’). One recent question asked respondents to say what impact they thought it would have if street art were legal. Reading the comments (most of which indicated that something would be lost if street art were legalized) started me thinking about street art and its relation to authority and to the various government bodies and organizations that we might call the ‘authorities’.

Around the same time that the Wooster Collective were asking this question, I received an email from Russell Howze, stencil artist and author of Stencil Nation (it’s also well worth checking out both his blog and Stencil Archive, his fabulous resource on stencil art). In the email, he described the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle (website here), a recent initiative in San Francisco designed to reduce, contain and eliminate graffiti in the city. Russell’s concerns were that the anti-graffiti strategies seemed to be coming thick and fast, and he asked whether any arts organizations were participating in these debates (to provide a counter-voice) and whether any politicians might want to develop initiatives that recognized the positive value street art could have for a city.

So here we have a great example of how the encounter between street art and authority is usually configured (the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle with its objectives of zero tolerance and graffiti prevention) and we can also see how difficult it is to imagine ways in which that encounter might be transformed – an enterprise which would certainly be challenging but which could have many benefits for artists (perhaps reducing the chances of being fined or prosecuted) and for inhabitants of urban spaces (in allowing street art to flourish rather than struggle in the periods in between massive buffing exercises).

Certainly of relevance to the possibility of transforming the encounter between street art and authority is the news that recently the Wooster Collective were invited to the White House. Earlier in May, Marc and Sara, along with around 60 representatives from grassroots arts organizations, attended a briefing session with aides from the Obama administration and participated in workshops focusing on a range of key issues to do with the arts. As they say in the post on their website recounting the event, the issue they wanted to raise was ‘the need to better understand the issues around public and private space’ (for the full post, look here and scroll down to the entry for 13 May 2009).

In some ways, it’s no surprise that the Obama administration would invite individuals interested in street art to such a meeting. The Obama campaign demonstrated that it understood the positive capacities of street art – particularly so in relation to the widespread appearance in public space of the image of Obama created by Shepard Fairey. (You can read about this image and its role in the campaign here.) Fairey talks about his creation of the image in this video:

But in other ways, of course, it’s nothing short of mind-boggling that a government would engage in this sort of outreach towards individuals who have championed artwork that is oftentimes illicit. After reading about the Wooster Collective’s visit to the White House, I tried to imagine the equivalent in other countries – Gordon Brown including Banksy in a round table on the future of the arts in the UK, say, or Kevin Rudd inviting the Everfresh boys to Canberra for a discussion about arts funding.

The comparison isn’t quite an exact one, however: the Wooster Collective are not artists themselves; they are enormously supportive of street art in general and have promoted the work of a wide range of artists in many countries, and have generally raised awareness about street art in the community on an incredible scale. But they are not themselves known for engaging in the production of illicit images, and I’m guessing that this distinction is still important for those in authority, when they issue invitations to participate in such debate.

I am only speculating here – I don’t know who else was invited to the White House: there may have been a street artist there as well (but I’m guessing that Marc and Sara would have said if there had been). But once we get over the surprise and delight that such a meeting took place, what are the outcomes that we might hope for when street art, like Mr Smith, ‘goes to Washington’?

It’s an interesting question – partly because I’m still unsure of what this could lead to. I can see that there are a lot of things that can be gained in terms of the symbolic support it gives to street art(ists) and the potential for parlaying this kind of recognition into all sorts of consciousness-raising efforts. It’s hard to think of concrete outcomes partly because we really haven’t seen an encounter like this, at this level of power, and with so much potential. But I’m also pretty sure that there are some risks too, and this is because there are so many instances of the encounter between street art and authority at lower levels of government making things harder for street artists or leading to some pretty strange results.

Here’s one example: in Melbourne, a few yeas back, the City of Melbourne agreed to support a project whereby artists would be permitted to paint the walls in Union Lane, in the city centre. Union Lane is a narrow lane that connects one of the major retail thoroughfares (Bourke Street) with another shopping street running parallel to it, Little Collins Street. Many of Melbourne’s laneways possess great charm and character; Union Lane does not – it was a forbidding, gloomy stretch of laneway, its unrelieved concrete walls were plain grey on one side and on the other had been painted with an uninspired, bland mural which pictorialized various civic virtues (and which had been heavily tagged).

The Union Lane project was a fantastic idea, in many ways, and it was brought into being through the hard work of a lot of people. Several well-known, highly respected artists and experienced artists were commissioned to paint in the massive work that was to cover both walls for the entire length of the laneway (which is pretty long – a city block). These artists also mentored younger artists on the project. Visiting street artists joined in. The result was a collage of styles and images produced by dozens of individuals. Passers-by took photographs; tourists visited the site; many talked with the artists and learned something about street art as they watched it being carried out. You can see the lane as it was before, and the process of developing and painting the laneway in this video:

It sounds brilliant, and in many ways it was. Surely this would be an example of the encounter between street art and authority working at its best? Well, a few unexpected problems arose. Although the presence of a high quality piece on a wall usually inspires respect from other writers or artists (that is, they don’t go over the work), the Union Lane paintings have quickly been tagged. Some people have speculated that the stencilled words ‘Street art permit: City of Melbourne’ might imply to some that the site is one where anyone can and should put up, rather than a site to be looked at.

It’s also my suspicion that the initiative demonstrates how easy it is for there to be a clash between the expectations of those in ‘authority’ and the norms and practices of street art culture. The City of Melbourne put time, effort and money into the project, and as such, wanted to protect their investment and preserve the result. Graffiti writers and street artists, however, did not necessarily view the site or the project as one which deserved permanence and preservation (two things which are not really high on the list of priorities for many graffiti writers anyway) beyond the recognition of the skills of various artists who contributed to the project.

And so, as time has passed, Union Lane is gradually becoming shabbier. Because of this, there’s a risk that it will be held up some day as an example of why such initiatives fail to achieve any positive results. Could this have been avoided? Well, one possible strategy would have been to have recognized at the outset that permanence isn’t highly valued in street art and graffiti cultures and that a range of temporary surfaces (such as hoardings) could be attached to the walls of Union Lane for artists to paint and re-work over time, with the hoardings being removed and replaced periodically.

Such an approach would no doubt bring with it its own particular issues and potential problems, but at least it would demonstrate that those in ‘authority’ are not just dispensing largesse (which can be revoked) but are actively trying to understand how street art and graffiti work.

So I guess my main point is this: in any encounter with authority, street art and street artists need to expect that all will not go according to plan, and that any plan needs to incorporate contingencies as to what might happen down the track, when the expectations of those in authority are not met.

And I think, at the moment, this will always happen, because there’s such an asymmetry between the positions of those with power (councils, the Obama administration) and those without it (graffiti writers, arts organizations, street artists). (And it would be great if the Wooster Collective’s encounter with authority could lead to a discussion as to how street artists might work to render that relationship less asymmetrical.)

I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but over the years I have seen many instances of street artists or graffiti writers trying to engage positively with ‘authority’, and I have had some experience of trying to do so myself. If someone loses out, it’s usually the artist. (And I would love to hear from anyone who has had experience of trying to work with ‘authority’ – whether successful or unsuccessful.)

So when street art ‘goes to Washington’, it’s going to be essential to have a clear idea of what street art can gain from the encounter, what ‘authority’ can offer street art, and what risks might lie ahead, even with an administration that has shown remarkable understanding and appreciation of all that street art can offer the community.

8 comments so far

  1. Sara and I read your blog post this morning and found it spot on in looking at the complexity of the issue of trying to “mainstream” street art. We agree 100% with your very balanced view. It’s indeed a very slippery slope. Where we netted out is that we need a deeper understanding of the issue around public space, the proliferation of outdoor advertising, etc. When it comes to the act of graffiti or street art, more tolerance is needed but full “acceptance” can, and should not, be the goal.

  2. Flaneurbanite on

    Hi Alison, you have brought out the dichotomy between the concept of legitimizing street art and its inherent quality of being subversive, non-sponsored and impermanent really well. I doubt street art can ever become fully ‘mainstream’ in the sense of its very nature being covert. It’s heartening to see greater acceptance of it, but at the same time, will this ‘mass acceptance’ threaten the authenticity of it?

  3. Mark Holsworth on

    A great entry about an issue that keeps on coming up but until now hasn’t been clearly articulated. The authority to create in public space will always be an issue for artists but it is particular for street artists. The author, in street art is often anonymous, and often appropriates the authority to use the space. The asymmetry of power between the authors/writers and the authorities are part of the dynamic of street art.
    I thought that there was an expensive layer of anti-graffiti material over the Union Lane project and that it just has not been cleaned.

  4. Byron on

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I think the only cure for authenticating street art as a legitimate artistic form into the mainstream is unfortunately time. Certainly, media attention such as Shepard is getting helps. I think the greatest impact is created through dialogue. For instance on a recent visit to my parents home, I took my mother out to the “rougher” part of town to see what the walls had to offer. She was able to see the beauty of the artist’s expression instantly, getting a better idea of why I love it so much and now routinely checking it out on her own. With camera in hand, she snapped away and entered some of the graffiti shots into an amateur photo contest. People were amazed when they found out what it was. It is this kind of positive experience that I feel will enhance respect for the medium and move it toward acceptance one person at a time.

  5. pie eater on

    Hi, I’m a new reader, found your blog by accident.

    The thing about the “permanence” … You have to understand that dynamic and fresh pieces getting up is a quality initself on any particular spot. Stale murals, however talented, that occupy one particular space for an indefinite amount of time is contrary to the street culture.

    You always will want new pieces getting up. There will always be pieces that most writers will respect and hence will be untouched by the majority of writers for some time, but those kind of pieces have their status through the skills and merit of the writer and the inherent qualities of the piece – in oppposition to a permit on getting up, or an appointment of some kind.

    No matter what you paint and where, at some point someone will go over it. either because of ignorance, dislike, drunkenness, or some other reason. It’s part and parcel of the whole graffiti / street art scene, and all artists recognize this. It’s accepted and encouraged.

    Nobody wants walls that are stale, with only certain artists (those who were first) – being first is a quality, for sure, but being better or bolder is also a quality. And one qulaity who beats all is constant development of a spot; ever-chagingn graphic expressions depending on who happened to visit the spot that particular day: It’s about dynamics, about life.

    Life is the biggest quality, that’s why stale murals – regardless how good they are – will always get a going over at some point. And it’s allright.

  6. Seije on

    Interesting stuff. I am a Dutch newspaper journalist and did a feature on ‘guerrilla gardening’ in the netherlands last year. I’d arranged to meet up with some guerrilla gardeners who were about to illegally improve a street in rotterdam.

    Arriving on the scene, it turned out that the ‘guerilla gardeners’ were actually members of the green left party in the local council, who (ab)used the event to hand out flyers about their party platform, and who told me they thought it would be a good idea if the ‘city government would subsidize events like these’. Additionally, they’d arranged for drug addicts from a local shelter to help out with the gardening, basically turning it into a social welfare project. Which may be sympathetic in its own right, but social welfare has nothing to do street art.

    I thought it was a great example of how authorities, when they start supporting underground things will – sometimes consciously, sometimes unwittingly – always impose their own agenda on the projects they’re supporting.

  7. SPARCS on

    long time bw posts indeed…

    It does seem that there is mis-information regarding “permits” such as the one operating in Hosier. Groups of taggers were operating there regardless of who’s work they were going over. It was the belief that the permit allowed for the “mural” to change over time. This is not the case and one was not protected. BUT that still seems to be the thought. It is difficult to get any one out side of street art circles to realise the difference between different moral codes that operate with different people or sub-cultures. I have noticed a great deal of graffiti in the city decreasing in quality… lots more tagging.

  8. kitty on

    I think it’s also worth noting the use of stenciling by government to convey youth oriented policy and propaganda. You may have noticed a whole heap of ‘anti-drug’ stencils appearing around Melbourne Uni in the last month as part of the ‘you don’t know what it will do to you’ campaign. It would be interesting to investigate the legality of such work – I suppose this would probably fall under council-sanctioned street “art”. Anyhow, it is, at the very least, completely hypocritical and at odds with the official stance of local and state government towards street art!

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