Street Art: From Ghetto Graffiti to Collectable Commodity

Armed with spray cans, creativity and a healthy dose of wit, street artists are like modern day folk heroes who bring colour and joy to the bleak urban jungles that we call home.

The origins of street art go back as far as the 20’s and 30’s, where gangs began scrawling graffiti on buildings and subway cars. However, it wasn’t until the 70’s and 80’s that this subversive culture was truly felt, and eventually emerged as an artform in its own right.

New York City in the 70’s was a gritty and dangerous place. Outside of a few central areas, beleaguered communities and marginalised social groups found what housing they could in the urban sprawl; blacks, whites and every colour in between all languishing in the multicultural melting pot. With little hope for life beyond the ghetto, an entire generation of youth found their expression through hip hop culture. If you were from the streets you were either a “rapper”, a “breaker” (break dancer), or a “writer” (graffiti writer).

The BMT Jamaica line, late 1970s (Source: NYT)

Before graffiti was seen as a creative outlet with artistic potential, individual writers and gangs plastered their signature “tags” all over buildings, buses, benches and trains all over in the city. To be “up” was to be seen and to assert control over an urban area.

In New York City especially, graffiti writers took their artform to the next level by creating “pieces”, which were graffiti-style murals sometimes the size of a whole subway car. These graffiti pieces became so prolific, that for a time in the late 70’s just about every train in the city was covered, which made for a surreal spectacle as the trains made their daily routes like fluro-kaleidoscopic cameos on a ghetto-apocalyptic backdrop.

"Graffiti on the walls of trains or subway stations create bad karma", "I prefer to think of these [bundles of razor-edged metal coils] as steel dogs with razor teeth ... you don't have to feed steel dogs"

NYC Mayor, Ed Koch

After a decade of graffiti soaked streets and subways the public outcry had reached its crescendo. Commuters were deserting the subways in droves, and New York declared war on graffiti. In 1976 the city spent $20 million on a chemical wash called “the buff”, which used giant brushes and toxic chemicals to remove graffiti from trains on a daily basis. The result was less than ideal since all it did was to smear the paint and leave the trains a murky brown colour. Following this, the city allocated a further $22.4 million to surround the subway yards with bundles of razor-edged metal coils and double fences with dog patrols. After countless millions were spent, the city eventually succeeded in deterring all but the most die-hard writers from the subway, whereas the rest merely turned their attention toward the streets.

For a more in-depth view be sure to check out the “Style Wars” documentary, which follows a group of prolific graffiti artists as they battle to get their work up around New York in the 70’s.

Transition from Ghetto Graffiti to Street Art

After a decade of refining their artform, graffiti writers like Lee Quiñones, Seen, Dondi, Zephyr had laid the foundation for what was now known as “graffiti art”. The art world started taking notice, and wealthy collectors and influential art dealers from nearby SoHo started buying up and holding exhibitions of their work.

Graffiti writers were naturally opposed to the commodification of art that came with traditional art-establishment shows, and those who participated were quick to be branded as “sellouts” by their peers. For most of the artists though, this was their first opportunity to be paid for their work and even though they were now rubbing shoulders with society types they grew up despising, it’s hard to turn down cold hard cash when you’re living in a flop house.

During the early 80’s, graffiti art reached its peak in the New York City art world, and the movement claimed the spotlight. Outsider artists inspired by graffiti art started to make their way onto the scene, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and David Wojnarowicz. Though these artists did not consider themselves graffiti writers as such, each of them was immersed in the culture and began developing their style writing or drawing on city walls. These artists expressed dissenting opinions of marginalized groups such as gay men (Haring and Wojnarowicz) and African Americans (Basquiat). As they pursued their careers in the traditional art market, it was their strong individual voices and anti-establishment ideals that allowed them to evade the influence of gallery owners and maintain control over the production of their artwork.

Against His Vanity, by David Wojnarowicz (Source: washingtonpost.com)

These outsider artists represented a further shift away from “graffiti art” towards what we know as “street art”. In the graffiti world, “graffiti” deals with letters and words, where as “street art” is predominantly image based and often carries a social relevant or politically subversive theme designed to get the viewer to question the status quo.

"It confirms that aerosol art is the same as any other fine art, and that the artist deserves dignity and respect", said Eric Baum, the lawyer who represented the 21 artists who sued Wolkoff.

Places like the Institute of Higher Burning in Long Island City, New York, also known as 5Pointz, provided safe haven for artists to meet and interact with other artists. 5Pointz, founded in 1993 by Jonathan Cohen, was both a local icon and a community hub that provided established artists and wayward youth with a place to mingle and channel their energy into something positive. With nearly a decade of mind blowing artworks accumulated on the walls, Cohen had big plans to turn the building into a street art museum. However, those plans were dashed when the the building was sold to Jerry Wolkoff of G&M Realty. In 2013, Wolkoff whitewashed the entire building under the cover of darkness with the intention of demolishing and replacing it with condos in a process of gentrification. The ensuing class action lawsuit of the artists vs. Wolkoff lasted until 2017, when a jury decided that the artists’ work was legally protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act (Vara), and the artists were awarded $6.7 million for damages done by Wolkoff.

5Pointz in Queens, NYC (Source: graffitilib.com)

In 2011, street art had its first major museum survey, Art in the Streets, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. The survey was organised by the newly appointed museum head, Jeffrey Deitch, and was seen as a risky move by the MOCA which had hit on hard times. Despite his critics and lack of museum experience, Deitch was determined to breathe new life into the institution. To his credit, the show was a resounding success which resulted in record attendance for the museum, matched only by the Andy Warhol retrospective in 2002.

"Museums are used to dealing with artists who behave in a museum," Deitch said, “but here, we’re dealing with artists many of whom misbehave in a museum."

The Rise of Female Street Artists

Because graffiti was a by-product of hip hop culture, which is notorious for hypersexualising and marginalising women, female graffiti artists had to struggle to receive the same recognition for their work as their male counterparts. This sexual polarity, which Dr. Jessica Pabón feels can breed “a culture of misogyny”, resulted in a strong feminist movement among women in the graffiti world.

Braddock Steel by Swoon. Photo Alyssa Dennis.

Back in 1979 in NYC, when street art was an exclusive boys club, Lady Pink burst onto the scene and soon became the only female capable of competing with the boys in the graffiti subculture. Since then female street artists have worked hard to be recognised in the street art scene, and now some of the best street artists in the world are women.

Some examples are the German MadC, who stays true to her graffiti roots with her geometric flow and lettering is one of the most prolific street artists working today; the American Swoon, whose life-sized wheat-paste murals reflecting the social an environmental issues embellish walls and abandoned buildings all over Brooklyn and Manhattan; Maya Hayuk and her massive abstract murals characterized by intricate patterns, symmetrical compositions and super bright colors, that are spread all over the world; and Lady AIKO, recognised as one of the most important artists to emerge in the new millennium thanks to her unique art blending the aesthetics of Western and Eastern culture.

Street Art Today

Of course, no street art article would be complete without a honourable mention to Banksy. Listed as one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in 2010, Banksy is arguably one of the most controversial street artists, and one of the main characters responsible for the massive popularity of street art today. In what is known as ”the Banksy effect”, he has inspired a whole new generation of artists to take up street art with his daredevil stunts and simple yet poignant artworks. Some his better known stunts include; stenciling images of love and peace on the Bethlehem Wall in war-torn Palestine; sneaking one of his paintings onto the wall in the Tate museum in London; face painting an entire elephant in his New York “Barely Legal” show; and shredding one of his paintings sold for 1.4m at a Sotheby’s auction.

Other incredibly talented street artists like Vhils, Cryptik, Kobra, and D*Face - just to name a few - continue to raise the bar with each new piece, and bring colour on a huge scale to our largely monochromatic cityscapes.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest issues facing street art world today is the dilution of its essence through excessive commercialisation. While some artists like Ron English and Shepard Fairey openly embrace it, others like Blu go as far as destroying their own works in protest. It just remains to be seen whether street art can stay true to its roots in an age of commodification where popularity bestows value.