March 9, 2011

Making the World Beautiful Again

Filed under: Uncategorized — publicandprivatespace @ 1:47 pm

Life Is/Was Beautiful by Banksy. Photograph by the author.

By Phillip Schaefer

In the last week, I have seen works by Shepard Fairey and the identity-elusive Banksy for the first time.  The Shepard Faireys were located here in Cincinnati, both on the side of a building downtown and on display at the Contemporary Arts Center.  While I was in New York City this weekend, one of my main goals was to find a Banksy.  In Chinatown, I finally managed to stumble across two stencils of Alfred Hitchcock, one holding a film clapper that read, “LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL” and the other with the “IS” crossed out and replaced with “WAS”.

Street art is often part of daily life for urban dwellers, as they will most likely pass some form of graffiti in their travels.  However, graffiti has broad and often contradicting definitions, defined differently by city governments and the public.  The government’s opposition to the art form stems from associated criminality and the fact that they do not make revenue from the works, neither of which is completely true.  This art form is used as a means by the anonymous to share their views on the conditions of the world.  It turns up the volume on the vox populi that is normally drowned out in the overwhelming screams of advertising and media.  I hope that since we supposedly live in a democracy, by supporting public opinion in favor of street art, we can change the laws so that these art works become legal.

To start out, there are many different forms of graffiti, the most common and basic being tags, or graf.  A writer will use tags to throw his or her name out into the public sphere to search for fame and notoriety.  It is usually not respected or treated as street art due to the widespread self-centered principles behind it and a lack of aesthetic appeal to a broad audience.  Since graf is usually associated with gangs and juvenile delinquents, it is not often accepted by the public and almost never by governments.

Other types of graffiti include writing, sticking, stencil, poetic assault, and urban design, according to Anderson, et al, (a very informative and well-written article if you have a few hours to kill.  It will be the main source of information for this article).  But let us focus on sticking, stencil, and poetic assault.  These are the forms most accepted by the public as street art.  Sticking stickers and spraying stencils are self-explanatory but poetic assault involves spraying a usually sarcastic poem upon a highly visible surface.  Very often, these works result in beautiful (and valuable) works of art that are often relevant to meaningful social issues of the time.

Unfortunately, governments of the world almost unanimously outlaw graffiti.  Much of this is because of the Broken Window Theory, developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982.  The theory claims that if a window is broken and not fixed, petty crime will rise in the area, leading to serious crime and a decline in society.  Graffiti was considered one of those petty crimes.  Unfortunately, street art in its modern definition has been caught up in the eradication campaigns of cities.  As quoted in Anderson, et al’s article, the London Underground transportation system has stated, “We recognize that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners not professional art critics.”

Sensory overload from advertising. Photograph by the author.

On my trip to New York City, I witnessed the intimidating, massive quantity of advertisements that were everywhere.  I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without being forced to see imagery trying to sell me something.  Times Square put me on sensory overload due to the flashing colors and lights.  While advertising can seem unimportant, it leads to stressful urban environments and a hyper-sexualization of society.

These are the deeper issues in the government’s opposition.  There is the fact that street art serves a nihilistic approach to advertising and the system.  Assuming that politicians in general are in the purses of big business, they try to shut out anything that does not contribute monetarily to society.  Street art provides no immediate profit to anyone, so it goes against the accepted institutions of government, advertising, business, and the major galleries.

An example of businesses employing graffiti to reach out to a younger audience. This tag is located in the restroom entryway in the M&M store in Times Square. Photograph by the author.

This is not entirely true, due to the fact that prominent street artists’ work can increase housing prices and draw business to districts and neighborhoods.  These result in increased tax revenues for the government and a better local economy.  In an unlikely turn of events, advertising has taken up graffiti to reach out to people in an attempt to seem cool and hip.  This is extremely hypocritical due to the fact that they would never allow real graffiti near their businesses.

Many of the manifestos of street artists claim that art is for everyone.  There is nothing stopping you from being an artist.  As Banksy declares in Wall and Piece, “A wall has always been the best place to publish your work.”  To a person with no influence in the political sphere, a can of spray paint can send a very powerful, anonymous message to the world.  The mystique of street art is that anyone can make it, whether the angry son of an unemployed GM worker or the disillusioned daughter of a CEO finding her own voice in the world.

That voice, the vox populi, is the reason public space is transformed when street art is created to fill the void or respond to its surroundings.  Let’s take the example of graffiti on a blank, grey wall in an urban environment.  As a wall, it serves its purpose to provide a barrier but serves only that purpose.  With the addition of street art, the wall becomes a gallery for common folks.  It transforms into a work of art that anyone can see and experience, not just the super wealthy in the Gogasian down the street, conversing about the stunning achievements of Jeff Koons.  Because the work is in the public sphere, the public owns it and the ideology in the piece.  In addition to theoretically changing the wall in an important public space, street art physically makes the space more aesthetically pleasing.

The downside of legality that I can foresee is that rebels now would have their methods of expression become meaningless to them.  Where does one turn when the means one was using to resist become legal?  It is not an accident that the artists conveying subversive messages use an illegal means of transmission.  I would hope that the legality leads to a massive outpouring of artistic creations from both street artists and regular people and not a dangerous or violent form of expression.

Many street artists, particularly Banksy, wouldn’t be nearly as famous if street art was permissible.  There is an almost superhero aura about Banksy due to the fact that we can only guess his identity.  Maybe he would still be the anonymous hero if street art were legal, wandering about cities at night and still hiding his identity.

Many graffiti artists strive to transform the world into a more beautiful place in which to live.  Street art provides us the means to fight back against the onslaught of advertising and offers up a platform upon which to protest anonymously.  Anti-graffiti laws should be amended to allow street art for these purposes, while still keeping graf in check.  What’s wrong with a world covered in art?  The world could use more artists.


  1. by Daniel Rieman

    I am not sure where to begin. I could not agree with your argument about being subjected to advertising more. I could not agree with the arguments on the benefits of graffiti less. While I certainly believe that skilled artists make use of this method, many individuals with no art training at all do graffiti. Not only do I think that people should not be forcefully exposed to advertisements such as they currently are, in a ridiculous amount, but I don’t think a few dollars for a can of spray paint is sufficient qualification to allow someone to forcefully impose their opinion on others in the area. Art has places that it can be appreciated and their has to be some filter through which potential art is passed before it becomes a permanent part of locals’ lives. ” Rules!” should never be displayed publically.

    Comment by Daniel Rieman — March 10, 2011 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

    • by Daniel Rieman

      The last line should read “[anything] Rules!” should not ….

      The web site apparently did not like the characters I chose to separate the word anything.

      Comment by Daniel Rieman — March 10, 2011 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  2. I agree that advertisements are annoying. Most places you go will have some sort of advertisement that completely ruins your train of thought. On the topic of graffiti, though, I don’t believe that all forms are great, although some are. I agree that the forms like graf and tags should not be considered ‘beautiful’. I don’t agree that the sticking and poetic assault is okay, though. Sticking stickers up seems to me, the same as advertising. Poetic assault seems nice for people to be able to get their beliefs out there, but some could be very harsh or have strong language or gruesome ideas that not everyone wants to see (like parents, for example). The graffiti that I believe is ‘beautiful’ is the kind that is truly aesthetically pleasing, and conveys an idea that will promote a better environment or change.

    -Andrea Gillis

    Comment by publicandprivatespace — March 10, 2011 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

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