Street Art and Other Utopias

Street Art, once seen as common graffiti and an aspect of urban blight has, since the 1980s rise of the East Village Art Scene, evolved into a sophisticated art form with its own cadre of influential luminaries. The first wave of graffiti art embraced by the art world featured the tags and classic metallic lettering of Futura 2000, Lady Pink and others, which evolved out of a New York City scene involving scaled fences and barbed wire cutters to spray paint entire subway cars and forbidden tunnel walls. A recent City as Canvas exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York featured many key artists from this era. Street art eventually made its way into galleries, on canvas, with names like Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat producing loft-worthy collections of large-scale artwork, recognized by none other than Andy Warhol.

Of these, Keith Haring, who originally began making ephemeral chalk drawings in the New York City subway of his signature icons, most notably a barking dog, emerged as a social change muralist, creating community projects festooned with kinetic figures addressing the crack epidemic and AIDs.

haring CrackisWackOpenly gay at a time when much of the celebrity and art worlds remained closeted in mainstream terms, Haring was vocal about his sexual orientation, and though he succumbed to AIDS in 1990, prior to his death established the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding to AIDS organizations and educational programs. Some of his New York City murals, like “Crack is Wack” located at a playground at East 128th Street and the Harlem River Drive, can still be seen, along with others around the world, and his artworks are included in global contemporary art collections.

Due in part to its ephemeral nature, street art has found a captive audience online through myriad curated galleries like Street Art Utopia, and is a popular hashtag on Instagram: #streetart. Citizen art journalists provide the eyes on the streets of the world, capturing details often lost to commuter crowds. With eyes alert to scanning, the walls do talk.

Global art star and masked street artist Banksy responded to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 with an powerful message about the unstoppable impulses of art and free speech. It quickly traversed the interwebs along with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie:

v2-Banksie-mainIn October 2013, the British artist took to the streets of New York for a self-declared art residency, “Better Out Than In,” that resulted in a new spectacle of graffiti, performance art and galleries each day, documented on his website and on Instagram. While the residency evoked the ire of then-Mayor Bloomberg, the residency poke fun at the art world commerce, strip clubs, the meatpacking industry and fast food slave wages, which coincided with an increasingly vocal national movement to raise the minimum wage in the United States to $15 an hour.

Banksy's_Ronald_McDonald_sculpture_from_Better_Out_Than_In_New_York_City_residencySwoon, one of the few female street artists to gain substantial recognition of late (see #swoonstreetart on Twitter and Instagram), recently created Submerged Motherlands, an installation about climate change and Hurricane Sandy at The Brooklyn Museum:



and a participatory art project, The Climate Ribbon, featured at The People’s Climate March this past September. Swoon, who specializes in life-size human figure storytelling portraits made of wheatpaste prints and paper cutouts, has used many other sculptural media to address key issues, like climate change and environmental pollution, including found object trash flotillas like Swimming Cities of Serenissima, a collaborative project that crashed the 2009 Venice Biennale:

swimmingcity1-1In 2010, following the devestating earthquake in Haiti, Swoon led a sustainable building project using ancient island building techniques more recently replaced by fragile cinder block structures which easily crumbled during the seismic rift, called Konbit Shelter, which continues on:

Initiated by a small group of artists interested in how the creative process might positively impact people’s lives in times of crisis, Konbit Shelter has collaborated with the village of Cormiers, Haiti, to create a community center and two single-family houses, as well as the seeds of initiatives in sustainability and education.

konbit shelter

French “photograffeur” JR, awarded the Ted Prize in 2011 has traveled the world creating street art projects that engage the stories and struggles of the world most poverty-stricken people. Here is his Ted Prize wish: “to use art to turn the world inside out.”

Since winning the prize, JR has also been working on a new project in New York City as Ellis Island, hints of which have been revealed on his dynamic Instagram feed.

If you have any doubts about the far-reaching power of art that begins in the marginal spaces of public walls and sidewalks, consider the impact this image had on the historic 2008 election. It was produced by a one-time street artist and skateboarder from Los Angeles, the now world-renowned Shepard Fairey.


Fairey continues to produce limited edition posters and projects for global free speech movements as well as Rock the Vote. This is his most recent offering on money and politics:



Keep an eye out for messages on the walls of a street or a sidewalk near you. They may surprise you.

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  1. Peta Mni

    What I appreciate most about Street Art is it’s strong subtextual messaging of “We exist”, “We were here” and “We matter”. I use the plural because more often than not the artists represent marginalized groups be they economic, ethnic or cultural otherness within the artist’s world and lived experience. The art pieces speak to me of relationship to prevailing power structures, best understood as a one sided conversation with power wherein the artist found need to create the platform in order to be heard. Understanding this subtext allows me to better view and evaluate each piece for its’ dialogic forum in service to confronting contemporary issues of marginalization. With Street Art’s assimilation by High Art however the risk of it’s original intent being lost or distorted is formidable. Due to that, I am thankful for modern archival technologies being able to assist with Street Art’s preservation, not only for appearance but more importantly it’s original meaning.

  2. jennifer chien

    Street Art is absolutely inspiring in a way that engages viewers at the most unknown times. They attack important situations affecting the world through a way that enables the viewer to stop and think twice of what the message is pertaining to. With subliminal context given within each individual artwork, it challenges the artist to think of distinctive ideas that will showcase their work best.

  3. R. Stauffer

    Echoing what Peta said, I love the community and spirit of “we” street art fosters. Along the same lines of this sentiment, I think street art offers a level of accessibility and innovation that sometimes doesn’t translate as well in “formal” art (for lack of a better term). Marginalized groups (for whom street art often represents or speaks for) don’t always have access to museums, art exhibits, etc., which some would argue limits their scope of artistic exposure. I’ve always been fascinated by street art because, in my view, it is a very “for the people” medium, which I believe art of all forms should be—inclusive rather than exclusive, thought-provoking rather than telling, and having to do with our humanity rather than existing in the abstract of someone’s artistry.

    Cliché as it may be, I am continuously intrigued by Banksy’s pieces. His art says the things other people won’t say, and based on what I read, his residency brought a tremendous amount of attention to the push to raise minimum wage. Though there’s a great deal of subliminal symbolism in street art, I think there’s more of an overt statement than in artwork from different outlets.

    It’s interesting how some people view street art as defaming something (a building, location, etc.) when some of the most iconic works of our time have been, in fact, street art. In my opinion, it gives much more to the community than it takes.

    I found an article on female street artists—one of whom recently propelled her street art into a collaboration with Chanel and another who draws upon individuals who have been left out of religious imagery. Amazing to see how styles differ:

  4. Adrienne S

    One of the things that I love about street art is the way it adds a dash of beauty to a place. A lot of areas in my city aren’t so vibrant or colorful and it’s always refreshing to see a mural splashed across a dusty red building.

    The other thing I really love about street art is that it provides a creative outlet for those who might have no other place to turn. In my area, there are a lot of kids who can’t afford a canvas or paint or even a computer. But what they can afford is paint. Some tag buildings, but a few have stepped up and asked permission from building owners to create art on the unused sides of their buildings. This not only helps the artist grow and create, but it also draws in more customers for the shops around the art. To me, it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

    • John Wilson

      “Some tag buildings, but a few have stepped up and asked permission from building owners to create art on the unused sides of their buildings.”

      I love this notion that people don’t just take to give something back but instead they ask. I am all for art and self expression but do find that those people who deface something to give voice to another cause are missing the meaning behind free expression. One does not need to destroy to create nor do people need to cover up something that has it’s own meaning. When people do this, it shows a level or insecurity and ignorance that will untimely cause people to miss the point of their piece.

  5. bill ritter

    there is inarguably a sense of excitement and vibrancy with much street art — certainly with the kind like JR’s, that makes a point and does it with a broad brush approach. There is a huge history of public art, peoples’ art – a centuries’ old tradition that not only celebrated art and culture and politics and various movements, but that also represented a kind of defiant act of civil disobedience by hijacking a swath of private property and turning it into something to publicly behold.

    how wonderfully and socially romantic.
    unless, of course, you own the property. then art is truly in the eye of the beholder, right?
    Only when one has owned a home or a building and have it changed (defaced?) by someone who hasn’t asked can we get a 360-view of the issue of street art.

    We have, in many ways, circumvented this thorny issue by becoming civilized, and reaching a societal consensus that old-fashioned gangsta kind of graffiti that defaces public or private property isn’t “acceptable” (although some or much of it, depending on your tastes) might very well be attractive.

    some of the street art that we now see isn’t put up in the dead of night in a kind of clandestine guerrilla theater (although some is)…. but instead some successful street artists thrive by getting permission to adorn an otherwise dreary brick wall with visual electricity and a feeling of collective art appreciation. it’s a smart way to help spruce up some ‘hoods, while building a sense of group and building community.

    the art carries a message – political, inspirational, just arty, whatever – and peoples’ art can embody the critical concerns of the day. mexican artist diego rivera made his reputation doing that, adorning walls with murals that bespoke of the plight of mexicans, giving a mass kind of hope and compassion to people who desperately needed it.

    I HAVE A FUNNY RIVERA STORY. My grandmother was widowed right after World War 2 and so she took my mother and her younger sister to live for a year in Mexico City. My mom and aunt went to school there, and my grandmother spent time with her first love — painting. She met Rivera and, family lore has it, they had a torrid affair. She returned to Los Angeles, the story went, with several pieces of Rivera art, given to her by the man himself – a kind of farewell-my-love gift.

    Flash forward several decades, after my grandmother had died, and after my mom died, and my brother and I are figuring out what to do with my mom’s stuff, and an art appraiser comes over and we await his verdict about the Rivera art … 4 pieces, each in frames. Boys, he tells us, I’m afraid these are worthless. WHAT… we say. These, he says, are magazine cut outs – in a frame. These aren’t originals.

    Did we or anyone else ever look closely at these damn things? Apparently not. More importantly, if these “drawings” were bogus, what about the story that Diego Rivera gave them to his love, our grandmother, Sara Bernstein? And, wait, if the art is bogus and he didn’t give these to her, is the whole lore about them being lovers a bunch of Benjamin Moore slop as well? Those questions hit us within seconds, and my bro and I just cracked up … the absurdity of it all — the “art”… the “affair”…what was the truth and what was malarky?

    i know this was a tangent and i hope i didn’t bore anyone with the story. but i smile loudly when i tell it.

    • John Wilson

      The story about Rivera at the end of your comments made me laugh. So is art, as is life, a very complex thing. Objects may appear larger (or in this case) real if looked at from a distance. But up close it is a mess and you are left with wondering, why? Art is subjective and when people look at the pieces, it’s hard to determine just why something comes to be. Even if you ask an artist, does he or she really remember where all of the inspiration came from? More than likely not but the more important thing is that it did come to them. Regardless of the story your grandmother gave you, you still have another story that will live with you for the rest of your life 😉

  6. Kathleen Sweeney

    Clearly the issue of public property and stealth tagging have always plagued the world of street art. During Banksy’s New York City residency, Mayor Bloomberg publicly declared him a ‘vandal’ (This Forbes article has an interesting take on that: And clearly some graffiti/street art is more resonant than others. Without a doubt, though, street art has evolved from the tagging frenzy of the 80s to, at its best, a voice for collectivizing social change. The work of JR, Swoon and others is done in the context of community collaborative efforts with resonant impact. Most of the wheat paste cut-out art in New York City has always been festooned on the temporary walls of construction sites. Personally, this kind of temporary dialogue, whether purely witty, self-expressive or political (think Guerrilla Girls’ impact on the contemporary art world (, is far more interesting than the painted plywood perched under scaffolding to hide the foundation of a new skyscraper. Many public gardens have bare wall space for murals and community street art projects, which evolved out of the need for urban youth to have a voice, a space, a place to name their own.

    • John Wilson

      The thing I find really interesting is that blank spaces (especially large and in a direct line of sight areas) has become prime real-estate for advertisers who are trying to sell their products. But as advertisers have noticed, consumers are annoyed by this level of out of home marketing. Thus advertisers relay on street artists to help them build a campaign since the product isn’t the only thing being marketed. Here is a company that works with advertisers to take campaigns to the streets in an artful way.

  7. bill ritter

    i think bloomberg missed a great opportunity to broaden his political brand by trashing banksy. and i think the you’re right about the ugly construction walls.. they’ve always been fair game for promoters to paste their posters for concerts, etc. better to make them a kind of art chat room that sparks thinking and the exchange of ideas. what i like about the expanding base of art displays is that it takes it out of the private world and makes it accessible to the masses. i have these discussions with artist friends – because making a living is also paramount. it’s a conundrum for them – and for society, which in the ideal world would do more to underwrite the works and livelihoods of artists, in my opinion.
    (did no one find my diego rivera story amusing — as fractured family lore?)

    • John Wilson

      (did no one find my diego rivera story amusing — as fractured family lore?)

      I did!! I thought it was brilliant (see my comments in your first post.)

      Making a living is different today then what it use to be. For some reason today we focus more on the amount and titles we have instead of the quality of work. Money is important for our livelihood but so is time and being able to produce something that is a part of yourself and the universe. Some people do this through having children, I do it by contributing a piece of art.

  8. Sean Thompson

    From De La Vega, to Banksy, to random iphonetographers around the world, street art has inspired many people through visuals. Visuals that have inspired people to become agents of change, to document change and to witness growth from various conditions. I find it culturally relevant that you can go to any neighborhood in New York City and you can see those visual representations. Although some people may feel that those images ruin the integrity of those structures, I think that definition may be up to individual interpretation. While some “defacing” has occurred, those drawings have become a voice for people who have no voice- and feel that these depictions is the only way that they can get their point across.

    While we walk through the streets, we are reminded that certain conditions exist- and we exist with those conditions. We might have a good day, but somewhere in the world we are reminded that certain issues exist, and those people cannot benefit from the day that we’ve already experienced. From Rivington Street, to Classon Avenue and anywhere in between, we need to see that people are being represented the way they see fit. If they choose to make those representations public- in a fashion that people feel offended then we need to have a conversation around that.

    Art is beautiful and needs to be showcased- regardless of whichever canvas is chosen.

  9. Jacqueline Buda

    Street art is rarely dull and, charmingly, it is usually unusual. There is something forbidden about street art that makes is that much more exciting. Nooks and crannies of a city become canvases for people to showcase their creativity, without needing an art degree or the opportunity to be granted a gallery exhibition. What I really appreciate about it is that unknown artists have as much of an opportunity to make an impact as the big guys such as Banksy. The word of street art spreads regardless of whether or not a famous artist made it.

    I live in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where street art is not only encouraged, but celebrated. There are efforts to preserve it. Street art tends to become woven into the neighborhood it was made it, and becomes a destination spot for residents and tourists to visit. People feel a certain sense of identity when it comes to street art, which is why it is so important to keep it around.

    • John Wilson

      “I live in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where street art is not only encouraged, but celebrated.”

      Me too! I love Harlem and I am glad they are holding tight not only to the cultural roots of the neighborhood but also the art which has been splash throughout the streets. My concern is that as Harlem becomes more gentrified (hip), the newcomers don’t come in to wash away the history with their modern and materialistic needs. I have seen this happen a few times and it is saddening and conformative.

  10. Karlin ready

    Street art is something I recently began to grow and love. As I grew up I realized that society has molded people to not voice their opinion yet with the new age with street art and social media there is attention being raised to political issues that were often left untouched. Much like the previous discussion about hashtags, street art is a way to get a vass amount of society to acknowledge issues that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Not only is it a way to get society informed it’s also a way to get intelligent individuals able to voice their opinions without getting ridiculed about their beliefs.

  11. Rachel Weidinger

    Street art is a subject that has dramatically innovated and transformed over the years. It’s incredible the amount of influence that street art holds, as well as the quick timetable for global awareness. With a simple hashtag, one photograph of say a mural in NYC can be viewed by individuals from all over the world in seconds.

    Artists today are becoming incredibly innovative by not only sticking to a canvas, but bringing art to the streets to increase awareness and expose their talents to the world. The battle between Robbo and Banksy was particularly interesting to me. It’s so fascinating to watch two influential street artists communicate via their personal art. What makes the conversation even more engaging is that both individuals are completely unknown to the public, nonetheless each other. The amount of global communication of this ongoing battle was inspiring, simply via social media with the help of photographs and hashtags. I found a particularly interesting article (link below) focusing on Robbo’s perspective of the battle with Banksy.

    It’s so interesting to see how the mediums and styles of art have changed over several time periods, yet still embodies the same purpose: not only for visual entertainment, but as a tool for communication of free speech and other crucial topics of discussion. Like King Robbo states in reference to Banksy: “but that’s what he does, never expresses his own opinion, he puts something out and lets people fool themselves, he’s smart in that respect.” The most influential thing about art is that it is subjective. Everyone has a different take, understanding, or influence of art, which makes the argument all the more compelling.

  12. Roderic David

    One of the things that I appreciate about street art too, that it’s an accessible form of art for everyone. As many commenters have already stated, street art gives those without traditional outlets a way to share and tell their story, voice their concerns, and what better place to do so than in their own community. Street art to me is most powerful because straddle the line of making a political statement while also being a beautiful object for people too look at.

    I was very happy to see Keith Harring included in this post, as he as is not only one of favorite artists, but it is through studying him that I learned so much about street art and it’s societal impact. It made me want to learn more about the ways creative outlets could be used for the greater good. Moving to New York and being able to see Harring’s work as well as the work of other street artists and perfumers has been tremendous. The tools and techniques may differ, but street art remains a constant medium for provoking discussion and pushing towards change.

  13. Sara Maldonado

    This was a great article. I really enjoyed seeing the different styles of street art. As Peta mentioned, these works of art represent marginalized groups that do not have a voice otherwise. There are so many groups that are not fully-represented in Congress and city politics. Because of this, street art functions as an outlet similar to banners and ads to remind people that they are still there and that they still matter.

  14. Michelle Quach

    Street art gains a lot of momentum when it is speaking for a social change or calling out a wrongdoing of some sort. For example, Banksy’s street art is not necessarily beautiful or extravagant but sends a clear message. It provokes questioning and thought about a topic, it stands for something. Street art is also very pure in its form because it is straight from the artists’ perspective. It is propaganda because they have a message they want received, but it is ways different from the ads that have monetary goals attached. It is a true artistic form reaching a variety of audiences. I personally appreciate it and see its effectiveness in any society.

  15. Zoe Tara

    I found the street art movement to be an essential as it enables people to bring awareness to crucial issues that resonate today. I find street art to provide an interesting juxtaposition to the current art world. The current art world seems to champion exclusiveness, a sense of superior intellectuality, a need for background knowledge, and money. Street Art does not have a superiority, elitism, and pseudo intellectualism this some feel art has. It can clearly connect to most regardless of class or prior knowledge. Therefore enabling it to connect more on an emotional level to many different types of people. Furthermore the nature of where it is displayed is clearly accessible and easy people from different demographics to access.
    I also find it interesting the nature in which street art is regarded today. It is greatly appreciated in its own right versus being seen as defacement. Art is a medium that speaks volumes and enables people to spread issues and messages that may not get as much attention within mainstream media sources. Street art achieves this. In addition, with the advent of social media, street art has much more awareness and reach. In contrast to galleries and museums where photography is often discouraged, street photography encourages sharing, photography, and wide interaction. Because of this match between social media and the accessibility of street art, crucial messages from one place have the potential to make impactful change all over the world.

  16. Anna Mackie

    I find street art to be incredibly captivating. Not only is it appreciated and admired while walking around the streets of NYC, but each piece of arts holds a history and a story. Street art is not only used as form of self expression, but as a means to raise awareness regarding controversial or unspoken issues. Street art is a way to raise awareness about these issues and really have everyone notice and “listen”. I believe that everyone in some respect can relate to art and find beauty in it, and being able to reach and send a message to an entire city of people through your art is amazing and very under valued.

  17. Madison Porter

    I love that you wrote that “the walls do talk” because street art can tell and show the public so much. Even though this art form is illegal, there is so much to learn from it. Each of these artists that you have mentioned have an intentions, whether it is about climate change or the current presidential election. They each have a message to get across to the community. We just have to keep our eyes open and observe our surroundings to see it for ourselves.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      Street art really does change your perspective, and makes you pay attention differently to the surfaces of the city…

  18. John Wilson

    I grew up in California in a small town called Mira Loma (it wasn’t always called this and was renamed after horrific events in the 1920’s called the Chicken Cope Killings but I digress.) When I moved out to West Hollywood in 1999, I noticed the graffiti wasn’t noise but instead sweet art. Suddenly the walls gave voice to the voiceless and the street dividers showcased massive monuments towards movement of change. Here is a link of current and past artwork –

    The interesting thing about street art, once you find a gem, your eyes tend to pick up other little treasures because your mind becomes open; changing from stationary to searching. Lucky for me my small town was too small for my inquisitive nature which has never stopped me from exploring the other side of the looking glass.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      Once you begin collecting the images, your eyes learn to zoom in and frame these “gems”…it makes the urban walking experience quite magical…

  19. Chloe Wang

    Art can come in many different forms but I think street art has always been the most under appreciated form of art. Many people don’t see the beauty and message that it is trying to send out. But, instead, they think of it as vandalism because of the placement of the art. Personally, I love street art because of how creative and powerful it can be. Also, the fact that you never know where you could come across a piece of artwork is fascinating. Although, I don’t see that much street art in Shanghai, the city I grew up in. But, there is a whole road dedicated to street art called Moganshan Road where there are plenty of graffitis and contemporary art galleries that I always love going to.

  20. Rhea Goyal

    There is something about the life span of the ” the walls” that speak for themselves. Since, they exist till they exist there is a sense of a captivating ability that this art holds for me. I believe that the short lived art is under appreciated than something that maybe put up in a museum or at a gallery. But we should not disregard the fact that this is also a form of self expression and has many layers to each graffiti presented. What was going on in the artists mind, why did he or she chose this very spot, why this particular time of the year and place? The art maybe as complex or even more so than art that is refinery presented hence, it gains less appreciation due to its nature of presentation. There are most times great social issues that are brought to our attention through these forms of art.

    Where I come from, street art is only known as graffiti, mostly words. I had never seen great work until I moved to NYC and then I saw myself being more appreciative about this work. I still cringe a little when I see words, as it takes me back to the dirty streets and walls of New Delhi and it is not a pleasent feeling. I feel I appreciate colorful and fresh graffitis much more than the faded ones as I make an instant connection to home.

  21. Christina Murray

    It is so nice to see that art has become a powerful movement that is actually creating change. For so long artists (specifically street artists) were frowned upon for their work. I understand that this was mostly due to gangs tagging public spaces without permission. However all artists should not be lumped into one category. I had not heard of the Banksy movement in January 2015, that pencil art piece is very powerful. I was surprised to learn about the McDonalds piece making a difference. Although I am not sure that fast food workers are making any more now. The minimum wage is still awful in so many places. I have never heard of Swoon, and the single family housing structure seems like a powerful statement. The Climate Change paper piece is very beautiful. Art is a powerful means that is creating awareness and will create change.

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