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.
Openly 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:
In 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.
Swoon, 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:
In 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.
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.