By Richard Reep
Street art has been around since ancient times, with the triple theme of craft, sabotage, and branding. Paris’ “Blec le rat” and New York’s Taki 183 were early pioneers in street art. Today, street art has spread into nearly every city with artists, media, and collectors. Skateboards, tattoos, stickers, and spray paint are but a few examples of the craft of the street. The adrenalin rush an artist feels in executing his work is augmented by the urban thrill of working at night, rushing to leave behind a signature before the police come. The chief aim of most street art is branding, as the artist’s main form of expression is to create a recognizable personal logotype.
On the street, the city's public space in general has slowly been eviscerated by our culture of consumption, for it provides an antiquated, nearly obsolete physical format for civic discourse. Long ago proclaimed dead by noted architect Daniel Liebeskind, physical public space has precipitously declined in value to most of the citizens of the city. In its place has risen virtual public space – first television, which was a one-way path, and then the internet, which provides a two-way path.
Yet physical public space continues to serve as medium of the new Street Art form. Stickers, tags, skateboards, and tattoos are all viewed on the street, offering a means to carry this new art form into the next century. The so-called "cutting edge" artists have retreated into their private studios to conceive their next moves in video or computers, but the street artists have taken over the city.
The elite artists may inhabit the galleries but street artists proclaim their brand of art as supreme. Globalism is achieved by hard work: Artists like Barry McGee or Banksy are no longer confined to one city; Space Invader, having successfully placed his own particular brand across the face of Paris, now has spread to London and New York, making his own global art tour as a form of civic art.
Viewing a piece of graffiti at once causes a reaction of fear and a perception of danger. Can anyone claim the same immediate, visceral reaction to anything seen in a gallery or museum? This art form reaches people at such a gut level that it trumps most of the work of other artists being exhibited and discussed in the art world. Street artists use this to their own advantage, and their craft reinforces what McLuhan described so well in his epigram "the medium is the message." The content of the piece is almost irrelevant; the viewer's reaction is the same regardless of the tag's content or author.
Street art is tied into a larger urban culture, and expresses the visual aspect of this larger milieu. As Western mainstream culture retreats from the street into the air-conditioned, connected bubbles of the suburbs, street art and its culture expands to fill the empty space. The zone emptied by the suburbanites does indeed reek of death, more so today, as public investment in the city dwindles or becomes remarkably predictable or prosaic. Budget cuts in schools, government facilities, and even basic street maintenance presage an ever higher level of decay and disrepair, of neglect and abandonment of our shared space, and those who inhabit this space are simply documenting what they see and returning it back to us. We cannot escape the messages of street art, for they are everywhere, embedded into the context. Some are more overt, and some are covert – only noticed, for example, when waiting for a red light – but they are there, reminding us that there is life amidst the emptiness.
Graffiti’s barrage of skulls, vacant-eyed cartoon children, and other signs of death and destruction are easy to ignore, but they are telling us something important about the urban environment. The sooner we stop and examine this evidence, the sooner we can begin a process to find common ground, and to seek out a shared vision that does not divide the urban world into an us-and-them mentality. Street art simply puts visual form to the voices we have so long shut out of the urban conversation.
In Orlando, the trend of giving street artists “permission walls,” or walls where they have permission to paint their work, has tamed and channeled some of the sabotage. By allowing graffiti artists to work with permission, they are free to develop their craft without fear of getting caught before completion, and the artwork becomes a colorful, mural-sized effort to which the artists can point with pride. These permission walls encourage friendly competition between teams, or crews, and there is a sense of pride among them for having created something with great exposure.
Two permission walls exist to the east of downtown Orlando, but it is the cluster of warehouses at 630 E. Central that showcase graffiti artwork at its best. Artist Robin Van Arsdol owns part of this cluster and has been sponsoring an international graffiti conference for several years, bringing in artists from Europe, the Caribbean, and North America for a weekend of painting at his studios. Driving by his property offers a study in converting urban form into art, and perhaps suggests the visual future of more than one city.
The graffiti artists have offered a philosophical change-up that should not be overlooked. The conversation about postmodern art seemed to have reached a dead end some time ago; artists
first threw out figure, then form, then color, then the frame, and then wandered into their process itself as an art form. Graffiti artists begin with the end: their signature, or tag, becomes the art,
and by using this as the starting point, and the city as their canvas, they unconsciously offer a new beginning to think about the relationship between art and the city.
We must accept the challenge that graffiti artists offer us. We need to confront this takeover of the physical urban form and push back. Street art constitutes a fresh, interesting language. It is the language of a city that is weak and divided. We must hear what graffiti says to us as a society, and retake our physical urban character as a common, broad place that offers secure, sacred, and special places for all citizens. By ignoring graffiti art, we postpone our treatment of the urban malaise. By confronting it and bringing it into the mainstream, we can better treat our urban condition and improve the city as a dwelling place for the benefit of all.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.