Street Art Then and Now: How FRESCO Collective is Addressing the Evolution of a Genre

In the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts stars as a young art history professor at an elite women’s college in the 1950s. On her first day, Roberts’ character shows her students an image of a cave painting, prompting protests that the crude sketches are not real art. When she asks the class what makes an image “art,” one student replies “[Art is art] when somebody says it is.” Moments later, after Roberts’ character proclaims “It’s art!”, the student turns around smugly and adds “Somebody who matters.”

The virtues of the above statement notwithstanding, the fictional student’s hauteur is a pretty accurate reflection of street art’s recent ascent into the upper echelons of the art world. 

Far from its beginnings on the walls of prehistoric caves, late 20th-century street art was the epitome of anti-establishment, guerilla art practice. In the 1960s and 70s, “graffiti” in the form of tags was a typical, if illegal feature of urban landscapes. Graffiti was rooted in alienation: artists were mostly anonymous, and their work managed to be both deeply personal as well as tied to overarching social themes. In a sense, tags were their creators’ lightning rods against the consumerist, power-hungry agenda of the modern world. Perhaps not surprisingly, street art and graffiti was disparaged by politicians and civilians alike, who associated the images with gang culture and other stereotypes about minority urban communities.

Even in the face of general disdain, street art continued to pick up momentum into the 1980s. In 1979, Lee Quiñones covered a subway car with the words “Stop the Bomb.” By this time, Jean-Michel Basquiat was tagging his pseudonym, “SAMO,” around Manhattan and Keith Haring had emblazoned his “radiant baby” motif on New York City subway lines, soon to use his iconic work for AIDS crisis activism.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

But while the names attached to street art grew more well-known (Basquiat has a retrospective at the Whitney in 1992; Haring’s memorial service two years earlier was attended by over 1,000 people), street art’s most dramatic evolution has occurred over just the past few years. While major art museums struggle to find the funds to expand their collections, street art is enjoying a moment in the sun. Cities from New York and San Francisco to Mexico City and Prague are commissioning murals left and right; these sites are now favorite stops for tourists and locals in search of a great Instagram picture. Street artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and KAWS are household names due to their recognizable motifs, and have gained a strong online following as well. With their considerable popularity, street artists have collaborated with various brands on shirts, furniture, skateboards, and shoes, allowing fans to own a piece of art and collect and sell covetable items. Street art has moved from underground murals, to hidden-in-plain-sight obey giant stickers, to KAWS’s companion character splashed on Uniqlo t-shirts and seated in Taipei’s Liberty Square as a gigantic inflatable. The internet has also become a tool to buy and sell works from a favorite street artist. The work of these artists along with the rise of the internet have altered the terrain of contemporary art and its relationship to the public.  As it turns out, the ‘somones’ of the art world decided street art was the new thing, and the flocks have come running.

Photo by  Joe Woolhead

Photo by Joe Woolhead

And while street art and the artists behind it become increasingly enveloped into the mainstream, the chasm widens between street art in 2019 and the art form’s early manifestations.  Over the decades, street art has both highlighted urban inequality and social issues yet with its new position as the aesthetic darling of art, fashion, and pop culture alike, many say street art is contributing to the problems of gentrification. Banksy’s infamous auto-shredding of his Girl with Balloon at Sotheby’s in 2018 speaks to this tension between street art’s roots and the capitalist art institutions it now calls home. Banksy’s own anonymity and elusive persona, keeping his public, subversive, and politically charged art front and center, illustrates these tensions as well. KAWS also challenges these prevailing modes of art and its sale by creating collectible toys and products featuring his recognizable characters. He sells these objects on his own website, or with a collaborating brand, to an avid audience who quickly snap up these items, either to keep and collect or to re-sell. In a recent interview with Vogue he reflects on his unique position in contemporary art after having had his start in graffiti. He claims that he always feels like an “outsider in every world,” despite his fame, and goes on to mention his dislike of hidden personas in the art world, instead saying that he likes to post work and interact with fans through instagram. However, after talking about his recent museum exhibition in Fort Worth, the artist states that he had grown tired of people only seeing his work through the internet and magazines, and that he wants to put art directly in front of an audience. While maintaining a dedication to his art and work product, KAWS ponders and experiments with how it is seen and sold. As they’ve achieved fame and popularity, various street artists have defined their own relationship with both the public and mainstream art institutions, forging new ways of distributing, selling, and consuming images and artworks.  

Image courtesy of  Candy Factory Films  and  Parade Deck Films .

Image courtesy of Candy Factory Films and Parade Deck Films.

While street art has questioned these institutions in contemporary art, academic institutions have not adequately questioned street art. FRESCO Collective seeks to change that. This organization is an affiliate of the FRESCO foundation, which seeks to empower art and connect art to everyone. The FRESCO Collective has been conducting a research project in Street Art and Millennial Culture this summer, and is creating an unprecedented conversation inclusive of the many voices in this field. Its prestigious academic committee looks to investigate the history and present state of street art. This committee consists of distinguished global scholars from the University of Lisbon, the University of Melbourne, and St. Martin’s School of Art, London, among others. They will explore these tensions and unique changes brought on by street art along with other topics, and will also meet with the public in a series of talks throughout the summer. The FRESCO Collective strives to bring academic attention to street art and engage with the public in its Street Art and Millennial Culture research project. 

On top of this, the FRESCO Collective is hosting a summer festival that will celebrate its research efforts and culminate in a benefit auction. This festival will include movie screenings, panel discussions, and tours that will explore various aspects of street art, including foundational urban graffiti artists, illegal artmaking experiences, and street art’s international presence. Through this festival, the public will meet and learn from many people closely involved with street art and its study, including a filmmaker, art center founder, muralist, curator, and historian. Linked to this festival, our online benefit auction will feature works from emerging and mid-career artists, who work in street art or other rising millennial-generation artistic styles, like figurative painting and digital aesthetics. FRESCO has found that street art and millennial culture have acted in tandem to challenge typical modes of representation and art dissemination, especially through the internet, and believes that bringing these themes together can show the recent changes in contemporary art. FRESCO will also be auctioning a number of collectible items and toys that are quite popular among a millennial audience as well. This auction will be held for two weeks through Paddle8, an innovative online platform, that will connect artists with the public and new, passionate collectors from all over the world, reflecting the global reach of street art. Through its projects this summer, the FRESCO Collective will unite the spheres of both the art market and art scholarship.

Photo by  Lady Pink

Photo by Lady Pink

Through our research work and public events, FRESCO Collective is bringing together academics, artists, collectors, and the general public in one large exploration of street art. FRESCO Collective is working to bridge the gap between these different groups, disrupting the typical boundaries of the art world and its surrounding discourse. To find more about FRESCO’s work and events, including the festival and auction, visit