The Collaborative Age of Street Art and Inclusive Scholarly Conversation: How the Street Art Boom has Opened up Art to the People
The soul of street art exists in its dialogue with the public, yet by nature it has been an individual art, an isolated art completed under the veil of darkness and anonymity. Ironically, street art is very much meant to be seen but the artists themselves are not. Subject to lawful punishment throughout history, many have remained hidden. The consequence of such a secretive nature resulted in an isolated artist who worked alone under the cover of night. However, the recent obsession with street art has allowed many of these artists to exist in the light of day. Some have revealed their identity while others have chosen to continue working under an alias. The majority, however, have one public platform in common- Instagram. A social media site that engages through images and commentary, it is a perfect fit for street artists. Instagram offers celebrity within anonymity, engaging and connecting artists and audiences worldwide. In an age where international travel is as easy as opening up an app, the obsession with the individual self has fallen away in the face of creative collaboration. One artist who has shed his anonymity and very actively taken to Instagram is Shepard Fairey, also known as Obey Giant (@obeygiant). Fairey posts to his Instagram daily, keeping his audience up to date on all of his current projects and events. He has collaborated with various artists including Vhils and Cleon Peterson and has brought together many other artists through curated events.
Fairey’s 2014 project, “Art Alliance: Provocateurs Show,” which coincided with Chicago’s Lollapalooza, brought together Invader, Cleon Peterson, D*Face, Keith Haring, Stanley Donwood and more. On two separate occasions, in Lisbon and in Los Angels, Fairey and Vhils collaborated on a mural that fused the former’s bold lines and vibrant colors with the latter’s grey and black staccato rhythm of relief carving (@vhils). Cleon Peterson, a very good friend of Fairey’s according to his website, came out with an Obey Clothing line that married his stylistically sharp, geometric lines with the recognizable figures of Obey Giant. A theme of the macabre, of course, lingers in the clothing line as Peterson’s dystopian motif seeps through. On his Instagram Peterson posted an image of an Invader mosaic that he added his own flair to (@cleonpeterson). A figure in the bulky shape of Peterson’s often-violent characters is done in Invader’s mosaic style and runs, dances, and interacts with one of his alien figures. Invader commented on the Instagram post with his typical space invader emoji, a sign of approval (@invaderwashere). A dialogue stretching from Portugal to California, sold on t-shirts and liked on Instagram, the ease of international accessibility and the ability to post and discuss their works in a public forum has engendered an unprecedented collaborative effort in street art.
Reflective of a growing communal responsibility among street artists themselves, scholars and academics have established research cohorts, seminars, conferences, festivals, and consorted together on publications dedicated to the study and promotion of this art. In Banksy: Urban Art in a Material World, scholar Ulrich Blanché discusses the collaborations between Damien Hirst and Banksy. In a 2016 interview Blanché compared the collaborative duo to Warhol and Basquiat saying, “The established artist gains coolness and the newer artist gains credibility.”Blanché is describing a symbiotic relationship between artists, one that allows them to expand their audiences, widen their scope, and challenge their own creative ability as they interact with other innovative techniques and ideas. Whether a large mural or a small mosaic done in reaction to another’s work, these are pieces of a conversation happening within the street art scene. These conversations are made more complex as Instagram opens up the floor and invites the entire world to participate. Blanché himself has collaborated with other scholars through a number of symposiums. He was one of the speakers at the 2016 Art on the Streets symposium at the ICA in London, participant in a conference held by the Street Art and Urban Creativity Scientific Journal in 2014, and wrote the introduction, along with Ilaria Hoppe and Frank Eckardt, to Urban Art: Creating the Urban with Art. In that introduction Blanché discusses a piece that he saw in Berlin, part of Dave the Chimp’s ‘human beans’ series. The orange bean shape body had been painted over, and a pair of expressive eyes was added atop the haphazard paint job. This image stood out to Blanché as a dialogue between multiple authors on the street and over time, a highlight of street art’s temporality. Upon contacting Dave the Chimp to inquire about the piece, he was told that it was actually the artist himself who had painted over his own work and added the eyes as a salute and symbolic reference to the dialogues happening on the street at any given time. Just as Instagram has served as a platform to widen exposure for street art, so too have these scholars sought to educate, promote, and inspire by bringing street art to the people. Through their engaging discussions they voice out loud what artists splash across cities.
Tristan Manco, a leading figure on street art who has been actively involved with the street art scene for decades, embraces a wide assortment of projects in order to interact with the widest audience possible (@tristan_manco). His publications introduce emerging artists from around the globe while his collaborations with other artists result in i-Phone covers, t-shirts, and even a restaurant initiative. All of these enterprises aid in the dissemination of information, from a ‘Brexit Sucks!’ t-shirt campaign to publications such as his Anthony Lister – Adventure Painter! book co-authored with Roger Gatsman, his 2016 design project, Are We There Yet? A Day Trip to Banksy’s Dismaland and Other Storiesdone in collaboration with Barry Cawston and Kath Cockshaw, and Bue the Warrior Book, an artist book to which he contributed a section of text. Manco’s diverse interests and incredible knowledge of artists from all countries and backgrounds and in a variety of media makes him a significant force in promoting street art. Able to relate to his audience from an artist perspective, a design perspective, and an academic perspective, he understands and reaches all levels of people. Cedar Lewisohn, an artist, writer, and curator himself, is another figure on street art that has brought art to the people. In a cutting-edge show held at Tate Britain in 2008, “Street Art” brought together six internationally acclaimed artists including Blu from Bologna, the artist collective Faile from New York, JR from Paris, Nunca and Os Gemeos from Sao Paulo, and Sixeart from Barcelona. Seeking to highlight street art from outside the UK, Lewisohn emphasized a connecting global thread while successfully bringing attention to a variety of international artists lesser known in the UK at that time. In relation to this exhibition, Lewisohn noted that “like graffiti, [we] identify a stencil or a poster immediately as urban but unlike graffiti, it’s part of a collaborative social process rather than an adolescent marking of territory,” and as such, most of the artists chosen for the Tate show were reminiscent of such collaboration.A social collaborative process, a worldwide experience, this is an art that is not solely meant to be seen but meant to be listened to, debated about, spoken about, to incite larger conversations.
A result of these collaborations, from both an artistic and scholarly standpoint, is an exceptionally democratic, de-centralized art form available to those of all classes, all backgrounds, and all walks of life. A unified, refreshing feeling saturates artwork that welcomes anyone into the conversation, inviting its viewers to partake in the action, to paint over it, re-design it, re-interpret it, engage, interact, and discuss with it. This is precisely why the street art boom has been so widely felt, and only increased in the past decade. An interactive art that encourages people to disagree, to converse, and debate, is one that everybody can enjoy. The barriers of high and low art are disappearing, replaced instead by an inclusive art that questions the very existence of those barriers in the first place.
Author: Baylee McKeel
Baylee McKeel graduated magna cum laude from New York University with art history honors. She holds a BA in art history with minors in Italian studies and social and cultural analysis. She completed an honors thesis on Jusepe de Ribera’s early paintings and the dilemma of Caravaggism in early seventeenth-century European painting. She has previously worked in the curatorial department at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and with the collection manager at NYU’s Villa la Pietra in Florence, Italy. She has extensive research and writing experience, having written and published various articles for Musée Magazine. She recently held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum of Art performing comprehensive research and assisting in funding and special events.