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Street art is visual art created in public locations, usually unsanctioned artwork executed outside of the context of traditional art venues. The term gained popularity during the graffiti art boom of the early 1980s and continues to be applied to subsequent incarnations. Stencil graffiti, wheatpasted poster art or sticker art, pop up art and street installation or sculpture are common forms of modern street art. Video projection, yarn bombing and Lock On sculpture became popularized at the turn of the 21st century.
The terms "urban art", "guerrilla art", "post-graffiti" and "neo-graffiti" are also sometimes used when referring to artwork created in these contexts. Traditional spray-painted graffiti artwork itself is often included in this category, excluding territorial graffiti or pure vandalism.
Artists who choose the streets as their gallery are often doing so from a preference to communicate directly with the public at large, free from perceived confines of the formal art world. Street artists sometimes present socially relevant content infused with esthetic value, to attract attention to a cause or as a form of "art provocation".
Street artists often travel between countries to spread their designs. Some artists have gained cult-followings, media and art world attention, and have gone on to work commercially in the styles which made their work known on the streets.
Artists have challenged art by situating it in non-art contexts. Street artists do not aspire to change the definition of an artwork, but rather to question the existing environment with its own language. The motivations and objectives that drive street artists are as varied as the artists themselves. ‘Street’ artists attempt to have their work communicate with everyday people about socially relevant themes in ways that are informed by esthetic values without being imprisoned by them. There is a strong current of activism and subversion in urban art. Street art can be a powerful platform for reaching the public and a potent form of political expression for the oppressed, or people with little resources to create change. Common variants include adbusting, subvertising and other culture jamming, the abolishment of private property and reclaiming the streets.
Some street artists use "smart vandalism" as a way to raise awareness of social and political issues. Other street artists simply see urban space as an untapped format for personal artwork, while others may appreciate the challenges and risks that are associated with installing illicit artwork in public places. A universal motive of most, if not all street art, is that adapting visual artwork into a format which utilizes public space allows artists who may otherwise feel disenfranchised to reach a much broader audience than traditional artwork and galleries normally allow.
Whereas traditional graffiti artists have primarily used free-hand aerosol paints to produce their works, "street art" encompasses many other media and techniques, including: LED art, mosaic tiling, murals, stencil art, sticker art, "Lock On" street sculptures, street installations, wheatpasting, woodblocking, and yarn bombing. New media forms such as projection onto large city buildings are an increasingly popular tool for street artists—and the availability of cheap hardware and software allows street artists to become more competitive with corporate advertisements. Much like open source software, artists are able to create art for the public realm from their personal computers, similarly creating things for free which compete with companies making things for profit.
Street art is a topical issue. Some people consider it a crime, others consider it a form of art. Street artists may be charged with vandalism, malicious mischief, intentional destruction of property, criminal trespass, or antisocial behavior. Legal definitions vary between jurisdictions. In some cities, it is unlawful for landowners to allow any graffiti on their property if it’s visible from any other public or private property.
Slogans of protest and political or social commentary graffitied onto public walls are the precursor to modern graffiti and street art, and continue as one aspect of the genre. Street art in the form of text or simple iconic graphics in the vein of corporate icons become well-known yet enigmatic symbols of an area or an era.
Some credit the Kilroy Was Here graffiti of the World War II era as one such early example; a simple line-drawing of a long-nosed man peering from behind a ledge. Author Charles Panati indirectly touched upon the general appeal of street art in his description of the "Kilroy" graffiti as "outrageous not for what it said, but where it turned up".
Much of what can now be defined as modern street art has well-documented origins dating from New York City's graffiti boom, with its infancy in the 1960s, maturation in the 1970s, and peaking with the spraypainted full-car subway train murals of the 1980s centered in the Bronx.
As the 1980s progressed, a shift occurred from text-based works of early in the decade to visually conceptual street art such as Richard Hambleton's shadow figures (pictured above). These years coincide with Keith Haring's subway advertisement subversions and Jean-Michel Basquiat's SAMO tags. What is now recognized as "street art" had yet to become a realistic career consideration, and offshoots such as stencil graffiti were in their infancy. Wheatpasted poster art used to promote bands and the clubs where they performed evolved into actual artwork or copy-art and became a common sight during the 1980s in cities worldwide. The group working collectively as AVANT were also active in New York during this period. Punk rock music's subversive ideologies were also instrumental to street art's evolution as an art form during the 1980s.
Early iconic works
The site, now sometimes referred to as the Bowery Mural, originated as a derelict wall which graffiti artists used freely. Keith Haring once commandeered the wall for his own use in 1982. After Haring, a stream of well-known street artists followed, until the wall had gradually taken on prestigious status. By 2008, the wall became privately managed and made available to artists by commission or invitation only.
A series of I AM THE BEST ARTIST René murals painted by René Moncada began appearing on the streets of SoHo in the late 1970s. René has described the murals as a thumb in the nose to the art community he felt he'd helped pioneer but by which he later felt ignored. Recognized as an early act of "art provocation", they were a topic of conversation and debate at the time, and related legal conflicts raised discussion about intellectual property, artist's rights, and the First Amendment. The ubiquitous murals (pictured above) also became a popular backdrop to photographs taken by tourists and art students, and for advertising layouts and Hollywood films. IATBA murals were often defaced, only to be repainted by René.
John Fekner: No TV, street installation, New York (1980)
In 1981, Washington Project for the Arts held an exhibition entitled Street Works, which included urban art pioneers such as John Fekner, Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones working directly on the streets.
Fekner, who once defined street art as "all art on the street that’s not graffiti", is included in Cedar Lewisohn’s book Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, which accompanied the 2008 Street Art exhibition at the Tate Modern in England, of which Lewisohn was the curator.
Some street artists have earned international attention for their work and have made a full transition from street art into the mainstream art world — some while continuing to produce art on the streets. Keith Haring was among the earliest wave of street artists in the 1980s to do so. Traditional graffiti and street art motifs have also increasingly been incorporated into mainstream advertising, with many instances of artists contracted to work as graphic designers for corporations. Graffiti artist Haze has provided font and graphic designs for music acts such as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Shepard Fairey's street posters of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama were reworked by special commission for use in the presidential campaign. A version of the artwork also appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It is also not uncommon for street artists to start their own merchandising lines.
As street art has become more accepted by the general public, most likely due to its artistic recognition and the high profile status of Banksy and other graffiti artists. This has led street art to become one of the 'sights to see' in many European cities. Some street artists now provide tours of local street art and are able to share their knowledge, explaining the ideas behind many works, the reasons for tagging and the messages portrayed in a lot of graffiti work. Berlin, London, Paris, Hamburg and other cities all have popular street art tours running all year round. In London alone there are supposedly 10 different graffiti tours you can go on  many of these organisations such as, Alternative London, ParisStreetArt, AlternativeBerlin, to name but a few, pride themselves on working with the local street artists, so visitors get an authentic experience and not just a rehearsed script.
Many of these guides/artists are painters, fine art graduates and other creative professions that have found street graffiti a way to get their art out there. Now with this commercial angle they are able to let people in to the world of street art and give them more of an understanding of where it comes from.
Around the globe
Street art exists worldwide. Large cities and regional towns of the world are home to some form of street art community, from which pioneering artists or forerunners of particular mediums or techniques emerge. Internationally known street artists travel between such locations to promote and exhibit their artwork.
New York City continues to be a street art mecca, attracting artists from around the world. In Manhattan, post-graffiti street art grew in the 1980s from the then largely vacant neighborhoods of SoHo and the Lower East Side. The Chelsea art district became another locale, with area galleries also hosting formal exhibitions of street artist's work. In Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Dumbo neighborhoods — especially near the waterfront — are recognized street art sites.
Programs in the Pennsylvania cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh provide funding to agencies who employ street artists to decorate city walls. The award-winning Mural Arts Program established in 1984 has helped Philadelphia earn praise as the "City of Murals". The project was initiated to encourage graffiti artists toward a more constructive use of their talents. Murals backed by The Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh were named the "Best Public Art" by the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2006.
Street art in Atlanta centers around the Old Fourth Ward and Reynoldstown neighborhoods, the Krog Street Tunnel, and along the 22-mile BeltLine railway corridor which circles the inner city. Atlanta established a Graffiti Task Force in 2011. Although the city selected a number of murals which would not be targeted by the task force, the selection process overlooked street art of the popular Krug Street Tunnel site. Art created in conjunction with the Living Walls street art conference, which Atlanta hosts annually, were spared. Some actions taken by the unit, including arrests of artists deemed vandals, caused community opposition; some considered the city's efforts as "misdirected" or "futile".
Sarasota, Florida, also hosts an annual street art event, the Sarasota Chalk Festival, founded in 2007. An independent offshoot known as Going Vertical sponsors works by renowned street artists, but some have been removed as controversial.
California cities Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego are all hubs of street art activity. LAB ART Los Angeles, opened in 2011, devotes its 6,500 square feet of gallery space to street art. Artwork by locals such as Alec Monopoly, Smear and Morley are among the collection.
San Francisco's Mission District is renowned for its densely packed street art along Mission Street, and along both Clarion and Balmy Alleys. Streets of Hayes Valley, SoMa, Bayview-Hunters Point and the Tenderloin have also become known for street art. San Diego's East Village, Little Italy, North Park, and South Park neighborhoods contain street artwork of VHILS, Shepard Fairey, MADSTEEZ, Space Invader, Os Gêmeos, among others. Murals by various Mexican artists can be seen at Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan neighborhood.
São Paulo is also home to an internationally recognized street art scene.
An abundance of buildings slated for demolition provide blank canvases to a multitude of artists, and the authorities cannot keep up with removing artists output. "Population density" and "urban anxiety" are common motifs expressed by "Grafiteiros" in their street art and pichação, rune-like black graffiti, said to convey feelings of class conflict.
Europe and Asia
London has become one of the most pro-graffiti cities in the world. Although officially condemned and heavily enforced, street art has a huge following and in many ways is embraced by the public, for example, Stik's stick figures.
Poland has artists like Sainer and Bezt known for painting huge murals on buildings and walls. Paris, France has an active street art scene which is home to artists such as Space Invader and Zevs.
Some connect the origins of street art in France to Lettrism of the 1940s and Situationist slogans painted on the walls of Paris starting in the late 1950s. Nouveau realists of the 1960s, including Jacques de la Villeglé, Yves Klein and Arman interacted with public spaces but, like Pop Art, kept the traditional studio-gallery relationship. The 1962 street installation Rideau de Fer (Iron Curtain) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is cited as an early example of unsanctioned street art. In the 1970s, the site-specific work of Daniel Buren appeared in the Paris subway. Blek le Rat and the Figuration Libre movement became active in the 1980s.
Street art on the Berlin Wall was continuous during the time Germany was divided, but street art in Berlin continued to thrive even after reunification and is home to street artists such as Thierry Noir. Post-communism, cheap rents, and ramshackle buildings gave rise to street art in areas such as Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain.
The street art scene in Greece has been active since the late 1980s but gained momentum in Athens leading up to the country's 2011 financial crisis, with a number of artists raising voices of resistance, creating allegorical works and social commentary in the historic city center and Exarhia district. The New York Times published a story about the crisis in relation to street art, and art in general. Street art by Bleeps.gr, whose work has been categorized as "artivism", can be found in neighborhoods such as Psiri.
Street art in Amsterdam (Netherlands) centers around the Flevopark, on the east side, NDSM wharf in Amsterdam Noord, and the Red-light District. Artists who have gained recognition include Niels Shoe Meulman, Ottograph, Ives one, Max Zorn, Mickey, DHM, X Streets Collective, Bustart, Mojofoto, Mark Chalmers and collective CFYE. The city is home to the "Amsterdam Street Art" group, promoting street art in the city with aims to bring it to the same level as that of London, Paris, and Barcelona.
The city of Bergen is looked upon as the street art capital of Norway. British street artist Banksy visited the city in 2000 and inspired many to take their art to the streets. Dolk is among local street artists in Bergen. His art can be seen around the city. Bergen's city council in 2009 chose to preserve one of Dolk's works with protective glass.
The city of Stavanger is host to the annual Nuart Festival, one of Europe's leading events dedicated to promoting street art. Oslo, by contrast, has a zero tolerance policy against graffiti and street art, although artists such as DOT DOT DOT have created work there.
Street art came to Sweden in the 1990s and has since become the most popular way to establish art in public space. The 2007 book "Street Art Stockholm", by Benke Carlsson, documents street art in the country's capital.
The street art scene of Finland had its growth spurt from the 1980s onwards, until in 1998 the city of Helsinki began a ten-year zero tolerance policy which made all forms of street art illegal, punishable with high fines, and enforced through private security contractors. The policy ended in 2008, after which legal walls and art collectives have been established.
Wheatpaste and stencil graffiti art in Denmark increased rapidly after visits from Faile, Banksy, Ben Eine, and Shepard Fairey between 2002–2004, especially in urban areas of Copenhagen such as Nørrebro and Vesterbro. Copenhagen is home of TEJN, the artist credited with introducing the Lock On street art genre.
Street art by WATTTS in Paris
Painting in the Global Tradition by Ces53, a Dutch street artist
Street art in Sesimbra
Since the collapse of communism in 1989, street art became prevalent in Poland throughout the 1990s. In the city of Łódź a permanent city exhibition was financed in 2011, under the patronage of Mayor Hanna Zdanowska, called "Urban Forms Gallery". The exhibition included work from some of Poland's elite street artists as well as globally known artists. Despite being mostly accepted by the public, with authorities occasionally allowing artists licenses to decorate public places, other properties are still illegally targeted by artists. Warsaw and Gdańsk are other Polish cities with a vibrant street art culture.
A monument in Bulgaria depicting Soviet Army soldiers was targeted by anonymous street artists in June, 2011.
The soldiers of the monument, located in Sofia, were embellished to portray Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Superman, and others. The monument existed in that condition for several days before being cleaned. Some citizens were in favor of allowing the embellishments to remain.
Moscow has increasingly become a hub for Russian graffiti artists as well as international visitors. The Street Kit Gallery, opened in 2008, is dedicated to street art and organizes events in galleries, pop-up spaces and on the streets of the city. The 2009 Moscow International Biennale for Young Art included a section for street art.
Active artists include Make, RUS, and Kiev-based Interesni Kazki (also active in Miami and Los Angeles). Britain's BBC network highlighted the artwork of Moscow street artist Pavel 183 in 2012.
In South Korea's second largest city, Busan, German painter Hendrik Beikirch created a mural over 70 metres (230 ft) high, considered Asia’s tallest at the time of its creation in August, 2012. The monochromatic mural portrays fisherman. It was organized by Public Delivery.
A 2012 project in Malaysia funded by the Penang State Government was undertaken to liven up the streets and celebrate the recognition of Georgetown, Penang as a UNESCO site. Street art was drawn onto the walls of 18th-century terrace houses and the Clan Jetty located near Weld Quay (Pengkalan Weld). Initially done at the center of Chulia Street, near Khoo Kongsi, the increase in the number of visitors wishing to take pictures with the wall paintings has encouraged the government to support the street art culture. Steel rod sculptures have been added to the walls of buildings throughout Georgetown.
Australia and Africa
Melbourne is home to one of the world's most active and diverse street art cultures and is home to pioneers in the stencil medium. Street artists such as Blek le Rat and Banksy often exhibited works on Melbourne's streets in the 2000s (decade). Works are supported and preserved by local councils. Key locations within the city include Brunswick, Carlton, Fitzroy, Northcote, and the city centre including the famous Hosier Lane.
New Zealand: In 2009 in Auckland, street art decorated the city with sophisticated graphic imagery. Auckland's city council permitted electrical boxes to be used as canvases for street art. Local street art group TMD (The Most Dedicated) won the "Write For Gold" international competition in Germany two years in a row. Surplus Bargains is another local collective.
Although street art in South Africa is not as ubiquitous as in European cities, Johannesburg's central Newtown district is a centre for street art in the city. The "City Of Gold International Urban Art Festival" was held in the city's Braamfontein civic and student district in April 2012.
The New York Times reported Cairo's emergence as a street art center of the region in 2011. Slogans calling for the overthrow of the Mubarak regime has evolved into æsthetic and politically provocative motifs.
Street art in Chacarita, Buenos Aires. Various "graffiti tours" are available in the city.
Mural by BLU, Gaza Strip, Praha
Festivals and conferences
Sarasota Chalk Festival was founded in 2007 sponsoring street art by artists initially invited from throughout the U.S. and soon extended to internationally. In 2011 the festival introduced a Going Vertical mural program and its Cellograph project to accompany the street drawings that also are created by renowned artists from around the world. Many international films have been produced by and about artists who have participated in the programs, their murals and street drawings, and special events at the festival.
Living Walls is an annual street art conference founded in 2009. In 2010 it was hosted in Atlanta and in 2011 jointly in Atlanta and Albany, New York. Living Walls was also active promoting street art at Art Basel Miami Beach 2011.
The RVA Street Art Festival is a street art festival in Richmond, Virginia began in 2012. It is organized by Edward Trask and Jon Baliles. In 2012, the festival took place along the Canal Walk; in 2013 it will take place at the abandoned GRTC lot on Cary Street.
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- Palmer, Rod (2008), Street Art Chile, Eight Books, ISBN 978-0-9554322-1-7
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- Walde, Claudia (2011), Street Fonts – Graffiti Alphabets From Around The World, Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-51559-4
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