Street Art – Analog Free Culture

Street art is art, specifically visual art, developed in public spaces — that is, “in the streets” — though the term usually refers to unsanctioned art, as opposed to government sponsored initiatives. The term can include traditional graffiti artwork, sculpture, stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheatpasting and street poster art, video projection, art intervention, guerrilla art, flash mobbing and street installations.” (Wikipedia)

“I Steal Music, and I’m Not Going Away! – The Bubble Project

Street artists produce dynamic artworks, in a manner that democratically circumvents the art establishment. (As such, it should really be a favorite of the Occupy spin-off “Occupy Museums.”) Realspace art can be static and “fixed,” but street art is a good example of people using a public platform in realspace. The extra-legal and often collaborative nature parallels the free culture “remix culture” ethos. One of my favorite examples of street art, The Bubble Project, began when artist Ji Lee printed out 15,000 blank speech bubble stickers and stuck them on top of advertisements. This implicit invitation allowed individuals to engage in an open dialogue with the corporate advertisers and the culture they represent.

Groups of graffiti artists make changes and additions to one another’s work, resulting in a constantly evolving urban landscape. Interestingly, graffiti often runs afoul of the law just as collaborative remix projects do. Street artists are up against a good number of laws – vandalism, malicious mischief, intentional destruction of property, criminal trespass, antisocial behavior – when they do their thing. There are different legal restrictions depending on whether it’s private or public property. In either case, you need to seek permission from different people, and trespassing may be added to vandalism under certain conditions.

Banksy has the luxury of being something of a street art rock star, whose pieces almost always get automatic VARA protection.

Similar to works on a digital platform, antigraffiti laws tend to reach past the actual offense to other layers of production, or otherwise legitimate uses of property. [1] Graffiti ordinances may forbid the sale of spray paint and permanent markers within the city limits, or have “lock-up” laws that keep them only accessible with employee assistance. In some cities it’s unlawful for landowners to allow any graffiti on their property if it’s visible from any other public or private property. Even if you paint your own wall, the aesthetic zoning people can still come after you. [2] Which really incentivizes innovation and experimentation in a way I’m sure Big Brother would love.

The legal restrictions are problematic as street art is a rapidly evolving art form that is gaining increasing numbers of followers and aficionados. Some cities even protect graffiti art under VARA or local ordinances. As in the Banksy piece to the left, the addition of a few lines and a new perspective may change what we consider vandalism into high art. By circumventing the establishment, street artists can make powerful political statements and reclaim common spaces for individual expression.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For example, to protect copyrighted content the DMCA makes it illegal to sell programs that circumvent digital rights management software to make fair use of a legitimately purchased content. SOPA would give would make it a felony to stream copyrighted content without authorization, and the government could unilaterally force an ISP to block access, forbid search engines from linking to it, and payment systems (like paypal) from processing their transactions.
  2. Cities can make aesthetic zoning laws, which can limit size or crazy paint jobs, alternative styles of architecture, anything that’s not deemed to be discriminatory.

2 comments for “Street Art – Analog Free Culture

  1. albert
    December 24, 2011 at 11:16 am

    I’m a bit torn over all of this. On the one hand, graffiti artists are clearly capable of transforming disused and bleak spaces into impromptu galleries, hosting thoughtful, beautiful, and original works. But on the other hand, unlike in the digital sphere, competing uses by the property owner and graffiti artist are inherently rivalrous. It runs up against over a millennium of property law to permit such trespasses, as opposed to the comparatively recent development of laws to protect digital IP “rights”.

    • Rocky Acosta
      January 15, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      That’s why I think it’s such an suitable parallel to the increasingly proprietary system of digital IP rights. If you can exclude someone, and claim something as “your property,” then you are building fences akin to those used to protect real property. Remix artists and graffiti artists take on a proprietary culture to reclaim something as theirs.

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