URBAN MURALS ARE STYLISTICALLY AND SYSTEMATICALLY MARKING INFRASTRUCTURES ALL OVER THE WORLD. WITH A DEVELOPING SUBCULTURE OF ITS OWN, ARE WE STILL CALLING STREET ART VANDALISM?
WORDS: MITALEE DESHPANDE
Close your eyes for a moment and try to think of the last time you saw a wall decorated with spray painted images and words; maybe an image so beautiful, you couldn’t help but take a closer look to understand the intricacies of the stencils merging seamlessly into one another to create something that made you look twice even though you were running incredibly late for that Monday morning meeting. And while you squint your eyes and tilted your head slightly to the right to soak it all up (as if that was going to unlock the mysteries of that art piece!), the artist was looking at you and thinking, “this stuffy suit is never going to decode my message.” You see, street art and graffiti stemmed as shady concepts of the thrill of doing something illegal, not a desire to create art. It was a message to other artists to decode through images and coded words. Street art began way back in the 60s in Philadelphia and quickly moved to New York when the city resembled the bombed and dismantled Berlin post World War II.
Street art was initially associated with the outlaws and the rebels - youth that protested against the government. Today, street art has become widely accepted as a means of neighbourhood beautification tags started popping up was because the youth wanted the government to notice their predicaments, and because the kids didn’t want to feel like a part of a community stuck in the poorest areas of Brooklyn. Vandalism was one way to capture the attention of the media; of course motives have changed now but a few of the roots still live on.
Since a lot of the poor areas of Brooklyn were occupied by African Americans, the street art was carried out by them. When the late 70s brought around the hip hop scene, street art was the perfect sidekick to it. The African-American culture and hip hop music made sure that graffitis spread like wildfire. Before the turn of century, street art was illegal and controversial all around the world. Times have changed now, and with increasing education in art and worldwide acceptance of quite a few things, graffitis have become ‘art’ today. It still precariously finds itself balancing on the thin line between a controversial nuisance and a voice for change.
Even though street art finds itself in deep waters almost every day, this art, just like any other art form, has a strict code of unwritten rules that every artist follows. Certainly, there aren’t any punishments for every time an artist breaks a rule, but it’s frowned upon in the community and the artist ends up losing his credibility. And in this community where not many artists know each other’s faces, credibility is what makes or breaks you. The most important rule is to never use another artist's tag for your artwork – it’s the street world’s identity theft. The second most important rule is to never draw on another artists work unless yours is way better than theirs. Of course, in today’s world where space is sacred, artists tend to draw on each other’s work to showcase their work in the popular spots but most of these works are in fact artworks that build up on the aesthetics of the area. Most of the vandalised artwork is found in subways and train tunnels, or alleys and shambles of ruined buildings that no one lives in.
With the rise of graffiti artists all over the world, right from metro cities like New York, London, Prague, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and Paris to laid back towns like Rishikesh, Cape Town, Bristol, Buenos Aires and Melbourne, quite a few cities have legal authorisation to have artwork in some public areas. Some cities also commission artists to splash up a few walls in train stations with their best work. No matter how beautiful these commissioned pieces are, the best of street art, even today, is found behind road signs and corners that are hidden from the public eye unless they’re actively seeking them out.