Who Controls Street Art?

It all begins with marks on a wall.

“People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish… but that’s only if it’s done properly.” – Banksy.

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Something many casual viewers of street art wonder is how did the artists have enough time to finish that work without getting caught? The simple answer: because they were allowed to. Times are changing with politicians, property owners and society in general, whom are more accepting of the beauty and improvement certain forms of graffiti bring to a city, with many street artists now commissioned by council or property owners to complete these works.

However, artists who choose to express themselves without permission on private and public property are considered to be committing vandalism and are by definition, a criminal.

This leads to an interesting debate surrounding how street art is controlled and regulated, an argument over essentially, marks on a wall.

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The current distinction between what is considered street art compared to vandalism is permission. If graffiti in any form is permitted by the “owner”, it is technically recognised as an acceptable form of public street art. The issue becomes more complex when artworks are created illegally on buildings, but property owners see the value and improvement in these works and decide to keep them. This is an interesting example, as a large proportion of street art around Adelaide, and most likely around the world, is unauthorised, illegal and “illegitimate” art work.

What is often not considered in the ensuing discussion is these illegal works are often necessary stepping stones for street artists to master their craft. For instance, most of the artists on my top five list, published in my last blog, began their artwork in the illegal street-art realm, also known as vandalism. However, most street artists would agree they needed to work and practice outside the law to improve their artistic skills and define their own unique style to later be recognised and invited to create commissioned works. The motivation also stems from an intrinsic desire to express themselves creatively and add value to an otherwise dull space.

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As we are clearly seeing more street art, what has changed policy makers and property owners’ minds to accept and encourage this work as an art form instead of vandalism?

Well to put it simply, street art is good for the economy. In Melbourne, the thriving laneways that are brimming with street art have become one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. What was once an unwanted, outlawed art form is now encouraged by Melbourne City Council. The council approves permits for many public spaces with the building owner’s permission, allowing street artists to use the space as a platform for creative expression and thereby contributing to a dynamic urban culture. Adelaide has the potential to follow in the successful footsteps of Melbourne, but currently places firm restrictions on street art in an attempt to control it, which in turn fuels vandalism that is destructive and provides little to no intrinsic value.

What opponents fail to appreciate is that in some cases commissioned works remove the spontaneity of street art, adding longevity to the artwork and ensuring the surrounding buildings remain graffiti-free. This means  there is less likelihood for these artworks to be defaced or covered, removing the element of rivalry that occurs in these public spaces by taggers and gangs. On the other hand, places where street-art is commissioned are considerably affluent areas that are already low in crime and general graffiti. This illustrates an ability by councils to embrace graffiti-inspired artwork yet they  are distanced from the culture that it stems from. So the question is, can street art and graffiti truly be controlled?

To challenge this concept, Adelaide street-artist Peter Drew conducted a social experiment where he made tagging controlled in his “who owns the street” wheat paste up.

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Drew allowed anyone to come along and “tag” the poster. The council initially had no problem with the experiment, however issues arose when people started to tag over the lines. The council believed the street art had gotten out of hand and was too hard to control so painted over the installation.

Now I’m not trying to portray them as enemies of street art culture, as many building owners and council workers enjoy and appreciate public art projects. However, placing restrictive control on street art only worsens the situation, as often these pieces may hold value or serve to enrich an area. Who gets to choose what is and isn’t art? It is not clearly discernible as to where the line is drawn, as some of the best street art in the world would by definition be considered illegal, such as Banksy’s now heralded pieces. Individuals such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey both began with illegal works but are now considered, legitimate, talented, hardworking artists who portray a degree of social awareness required to spark healthy discussions in contemporary society.

An example of this restrictive control is  the Adelaide City Council’s approach near Topham mall.  “Free  walls” were established with the intention that graffiti would be confined to a certain area. However, when the art slowly began to spread away from the specific graffiti wall, the council painted over the entire area and removed the designated “legal” walls. Council soon realised street art couldn’t be controlled and confined, spreading like an overgrown vine over an abandoned building reclaiming what was once its own.

Thankfully, artists were provided with a replacement area under the Morphett Street bridge on North Terrace, where Matt Stuckey cheekily wrote this statement upon its initiation.

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With history repeating itself, the art has again burst over the side of the bridge, bringing the bridge to life with vibrant colours and expression. Before removing the artworks, the council should consider whether the visual appeal and vibrant urban environment outweighs the arbitrary decision of why one wall is ok to paint on and another one is not.

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In summary, no one would have presumed to tell Jackson Pollock that Blue Poles was too big when he was creating it.  Similarly you can’t control street art. It is an organic and dynamic art form with a life of its own. In removing certain street art, but placing others on a pedestal, you are giving artists and vandals mixed messages. In true street art form, the less important and eye-catching artworks are eventually painted over anyway. Obviously property owners should be included in the conversation and if they choose to disagree with street art they do have a right to that, but do councils really need to be involved?  Whilst I support street art and believe it is a beautiful addition to any city, I appreciate the concerns for promoting vandalism and tagging that is destructive rather than constructive, however I will cover the debate of street art versus vandalism in another blog. I also understand the rights of the property owner to have the discretion to control how their building is presented, but it becomes a grey area when the outside of their building is a public space. Should it be up to the public to decide whether they wish for certain street art to be on display rather than a lifeless brick wall? 

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At least a two-way conversation between the public and building owners is warranted. In a bureaucratic and legal form, yes it is private property, but it is the public that inhabit the space.  If healthy debate and relationships between property owners and street artists are encouraged, perhaps we can more closely emulate Melbourne’s success in promoting legal areas for street art, thereby providing more canvases for artists to master their craft,  in turn detracting illegal artists. In the end, street art and art is not straight-forward, rather it is nuanced with many perspectives and no absolute answer.

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Ultimately, street art has raised discussions about space and ownership. Its anti-establishment sentiment has redefined the established control of public and private property and what ownership truly is, as well as questioning who should control public space. It provides  a vehicle for people to express themselves but we must accept that by the very nature of the art form, it will never be confined to a certain area. Yes, some graffiti isn’t as appealing as others, but in an urban environment with featureless surroundings, it is a sign of life. A city without graffiti is like a field without flowers. While not all flowers are appealing, and weeds will grow, the overall colour and landscape signify a sign of life. Instead of trying to control the field of flowers, we should be watering those we enjoy and planting seeds to allow for more beauty to grow and envelop the city.

Thank-you.

Peace x

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