There’s never been a better time to be a street artist. There’s more public acceptance than ever before and countless international street art festivals in an ever increasing list of exotic and far flung locations. Celebrities, corporations, galleries and even councils are clamouring to align themselves with the art and the artists.
But is all getting a little bit too cosy? The association they want is with the cool and edgy rebellious roots of the culture but in reality they seek a safe and watered down version. They can’t risk the damage to their brand.
Street art exploded into life in the 1970’s as an illegal, dangerous and defiant art form and it has come a long way since those early days. Moving from the hard to decipher tags, with their own visual language, to the highly technical and large scale muralism which dominates today. The artists are revered in the mainstream where they were once reviled – which means there are more opportunities to create and make a living from the art. That is only a positive.
However, if we take 1970 as an approximate birthdate of modern street art, then as we enter 2016 it’s just settling into middle age. It appears to have grown out of that foolish youthful idea about making a difference and is now a part of the machine. A cog in the money press.
Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the new frontier of the street art festival. Artists from all over the world, going all over the world, and painting side by side. The problem is that many of these events bring as many artists as possible together, have no defined purpose and, most counterintuitively, have the artists painting on temporary hoardings or sites to be painted over again the following year. Chuck D famously said he doesn’t “rhyme for the sake of riddling” but this feels like painting for the sake of scribbling.
There is arguably no more famous festival then Wynwood Walls in Miami yet it was around this event that (very briefly) one of the most exciting artists around made a bold rallying call against this new colourful, but ultimately vacuous, middle age that street art finds itself meandering through.
The message was unambiguous. MEANINGLESS. It wasn’t intended to offend and wasn’t an attack on his fellow artists. Many of his friends and respected peers have painted at Wynwood, worked the other festivals and have created meaningful works at these events. Axel himself created the below piece as part of the Raw Project in Wynwood; A great example of the power of street art being harnessed for a tangible social benefit.
Despite Axel’s ever increasing profile, the attention that is lavished on Wynwood and the numerous blogs and magazines which cover the movement, there is very little to be found online or in print about the “Meaningless” work, beyond his own Instagram account:
“The title of the wall alludes to the creation of this opportunist Street Art Fair and the street art scene in Wynwood, Miami, but also to what street art in general has become. With no intention to offend, but rather to give constructive criticism on how the market and the art can coexist, without turning the work into a frivolous, fashion display lacking content beyond it being “cool”. I think street art has always been a very powerful tool to voice the word of the people, without the elitist filter of the contemporary art scene. But somehow it blended in with propaganda and the fashion industry. The wall had good reception amongst the artists, but the owner of the space wasn’t too happy about it. Funny enough, three days after we did this wall, with his permission and no theme censure, the owner of the space had Hebru Brantley, a Chicago based street artist cover this wall, with the help of a spontaneous Lenny Kravitz. Now it has a cartoonish character that says “She is a Beast!”.”
There is probably a wider variety of styles and more technically skilled artists operating on the streets than ever before. Why then does street art feel increasingly meaningless or superficial?
The answer that no-one wants to hear is that it feels increasingly meaningless because it is increasingly meaningless. Even a cursory glance at the work by the likes of Axel Void, Faith47, Blu, Escif, Know Hope, C215, Hyuro or Borondo (there are far too many to list) will tell you we don’t need to consider that as a viable answer. Their work is personal, honest and brave and address real issues beyond the superficial.
The real answer to the question is simply that the more popular something becomes, and the more money there is to be made from it, the less risks can be taken. It’s a case of the vanilla, rather than the cream, rising to the top. The less potential for conflict, offence or differing opinion there is then the more potential likes and shares something will get on social media. It’s lowest common denominator stuff which priorities instant but fleeting gratification over work and ideas that will stay with you long after you’ve clicked the little Instagram heart mindlessly and carried on scrolling past it.
A Different Way
There’s a counter movement starting at the moment though. It’s not yet picked up full steam but there’s a definite increasing appetite within the street art world to take back the medium and rescue it from the brink of bland. Axel’s work at Wynwood and accompanying text is just one example of that. There are obviously individual artists travelling the world and creating incredible work and being helped of a wide range of organisations who give them the opportunity (Global Street Art are a great example). There are also some great events that have been set up with clearly defined aims to help create social change in some way (like Sea Walls). We’re hoping to play our own part in that with our new Cities of Hope project. We see ourselves and other similar projects as social justice organisations that use Street Art has a vehicle for delivering a message rather than seeing ourselves as a street art festival where the artists may or may not have something to say with their work.
Everyone involved in street art (or any artistic expression) can make a difference by taking the time to understand, value and promote the work and artists of substance. We need organizers and sponsors to be brave and audiences to be open minded. Whether we’re talking about art, culture, music, film, politics, work or relationships; Don’t let it become meaningless by taking the easy and quick option.