Street art is unique in that it requires and thrives in the urban built environment. The styles and artistic choices of this kind of art are a unique blend of local street culture. This can all culminate in beautiful mural-like strips of art bringing vibrancy and colour to an environment that can otherwise feel cold and corporate. The end results of street art is a comprehensive range of visuals displayed by an equally varied range of materials that portrays a complex meaning. It is here that I make the distinction between graffiti and street art.
Street art as the name suggests is designed to interact with an audience, as are traditional artforms, whilst graffiti represents a rebellion against the built environment and is not drawn with the intention of gaining a public understanding. Most graffiti gains virtue by the challenge of committing the act rather than the end result. Reach for the sky and you can spray paint the sun, may be an overly poetic way of looking at words scrawled in highly inaccessible areas but it is the core ideal of the artform.
There are however many similarities between the two artforms. Both are displayed outdoors, in public and private places, and both are free to view making them truly public art pieces. Both allow an uncensored way to express yourself and as such they attract those who feel marginalized or underrepresented. This has the added effect of causing both artforms to be included in political or social commentary and activism. Many graffiti artists also cross over to street art as their style develops, with some monetizing their art through commissions.
Where then do architects fit into this paradigm? Well we are but passive observers along for the ride. Designing mural walls or other publicly accessible areas might be great for street artists but for graffiti writers it’s no substitute. In fact designing these spaces removes the drive behind the art. Worse yet is the ongoing debate surrounding gentrification. Street art can be a tool used for the good of a community but it can also be put toward commercial and corporate interests. The Bushwick Collective is the name given to several blocks in Brooklyn where street artists are allowed to work legally under the caveat that none of their work includes words. This excludes the graffiti writers and as the reputation of the area has grown more of the walls have been covered with art by non-local artists, creating a feeling that the locals are being pushed out. As well as this with the increase in people visiting the area there has been an uptick in the price of property.
This brings me onto my final consideration about street art and architecture, what to do when renovating or developing property containing street art. In the UK an artist who has obtained permission to produce art can object to modifications or commercial use of their art but can’t object to the removal or destruction of the original piece. This is not the same for art without permission such as the infamous Banksy pieces that have been removed from properties and sold. In other jurisdictions like the US artists are able to oppose the destruction of their work by the property owners and can request damages if the removal takes place. This was established in 2018 in the 5Pointz Case where artists were awarded $6.75 million, $150,000 for each of the 45 destroyed works. Irrespective of what the law is regarding this we at Arkhi would suggest negotiating in good faith with artists whose art is incorporated into the structure if possible to mitigate the possibility of legal disputes.