Painting The City

February 2, 2010 § 20 Comments

“But, is it Art?”
How often have you looked at street art or graffiti, and wondered something on those lines?

Well, you are not alone. Whether street art should be designated as an art form is a raging debate among art enthusiasts and skeptics. Concerns about street art extend to looking down on it as being a mere form of vandalism, a meaningless defacement of our gentrified cities.

To simplify the scenario, one can say that street art exists on two platforms today: Commissioned and Non-Commissioned.

Commissioned street art is legal, and could be predetermined in many ways, and there in lies the difference. The commissioner provides/leases a canvas, hand picks the artist, and more often than not, determines the content or the ideological boundaries. On the other hand, non-commissioned art exists freely, is illegal. And true to its nature, it is an artist’s unbridled expression of his/her creative vision and idea.

In most countries the law targets non-commissioned street art ruthlessly. In New York, we have recently adopted a new approach towards graffiti removal. An approach that makes the process of removing street art from the sidewalks easier and speedier. City officials can now remove graffiti from buildings and storefronts without the owner’s approval, unless the owner of the property calls in advance to let the officials know that he approves the graffiti on his property. You can read more about it here.

In the UK,  it’s not just the street artists who are penalized for breaking the law, property owners bear the brunt of penalties if they do not take down non-commissioned works of street art promptly.

Despite these suppressive measures, street art continues to fight back and survive. Why? Where is the impetus coming from?


In the following series of posts, I will present a real-time view of the current street art scene in NYC.

The Mission: Sniffing out the best and the worst, the pristine and the defaced, the chaotic and the beatific creations that adorn the nooks and crannies of this city. It’s a treasure hunt!

Where: Everywhere NYC. From one locality to another. From one borough to next. We will document it all.

Perks: You are invited to join me on this exciting journey full of discovery! To feast your senses on collages of color and texture. To delve into the meaning of art and its boundaries (are there?). To peek inside the world of underground messages and sidewalk narratives.

With this post, we begin to hunt down some shiny little gems from Soho and Lower East Side:

For many, street art represents a paradox of sorts. On one hand, letting creativity flow seems to be the right way to go. On the other hand, it seems unfair to let unwilling passers-by bear the visual onslaught of street graffiti against their wishes. Having certain laws in place to ensure an individual’s freedom and rights are not impinged upon, is an understood necessity.

The paradox deepens:

Let’s think about the barrage of hoardings, advertisements and commercial messages that slam us everyday in our homes and on the streets…that we have no choice but to live alongside? Or consider this: If cities could generate revenue from street art, would there be a law banning it or a property owner chastising it?

Despite these very paradoxes that befuddle me, when I see an interesting piece of street art on the side of a city building, I never fail to enjoy it. In fact, I relish it. To me, it adds interest, opinion and art (!) to an otherwise plain canvas of a city. Like a visual documentary, it serves to reflect the culture of the time, the propaganda, the ideas and the discontent bubbling under the surface of a society. Wait, isn’t that Art?


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§ 20 Responses to Painting The City

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  • Maggie says:

    I love graffiti and have a small obsession with it. I’m an art history major and would love to study the historical trends of graffiti going back very far. I definitely consider much of graffiti art when it is not solely someone’s spray painted initials. I look forward to following this documentation of it.

    • The Juicer says:

      That is a great idea Maggie! I cannot even begin to imagine the possibilities of findings from a historical study of street art. Are you planning on working on it anytime soon?
      I agree with your opinion on tagging (initials). Definitely does not go in my book of creativity. Well, let’s say I am yet to see one that stirs any emotion in me.
      I am really looking forward to sharing this series with you!

  • […] The idea for this post came from a fellow when she introduced a new blog project on graffiti art. The pictures below are from an underground walking tunnel in Florence that I had been obsessed […]

  • I have mixed feelings about it, but enjoy looking at it. I noticed in the bottom photo an image of a little boy in shorts (it says ‘Army of One’ next to his head), anyway this is taken from a famous photo by the Diane Arbus. Certainly lots to look at.

    I love the series though, cool shots.

    • The Juicer says:

      ‘Mixed feelings’ is the most common reaction I come across among observers.
      I have a closeup of the last shot, am planning to put it up for a closer look on the next post. Absolutely love that one, many thanks for noting the reference here!

  • San Francisco has an active street art culture(the commissioned sorts) that curbs the graffiti to a large extent. And if you notice street art which looks like a large scale version of the art from galleries, religious insignia is rarely subject to graffiti(gang graffiti etc).

    The post reminded me of a Street art vs Graffiti in Los Angeles (and comparison with SF) case study that we did in grad school in collab with the LA Mayor’s office. :)

    • The Juicer says:

      If you drop by this page again, I would love to hear about your findings from the LA vs SF case study!
      It looks like commissioned street art is getting more and more space on the city walls. But sometimes, looking at an art work, it is hard to tell if it is commissioned or not. As incredibly beautiful pieces of non-commissioned art do exist, and that’s where it all started didn’t it? I do not make the distinction of calling commissioned work Street Art and non-commissioned work Graffiti. If we do that then we’d be starting off with judging art based on whether it was legal or not.

  • grunskm says:

    I don’t think the paradoxes of street art will or or should ever be fixed. It cannot exist any other way than it does already. There is no possible balance between pro and anti street art parties, and they will always be in conflict.
    I think if this ever changes, street art will lose everything that made it original in the first place. It will become just another counter bricolaged subject that has lost it’s meaning.

    • The Juicer says:

      So you are saying that the true essence of street art comes from it being an underground movement, and legalizing it would take away from the very impetus that creates and sustains its true character and beauty? Interesting point, and you may be on to something very relevant here.
      I would not like to think that the impetus that propels street art would thrive only under the current conditions of suppression. I say this because the law in this case is not against the message but the medium. Despite legalizing the medium, if it ever happens, the artist’s need to convey the message outside of gallery walls, on the street and to the masses would still exist, wouldn’t it?
      Regarding the future, I do not see a possible resolution to this conflict except more and more commissioned art taking over the streets, which does take away a lot from the content as I mentioned in my post, and also limits accessibility for grass root level artists.

  • Sean Fraser says:

    “Commissioned street art is legal and could be predetermined in many ways, and there in lies the difference” This is true, it’s not a question about artistic merit or whether it’s a tag or a masterpiece the point is it illegally defaces private or public property.

    What ever the motive, be it fame, recognition, fun or artistic expression that the graffitist hides behind doesn’t change the fact it is an act of intentional malicious damage and should be treated that way.

    Like you I enjoy the visuals of the street “masterpiece” but I feel a little fearful in neighbourhoods that are covered in meaningless gang tags. Graffiti can hurt a community.

    • The Juicer says:

      Thanks for sharing Sean..I understand your concerns and many would share the same sentiment with you! The property owner is the one who gets affected directly, in a material sense. And that is why, although we as viewers might be able to engage with the art and even appreciate its beauty, the one whose property gets ‘defaced’ so to speak, is definitely not the one amused.
      If the messages propagated by Street Art are indeed relevant, then one could argue that public or private property is just collateral damage. Callous yes, but perhaps the ideas and messages being spewed on the city walls are a much needed expression of the society as a whole?

      As with any sociocultural phenomenon, we are herewith presented with the difficult prospect of weighing in the merits and drawbacks of street art, and picking a side. It is tough to see this phenomenon in just two shades of black and white. I will muse more over this in my next post. Stay tuned, and do not forget to pitch in your opinion again:) It is much valued!

  • Sean Fraser says:

    Ps …..sorry forgot to mention your post and the pics are great…..have a sunny day

  • […] February 8, 2010 Fundamental Jelly made an important observation regarding the last image in my previous post. His keen eyes noticed a famous photo by Diane Arbus embed in the Army Of One graffiti I had […]

  • vidu says:

    you are strong with images as well as words. Girl, you are very lethal :-) Continue the great work…

  • Feanare says:

    Street Art always put a smile on my face as well. As long as it’s not random name tags etc (but that’s not what I mean by the expression “art”, but anyway..).

    Many guerrilla/street artists are simply taking back the public space, using the walls, poles or whatever as a canvas. Why should they not? Seriously speaking, if a piece of work make a person stop, think and look in a place where he normally just hassles by. That little moment affects the person more, in a good way, than the paint/glue does damage to the wall.

    In a world where “everyone” tries soooo hard to buy happiness through material goods, it’s a strange paradox we can’t sacrifice some brick to get a bit of the very same feeling.

    • The Juicer says:

      Feanare- thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject. Not many perceive Street Art as adding value or happiness to an otherwise mundane you do:)
      For this note, I am going to keep the illegal aspect of street-art aside and address another point:
      There is no denying the fact, that a a substantial % of graffiti on the street is Art. Some is not, I agree, and that’s a given. But that which is, is still not considered Art by many mostly because of its physical location. Until one day, lo and behold, the street artist makes his way up the ladder, and into an art gallery. Some of the same people who looked down on the same art when it was down in the trenches, will pay to view it hanging on immaculate walls. Quite a paradox I say and quite an interesting notion: how society perceives art based on its packaging and marketing. Just like that $400 designer label dress, which I can tell you by experience, could very well have been selling for $60 in a discount store!
      Capitalism has permeated our lives fully. There are pros, but one should not forget there are cons too.

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