Category: Power

Martyn Reed: Laugh Now


I was working on a project recently with an artist, when he turned to me and said, “please don’t mention that I’m a street artist in the press release, say I’m a neo-muralist”. I felt the hairs on my arms raise. He’d said this in spite of my knowing that he’d spent the last ten years nurturing a “street art” profile, a subculture that was almost the antithesis of this new municipality sanctioned corporate mural culture he wanted to be seen to be embracing.

Martyn Reed is an artist, researcher, producer and in his own words, an “ambivalent curator” dedicated to the democratisation of art production through the promotion of street art practice. His projects are designed as a critical response to the cultural hegemony whilst offering a celebration of radical DIY alternatives. He is a graduate of Jacob Kramer (Leeds) and Hornsey School of Art (London).

Now, I’m not against muralism as such, it’s a powerful medium with a rich history, particularly in the America’s, with at times, strong associations with social justice issues and community building. The communities being “built” and associated with street art now however, tend to be from the top down and integrate a type of generic muralism involving artists unaware or unashamed of abandoning street art’s original rhetoric of transgressive spontaneity. Developers favouring a kind of colourful and premeditated faux subversion to anything genuinely “street” or authentic.

They still put art on the streets for people to # and enjoy, so what’s the problem you might ask.

The problem of course, is the same one that Street Art initially set out to challenge, that is, the mechanism and conduits to power within public space and “culture” overseen by neo liberal courtiers to the elite. The same mechanisms that desire an ever more passive audience primed to consume #muralart in the same manner as they consume other disposable goods and product. Street Art of course, for better or worse, set out to challenge this.

In a culture of globalised brands and neo-liberal ideology, this new one-size fits all style of public mural art is ideal for clone developments & gentrification projects, it’s middle of the road, middle class and middle-brow. Like public art of old, it is fast becoming the Mumford and Sons of street art, creating a culture that seeks nothing more than your uncritical attention and adoration.

All of this got me to thinking, what can be done to wrestle back “Street Art” from corporate property speculators and those organisations and institutions dedicated to simply profiting from it. Living parasitically, from a culture predicated on resisting this onslaught of power wrought by capital. Can the coming tsunami of big budget bucket paint and cherry picker productions destined to rewrite what constitutes “street art” be averted, and if not, what should all of those concerned with this development do about it. Last year, in order to broaden the palette, we toyed with the term “post street art”, but perhaps this years adoption of the term “critical street art” is where the future lay. Try it, “Critical Street Art”. Sounds good ?  better than “neo muralism” right ?

Authentic Street Art’s impending demise, or at least the death of any meaning ascribed to the term, made me recall the first piece of street art, that first stencil, that hit me with an impact like no mural ever has, or probably ever will. Like a song that cuts to the bone, it contained that same lyrical power that makes you want to leave your small town and small life for bigger and better things, it sprinkled both art and activism into eyes tired from the smog of advertising I’d experienced in the taxi ride from the airport to Shoreditch, where I was to Dj that night. As I lugged my pre EDM record box (yes, vinyl people) from the back of the cab, I was confronted with a slightly less than lifesized single layer stencil of a disgruntled looking chimpanzee holding a sandwich board that boldly stated “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”. It appeared at a time when transgression was not simply a marketing technique and whose immediate cultural value far exceeded any possible commercial value I could think of, there were no street level stencil art marketing campaigns I was aware of at the time, so it was undoubtedly art. But what sort of art was this, who had created it, was it animal rights related, was I the monkey, was the monkey the working class or the creative class, was it public art, did it relate to graffiti?

Stripped of any references, it left me momentarily lost, and like all good art, it had pushed me down a rabbit hole to live for a moment in a different world. A world away from the cab, the city, my dislocated self and the information overload I’d just experienced.

It was 2000, and It was of course, Banksy’s “Laugh Now”.

This wild counterpoint to the overly regulated distribution of images and signs that i’d experienced on the way in, triggered a life long obsession with Street Art. It has, in its most authentic form, never lost the power of that first defiant punch, a punch that instantly knocked the art education out of me. It acted as a trigger not only to thought, but to action, and that same year, I established the Nuart Festival.

Stencil art, is the tool that those without power, already possess. It enables us to speak of the times in the language of the times, leaving traces of the familiar in often unfamiliar surroundings. Unlike contemporary art, I realized it was not a mirror, but a compass to show us the way, though we seem to have lost our bearings a little recently. It isn’t produced for a community, but is a shout out to create a community. Some mural artists, often through necessity, have to be nuanced in the way they communicate politics, but I’m tired of nuance, and the stencil is very direct in all it’s hand cut black and white glory. There are people, companies and organisations out there quite prepared to use mural artists as the shock troops of gentrification, moving into an area and clearing a path for developers, mine stripping the culture of its relevance as it goes. We need to be prepared to offer and fight for alternative platforms, spaces, patrons, finance and events if the culture is to maintain any authentic link to its radical roots. In the meantime, it’s the anonymous and unsung heroes of Stencil Art that we need to once again, focus on and celebrate. Those nameless champions of multiple series of small and human scale works whose lifestyle’s and rebellions have avoided keying into the corporate world. Unnamed, unsanctioned, unauthorized, unart as opposed to nuart perhaps.

In a culture where anti-authoritarianism can be “diagnosed” as a “disorder” and medicated against , one where contemporary art is in thrall to the market, we need quick, simple and very public transgressive acts, and a lot of them. It’s the stencil that offers us this, a form that echoes Joseph Beuys famous statement “everyone an artist”, in the most literal of senses.

In the beginning, you’ll feel like a fraud, an imposter, a faker, and you can damn well bet you’ll be inauthentic. But continue, and somewhere along the line, you may just create an incantation that reverberates with the now, a song of ourselves, a trigger that spurs others to action generating a belief in the idea of art, love and community. As “Laugh Now” did for me, you could do for others.

As critic and author Robert Hughes said in the 1980s tome, The Shock of the New: “What does one prefer? An art that struggles to change the social contract but fails? Or one that seeks to please and amuse and succeeds?”

I’ll leave it to readers to decide which is which.

Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.

Martyn Reed

Originally written for Juxtapox Magazine Nov 2017

Poesia & Ekg

We include this exhibition text in the journal as it covers ground rarely explored in either writings on contemporary art or street art/graffiti

A Major Minority: An Intercontinental Survey of Othercontemporary Urban Art

Exhibition Statement written by Poesia and Ekg.

Poesia (US)

Born in 1976, Poesia Transcend is a self-taught San Francisco Bay Area artist. During his early years as a graffiti writer at the turn of the nineties, he was recognized for his experimental Wildstyle pieces. In the middle of the decade, he became involved with the Transcend Collective. During this period, Poesia became one of the pioneering practitioners of what became known as Abstract Graffiti

Poesia is also the founder of the website that has led to the Graffuturist group or Graffuturism Movement. Graffuturism was founded in 2010.


Somewhere between graffiti writer and street artist, EKG has made a name for himself with the quick stroke of his signature orange paint.  His work resonates with the energy of the city. Dilapidated buildings, dirty subway stations, doorways, dumpsters — this artist leaves no surface untouched.  A visual representation of the heartbeat — his work is simple yet easily recognizable and effective.  Each time you encounter one of his tags, you get a sense that we are all somehow connected through the city.  EKG reminds us all that it is our collective energy — the people — that brings life to NYC.


A Major Minority is an international exhibition consisting of urban artists from eighteen countries. Over a hundred artists will each be contributing three-to-five pieces, resulting in a massive survey of three- to five-hundred works of art. The concept and title of the show were developed by the graffiti artist Poesia, who is also the editor of and the cultural instigator at the center of the growing interest in abstract, progressive and hybrid Graffiti art forms. He elected to exhibit this large quantity and particular group of artists in order to display the wide spectrum of progressive hybrid aesthetics within the othercontemporary Urban Art community. This intensive and extensive sampling of stylistic specimens illustrates the broad continuum of approaches and aesthetics that fall under the purview of this art form, without focusing on any one sub-genre exclusively. His only stipulation was the size of the pieces, which he designated as the international standard “A4” (or 8.3″ x 11.7″) in order to symbolically emphasize the global scope of the survey, as well as the international cultural dominance of Urban Art at this time in art history.

By amassing this huge survey, Poesia presents the current Post-historical aesthetic moment of our Global Village as the natural evolution from the original form of Graffiti which manifested in the late Sixties. Both the above terms were created and defined fifty years ago in 1964 when they were developed independently by Arthur Danto and Marshall McLuhan in their works The End of Art and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man respectively. Coincidentally, these two visionary texts articulated our new world during the same decade that Graffiti appeared within the urban environments of Philadelphia and New York City. At first Graffiti was simply known as Writing by the progenitors of the movement, but then the term Graffiti began to be used in the mass media, and it stuck in the consciousness of the populace and the next generation of writers as well. Since that time, this singular art form has gone through many more progressive mutations as it developed. Even within the last fifteen years, since the turn of the new millennium, Graffiti has found itself once again rejuvenated by the re-emergence of Street Art, which became a powerful cultural, aesthetic, and marketplace force this time around. As traditional Graffiti merges with Street Art and becomes what we have come to call Urban Art, A Major Minority illustrates this current maturity and intellectual self-awareness of itself in all it’s iterations and as the major global art form, expressing and engaging our post-historical, global village culture and psyche at the turn of the new millennium.

Despite this maturity, Urban Art has always remained on the edges of the art world and has never been bestowed true institutional recognition. At this point, Urban Art is a highly-developed movement with a rich fifty-year history, consisting of a wide-ranging community of practitioners, fans, merchants, and some institutional supporters. The use of the term Othercontemporary Art, coined by Stefano Antonelli, was settled upon during the discourse generated by the process of writing this exhibition statement, and encapsulates the concept that this is an art form which has always existed alongside but outside of what has become known as Contemporary Art by the critical, intellectual and institutional fine art communities. The term incorporates, but is not exclusive to, the ideals of The Other, Outsider Art and the recognition of an alternative version of art history of which Graffiti and its iterations are at the center of. The use of Othercontemporary is an attempt to create a specific and meaningful adjective for our proper nouns — Graffiti, Street Art and Urban Art — but it can also be used as an umbrella for those three terms, especially when used in opposition to the term Contemporary Art.

Because Urban Art has been misunderstood and ignored by institutions and their current version of art history, it was necessary to attempt to initiate and standardize a unique term that would augment and define this outsider art form. Over the past fifty years, Urban Art has not been canonized within the realm of Fine Art, but has actually been the singularly new, culturally relevant and globally dominant art form all along. At this point the term Contemporary Art has become so broad and meaningless that it ultimately only means art that is of the now, and yet it still remains one of the most common terms used when attempting to assign cultural relevance and historical pertinence to art. The term also actually falls into the same category as Post-modernism and Altermodernism, because it is merely another extension of the term Modernism, which had been used interchangeably with Contemporary up until the second half of the twentieth century, when Modernism began to sound antiquated and irrelevant. So, the decision to use the term Othercontemporary is an attempt to co-opt and subvert the term Contemporary and revitalize discussion around it. Whether the term itself is accurate or useful will be finalized only over time. Just like any other term that arises through cultural exchange, it will either die or live on, depending on its long-term viral cultural usage. This is only the beginning of that discourse, and over all, really, it still is mainly an adjective to the term Urban Art which will ultimately come to define this century, as Modernism is used to summarize the century before this.

So, Othercontemporary Art, a term which we define as having originated with Graffiti, extends its arms around Graffiti’s iterations and all are overseen by the umbrella term Urban Art, which contains in harmony and equality all these hybrid aesthetic forms which have originated outside the circumscription of traditional modernist theory and the established twentieth century art world, as well as civil society, the legal system, and the adult world. As mentioned, Graffiti manifested originally as Writing in the late Sixties. It was discovered and developed solely in the hands of adolescents through illegal marker and spray paint aesthetic interactions on the walls of the streets and the surfaces of subway cars in urban environments, with Philadelphia and New York City being at ground zero. Because of their extremely young age and unawareness of art history, Writing/Graffiti was truly an instinctual singular aesthetic cultural manifestation of our post-historical global village. New discoveries and innovations were transmitted by them directly and immediately on a daily basis from these public broadcast surfaces to each other and the general public as well. The marks were then analyzed and critiqued at “writer’s benches” around the city, and eventually in the form of photos appearing in periodicals, zines, books and electronic media as well. From these humble beginnings, the movement has continued to develop over the past fifty years due to the unique participatory and non-exclusionary nature of these means of transmission, therefore making it easily accessible to anyone and everyone in the urban environment. Because of these broadcast elements, the Graffiti signal is democratically assimilated, even though it is anarchistically disseminated. At first, these signals were transmitted only by illegal means, but as supporters were found and other avenues became available, the graffiti style was also broadcast on “legal walls,” therefore broadcasting Graffiti from the realms of Public Art, Community Art and Mural Art as well.

This interaction of the public with Urban Art and its populist acceptance by the majority has been portrayed as a negative aspect of the art form by the elitist gallery and institutional art world culture. Graffiti at its semiotic core though, because of the illegal nature of the medium it is broadcast through, is inherently an expression of populism and protest; Therefore it is important not to deny the mass attraction to it, but to recognize it’s communicative power, individualist nature, anti-status-quo subversion, and alternative community building aspects. As a matter of fact, we choose to wear it’s popularity as a badge of honor and a symbol of the successful infiltration, reception, and assimilation of our contentions with the critical, intellectual and academic elites, as well as all systems of societal, political and cultural control. Therefore, we embrace all styles and aesthetics that are visually engaging, but also that utilize this direct means of connection with the public within its own domain — the urban landscape — and transmit a message of transgression with the semiotic aura imbued by the illegal nature of the art form, whether it is expressed as direct action on the streets; as a stylistic homeopathy in the form of legal public art; as fashion, design or fine art commodities; and even in the constant visual and textual dialogue generated by it’s presence on the streets.

Each of the artists in the show has their own approach to and interpretation of this form of art, whether they emphasize style, concept, or medium at this stage in their development. But at it’s genesis, this movement is rooted in the act of unsanctioned mark making in the streets, which on some level has guided and influenced everything to follow. This may be the true basis of contention by critics and institutions, who feel unconscious trepidation about promoting an art form that developed from illegal actions that brutishly and anarchistically challenge polite civil society, cultural mores, the legal system, and ultimately the capitalist economic system of profits and private property, specifically when it pertains to who controls public visual display and communications. Whether intentional by the individual practitioner or not, Urban Art is a form of protest based in a public transgressive act, a visual civil disobedience that utilizes illegal aesthetic manifestations to broadcast disobedience from urban display surfaces. These illegal visual disturbances within the urban matrix may be one of the most important aesthetic and cultural questions of our time, and, as the separation between economic classes continues to widen, this collective cultural query will eventually need to be answered with something other than the current legal system’s definition of these aesthetic acts. Their utilization of the simplistic definition of these aesthetic protests as merely Vandalism does not address the deeper meaning of the collective cultural statement. The element of illegality at the genesis and core of this art form not only has driven the formation of style, choice of tools, and development of an alternative community, but also ultimately questions the existing societal and economic global systems and structures currently crumbling under the weight of the selfishness and myopia of the 1% ruling corporate class. This is not just an art form that speaks for the 99% aesthetic class, but ends up also challenging the 1% economic class in a similar way that Occupy Wallstreet does.

On the whole, this movement consists of a collective set of contradictions that embody today’s othercontemporary aesthetics, post-modern society and post-structural themes, as well as the economic, cultural, social and legal paradoxes in play. Poesia has chosen to focus this survey on artists he is familiar with from the context of Graffuturism, which as well as being the name of a website, has become recognized as a unique term he created to encapsulate the progressive hybrid aesthetic forms that have developed from the original discoveries of Graffiti. Even in the title itself, A Major Minority references the deconstructive influence of opposites and a network of disjunctions present in the survey, which is where much of the aesthetic power of previous but especially this particular phase of the movement comes from: activist/idealist, illegal/legal, graffiti/street art, letterform/non-calligraphic, popular culture/fine art, representational/non-representational, figurative/abstract, geometric/organic, minimal/expressionist, conceptual/aesthetic.

One could compare this level of development to parallels in the growth of any aesthetic form. At first an original aesthetic form is born as a crude undeveloped mark, equivalent to a new born baby, which then grows up and matures, learning to walk, talk and eventually explore all its possible facets, becoming intellectualized and formalized over time. An equivalent comparative example is Cubism. It’s birth had it’s genesis in the brute force, color palette and primitive shapes of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This moment in the manifestation of Cubism would be equivalent to the brute force of the illegal transgressions, crude tools, and primitive hand-drawn marks of the original tags of the Graffiti movement. In the second phase, the refinements of Picasso and Braque during the genesis and core explorations of deconstructed space and time of pure Cubism can be compared to the development of Wildstyle in the Graffiti movement. Wildstyle developed from the basic tag to a complex and unique calligraphic style of fast-flowing letterforms, eventually completely deconstructing the letterforms into abstractions of unreadable tags and piecing during the Golden Age of Subway Graffiti, all of which was guided by the impetus to work fast in order to avoid being arrested and the tactile nature of spray paint and ink markers.

Then in the third phase of aesthetic development, which in the case of Graffiti has lasted a few decades and included many sub-movement explorations, Cubism launched into a state of hybridization called Synthetic Cubism, when Picasso and Braque explored and combined other influences, such as contrasting color palettes, collage, impressionist painterly techniques, and other iterations within the Cubist style. This is the phase that Graffuturism falls into, which has also been called abstract, progressive and hybrid graffiti. It is an implosion of synthesis, an inclusion of all other art historical aesthetic forms, as well as any other kind of visual expression from pop culture, outsider art, illustration, advertising, and anything else that an artist may be attracted to. Once a form has developed to an extreme of complexity, artists search for their own voice within the movement by turning to their individual interests outside of the movement, including any other forms and tools, their indigenous cultural backgrounds and their particular historical roots. These three phases of aesthetic development can be applied to many movements from their crude genesis to their maturation as fully explored and extended aesthetic forms.

The above analysis of aesthetic development specifically situates the progressive forms of Graffuturism in the third stage of the formal growth of Graffiti. Urban Art on the other hand should not be seen as a linear extension from Graffiti, but as an umbrella term encapsulating the whole movement and all its sub-genres, much as the term Modernism covers many different movements that fall within the previous hundred years. Urban Art is a term that developed outside of the subculture and still rubs many practitioners the wrong way as yet another attempt at appropriation and gentrification, much like the term Graffiti still irritates many of the first generation of Writers and Street Art irritates many of those that considered themselves Graffiti Artists. The term Urban Art first appeared in the nineties within the advertising industry in the form of Urban Market in order to create a category of consumers consisting of urbanites who were into hip hop, graffiti, break dancing, and other connected cultural elements. Eventually Urban Art, an iteration of the advertising term, was adopted by the fine art auction houses for their Graffiti and Street Art auctions, which they applied even more broadly, to include skateboard-related art, Pop Surreal paintings, and many other forms.

Although the term Urban Art developed for economic purposes outside of the culture, it has come to be recognized by many within the movement as an acceptable term because these art forms could not have appeared in any other context than that of the urban environment. The realization of the broadcast function of urban public surfaces and the semiotic power derived from its illegal transmission are keys to the development of Urban Art. The urban environment offers of a matrix of concentrated societal elements that create a cultural frission when transgressed by the simple act of making an unsanctioned mark within it. Therefore artists can manifest their rebellious identities or revolutionary statements through public aesthetic actions that make powerful statements because of the semiotic aura accrued by their transmission through this media and the huge amount of people they can reach. Through these anarchistic actions artists can create autonomous omnipresent identities, entities equivalent to and in opposition to the massive corporate and legal authorities, as well as expressing more complex and subtle aesthetic statements and political philosophies. We accept all these entities created under the umbrella of Urban Art as statements and forms which are inherently valid and universally driven by our current cultural context. Writing was the originating signal, the original sin, an alternative deviant renegade code, the evidence and expression of our developing global village surveillance state that initiates when you appear as a biological blip on the radar, a tracking number for observance by the oppressive structures in place, and paradoxically expressed by Graffiti’s instinctual opposition to these systems, a semiotic guerilla action, taking to the streets and scrambling communications, creating new channels, spreading a hacker’s virus.

All of these terms from Graffiti to Urban Art, even if an attempt by outsiders to categorize and monetize a movement they really didn’t understand, still caught on and do ultimately define commonalities that fall outside of conventional markets, styles and theory because of their roots in the broadcast channel discovered by graffiti writers. Although there have recently been visionary curators such as Jeffrey Deitch and Cedar Lewisohn who come from a passionate and compassionate understanding of the movement, and who have successfully begun to champion and canonize the art form, there is still an overall lack of critical analysis, historical understanding, and theoretical thought on the matter. With the benefit of hindsight, driven by an outsider’s impetus and our insider’s passion, we hope to inspire and focus the spotlight and microscope on this situation. Utilizing and mutating current vocabulary and archeological dissection of intellectual objects, we hope to translate the why and how this movement was born, subsequently to become a globally dominant art form. Research being done by Poesia, Carlos Mare, Ekg, Martin Irvine, Martyn Reed, Anna Waclawec, Stefano Antonelli, Daniel Feral, and others who can utilize a scholar’s vocabulary and terminology to explain this movement will hopefully find insights and reveal connections between this othercontemporary art movement and the world that manifested it and is in opposition to it. Essays such as Irvine’s The Work On The Street, books such as Waclewec’s Graffiti and Street Art, and Feral’s historical info-graphic The Feral Diagram capture and express truths about this historical trajectory that will document and canonize the movement in a manner that Fine Art History can assimilate. These are deep documents on the subject that show a clarity and understanding beyond the thousands of coffee table books published on the subject and are able to clarify some of Urban Art’s key influences from and relationships to the fine art world, as well as its genesis as an aesthetic cultural force that can not be denied.

Meaningful scholarly endeavors such as the above are a unique reflection of today’s othercontemporary art world in which there is no longer a need for existing institutions and that their status-quo critical and theoretical structures no longer exist as the only means of canonization. This new historical thread called Urban Art can be traced to a new generation of artists, critical thinkers and theorists that speak to a younger larger audience than any biennial or museum can. These institutions are currently floundering in their attempts to recognize and exhibit any kind of art in the new millennium that attracts and engages broad young audiences. They continue to rely on old definitions, catering mainly to an academic and social elite that is still utilizing antiquated formal categories and standards to define what is relevant and important Art, and then force it on the public with the authority of a police state. As a result, they churn out massive retrospectives of Modern and Post-modern artists from the past hundred or more years which are mystifying and uninteresting to most. Because we are The Other, the major minority, an equivalent of Occupy Wallstreet’s 99% in opposition to the dominant 1% of the aesthetic class, we fall outside of the contemporary art market and the intellectual elite in all its forms. We speak to a new generation born into a new world with a resultant new model for aesthetics, art making, distribution, and consumption. This major minority is one of many to come in the future, always mutating, who will continue to gestate outside of academia and the current art world system, continuing to create progressive hybridized art forms that are truly relevant to the current and following generations.

A few closing words quoted from Martyn Reed: “From TED prizes and truly global art projects to record audience attendance at museums and institutions the world over, from front page headlines in mainstream media to Oscar nominated documentaries, Venice Biennale events to contemporary art institute shows, a thriving new market for entry level prints via online galleries has given the artist a new found freedom and in many cases a living wage. Not to mention “internet” fame. The ongoing success of this “bottom up” movement called “Street Art” is absolutely unprecedented in scale and scope. And perhaps more importantly, it’s inspired more people to pick up a can/brush/scalpel than all movements combined before it. It has brought art back into our communities and lives. Institutions? Pretty irrelevant really. We’ll build our own.”

Special thanks for discourse and feedback from: Stefano Antonelli, Martyn Reed, Martin Irvine, Anna Waclawec, Carlos Mare, RJ Vandalog, Brooklyn Street Art, Cedar Lewisohn, Caleb Neelon, and Daniel Feral.

Join the Revolution

The Real Power of Street Art aka Join the Revolution.

This series of articles, like Street Art itself, sets out to explore those grand historical narratives, that until recently contemporary art has been in retreat from, themes exploring issues of politics, justice, power, history & capitalism, a word that we hear less and less of in art as it is replaced with the ideology of a visual culture in cahoot with neoliberal economics.

Paradoxically, street art at its best, lets call it “Critical Street Art”, is a recognition that culture is not always a medium of power, but also a mode of resistance to it. Something those financing the fashionable shift to a banal monolithic muralism, marketed as “Street Art”, would do well to remember.

What started as a peripheral trend for a material and artistic use of public space by self-taught artists armed with cans, markers, stencils, paste-ups and stickers, has quickly developed into a truly global democratic and egalitarian movement of visual art practice capable of rocking governments. Whilst contemporary art was slowly slipping into a self-induced VIP coma of extreme fetishised consumerism, the disruptive and subversive potential that street art offered became more and more relevant to a public starved of both political and visual representation.

While curators of covertly commercial multi-million euro Art Biennale’s, at the apogee of their power and privilege, conceived of exhibitions exploring the nature of borders and boundaries (& canapés), the likes of Bahia Shehab in Egypt, and unwittingly a 14yr old Naief Abazid in Daraa, Syria, were busy breaking them, both taking the single most direct route to the public (and power), by spraying work directly on the walls of their respective cities, one contributed to the overthrow of a violent dictator, the other, inspired by artist’s acts in Egypt and Tunisia, inadvertently sparked a war whose reverberations are still being felt around the globe today. Transgressions will be punished, Naief’s simple “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad”, sprayed under his school principle’s window led to his torture and imprisonment, 22 other boys would be arrested in connection with the graffiti, at least three of them are now known to be dead. Less than half remain in Syria.

Images in public space have the power to change the world, they can alter the way we conceive and construct our own reality. At the hands of urban planners they have the potential to shape space into place creating a new form of gentrified urbanism, murals, fake grass, bike lanes and deckchairs anyone, and that’s fine. But they also offer us another opportunity, something more, the opportunity to shape and change ourselves, the spaces and places we inhabit being inextricably attached to us, we combine with them and they begin to define who we are.

So what sort of self do we want to be and can critical street art in public space help us to become that person?

I think it can.

Critical Street Art has the capacity to shift our perception and priorities, from a state sanctioned, corporate or academic mandated way of being and seeing, to one of individual “wokeness”, at the very least, a wokeness to the absolute impoverished visual terrain we’re currently offered, dominated as it is by a combination of commodity advertising and an architecture designed to express an aesthetic of power. In this singular monolithic and heavily “legislated” city; transgressions will of course be punished, but it’s transgressions we now desperately need.

Our art institutions are for the most no better, designed as they are to contain and control an entire field of incredibly fluid creative human expression, an impossible task of course, but perhaps not if you then declare yourselves as the ones to define what excellence and quality in art actually is, then develop vast bureaucracies and an inexplicable language that requires a PHD in lexical semantics to unravel the meaning ascribed to the work. The only people now excluded from the debate of what constitutes excellence in art, are those that the artwork was originally intended for, the public. Unlike contemporary art, whose hermetic lexicon seems to have been deliberately designed to exclude, street art discourse is one of openness and inclusion, of community, of sharing and gift economies. It is part and parcel of a burgeoning open source movement that has a desire to communicate to and engage with ALL citizens.

Those locked out of art discourse, by whatever means, the borderline, the disenfranchised, the poor, the white collar, the blue collar, witches, strangers, pirates, punks, pinstripers, comic artists, graffiti writers, outsiders and yes, street artists, amongst many many others, are regularly informed that their art is “low brow”, somehow beneath, under, sub-cultural, subversive and always implied, substandard. This criticism is delivered with the mythic maxim that only our art is good for you, come on in they say, this is legitimate, quality, filtered and mediated, and we may eventually submit, only to be met by the inexplicable, feeding off the carrion of a bastardised Marxist critical theory in a frenetic crucible of hypocricy & consumerism designed to separate you from your money. As Banksy once famously noted, Exit through the Giftshop.

Many of our art institutions forget that their task is to give expression to the collective mind of the people, and looking at my social media feeds, and the contents of this magazine, the collective mind of the people is demanding something else, something more, something at least authentic. A surfeit of 1990’s MFA curators are still prioritising their own theoretical reveries without understanding that we’re aware we are occupying a space where our relationship to both place and artwork is exclusive, legislated and to a certain extent contractual. As opposed to Street Art, which is of course free, inclusive and organic. The institution pays lip service to inclusion but regularly excludes those whose art and politics aim to undermine the structure within which such inclusion occurs. And again, for a few decades at least, transgressions will be punished, this time by exclusion, from the art press, from funding, from the “artworld”.

Street Art enfranchises, it places art anywhere but the white walled havens of the institution attended by an art viewing elite comfortable with its complicit relationship to neo-liberalism in the form of the commercial art fair, investment-growth potential and mega-corporate sponsored events and exhibitions. And I don’t use that “elite” word lightly, knowing how it can be twisted to serve populist right wing rhetoric. But anyone who has ever found themselves with the time, energy, resources and not least, VIP invite to the vernisage on a regular basis, should regard themselves as part of a privileged elite, winners in the lottery of cultural life.

Street Art at its most powerful, and there are many who would like to see the word “street” removed from this term, but that’s another story, can reconfigure the city as a place where citizens play an active role in the construction, revision and imagination of our world, including our art institutions. It can show us new ways to inhabit and configure the city whilst offering access to those cities within cities within cities. Those dark alleys of alienation inhabited by the “other”, the artist.

Critical Street Art has the potential to erase boundaries, turning walls into doors, citizens into artists and activists with agency. So forget seal clapping that monolithic tower block mural, grab some cardboard, a can and a craft knife, photocopy some paste-ups and take to the streets, join the revolution.

Originally published in Juxtapoz Magazine Oct 2017 

Igor Ponosov

Rebirth of Russian Street art during the protest movement

Russian practice of coming-out in public space by avant-gardists1 in the beginning of the 20th century and by actionists of the 1990s2 was political by nature, similarly to contemporary street art though. This is largely due to the fact that Russian public space is always a place of tension and intersection of various interests: business, government, of ordinary citizens. That is why any access to the public space in Russia is a political gesture a priori.

Born in Nizhnevartovsk in Siberian Russia in 1980, Igor Ponosov is an artist, activist and author of several projects and publications relating to urban art. He began his artistic career in 1999 as a graffiti artist in Kiev and between 2005 and 2009 published three books on street art in Russia and the ex-USSR. From 2011 to 2013 he curated the project ‘The Wall’ at the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow. In 2011 he founded the website as a platform for exchange among activists, artists and urbanists, and from 2013 to 2016 he curated “Delai Sam” festival, which focused on grassroots indicatives and activism in Russia. He is also the author of the book “Art and the City” (2016).

He has undertaken residencies including the Global Art Lab public art residency in New York as part of the 2014 Arts Leadership Fellows as well as at the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow, in 2016. Ponosov currently lives in Moscow, where he works as an activist, artist and independent curator of multi-disciplinary projects, focusing on the social environment of the city and its transformation through the arts.

In winter 2011 there were compromised parliamentary elections that provoked numerous protests across the country, at the same time considered as the beginning of formation of more active and socially responsible civil consciousness in Russia. However, the desire for change was already felt in 2009-2010, when rapid development of social networks occurred, becoming a real tool for self-organization of activists and discussion of political issues. Through emergence of independent city media (The Village, Bolshoi gorod and others), Strelka Institute3 and a number of grassroots projects the discussion around a comfortable living in the city with its improvement was initiated. Basically, the question was raised about the “right to the city4“.

In 2012, when the atmosphere of protest movements was fueled with March presidential elections, the displeased mood of protesters reached its peak. In addition to demonstrations, one could see an outburst of self-organization initiatives (assemblies) on the streets, as well as illegal folk art, which was not supported by any artistic practices, but had a huge impact. Such informal folk activity enchanted and encouraged many people, including artists, who later also went to the city to protest.

For instance, at that time the practices of Moscow actionism of the 1990s were actively used by radical artists and art groups of a new wave such as Pussy Riot, Voina, and Piotr Pavlensky (b. 1984). In the same way as the actionists of the 1990s, they declared the issues the most provocative way. Thanks to media coverage, many of these actions became world famous, iconic, and for the West confirming the stereotype of the “wild” rough Russia.

However, these practices could be related to street art only indirectly, because their actions used public space merely as a medium for their statements, and not as full environment for creating their works.

In the street art community, a political agenda was not so explicit though. However, more and more street art artists were switching to political and social themes.

Above all, it can be traced through large-scale and media works by Yekaterinburg artist Tima Radya, who, while not having a graffiti background and not in fact following the way of understanding graffiti as a daily practice5, began to show quite recently, only in 2010. Over the next few years, Tima worked exclusively in street space so zealously that one can only envy the number of his works. Later, the artist became known thanks to political works “Loss of strength” (2011), “You were cheated” (2011) and “Figure # 1: Stability” (2012). Nowadays, working in the style of total street installation, often politically colored, the artist continues his line of critical statements.

In a symbolic opposition to Radya’s activity, but in unconditional ideological conjunction with him there were Moscow artists Kirill KTO and Pasha 183, both of whom started out more than 15 years ago as a graffiti writers. In contrast to Tima’s technically complex installations, works of Kirill and Pasha were largely spontaneous and therefore not as media-like and ambitious.

Kirill KTO had more existential and poetic work of textual nature, based on reflections of various personal and social processes, and sometimes relationship between them. His street comments could largely be seen as a motivational speech, an audience of which, however, was not always a casual viewer – sometimes his message was addressed to a specific person or just to himself.

Pasha 183 mostly worked in the style of street installations, first of which dated 2008. Until this moment Pasha mainly addressed everyday matters of existence in the city; in 2011 he created two politicized works: “To Incendiaries of Bridges” and “Truth to Truth”. In their turn, they underlined an anarchist and protest-like artist’s spirit that had been present in his works before but was never so obvious.

Hardly anyone of us now, having reached success, relationships, money, fame, is able to give up all of this. To burn the bridges and to destroy all your achievements for a new unknown, perhaps reckless and illogical life or death. This installation is dedicated to those who have gone beyond their own dusty corners and created a new world. To those who are able to deny themselves for the sake of a step forward6.

From the perspective of politicized content of works, one of the street series of artist Misha Most is also interesting.  Having solid experience of graffiti activity and being the founder of the project No Future Forever and a member of one of the first graffiti crews CGS, he creates works of social and post-apocalyptic nature. His series of Constitution Live (2013–2014) in many ways is a logical extension of his graffiti practices, and correlates equally with folk and civil graffiti usually occurring in an unstable political situation.

In the political field, there is also team Partizaning whose participants call for self-organization and change in urban spaces through urban interventions, and, using their website as an open online platform, try to mobilize the spirit of protesting and illegal street art. However, given that Partizaning is not so much an art project as a phenomenon of socially engaged street art, one can note significant impact of popularization of these ideas among activists and street art artists recently having come out in the urban space. Above all, it concerns new and young personalities and teams, often balancing between art and activism7.

Several other activist artistic practices based not on the change but on the study of the city in terms of the democratization of its spaces were activated. For example, in Moscow, a number of projects related to environmental state of the city were active. Among them, there were guerrilla gardening practices, along with projects of studies of flora and fauna generated by the city, such as Urban Fauna Lab, members of which primarily focused on invasive species of plants and animals. For the most part, these initiatives appeared spontaneous and self-organized. One of the most striking examples of self-organization was the art group ZIP, members of which were active in the south of Russia since 2009. In informal manner inherent to them, in their hometown of Krasnodar, they organized the Institute of Contemporary Art, a residence, a cultural center, and a public art festival that have become a real catalyst for a developed artistic life there.

Regardless of the dominant political agenda, works of several other Russian street artists – Stas Dobry (b. 1985), Artem Filatov (b. 1991), Vova Chernyshev (born in 1992), Grisha (b. 1989) and 0331C – seem interesting and socially significant. However, from time to time, reflection on various processes taking place in their native city, district or yard can be traced throughout their work.

For example, the most exemplary product of such reflection was one of joint works You can apologize as always, but respect the wallS, created by street artists Stas Dobry and 0331C in 2011. With this gesture, they indicated, on the one hand, the problem of demolition of buildings in Moscow, and on the other hand, informed participants of extensive graffiti community about caring for the historic heritage. Later, in a few of their other collaborations the house became an animated character, asking for protection, fighting with the flood of new construction.

In most cases, the works of artist 0331C by its nature were the most expressive and ambitious. In some ways, they were an extension to the graffiti intentions of the artist, but each time became a new step in rethinking of this phenomenon. His works are interesting because of such a pronounced expression and “wild” energy, a daily practice of urban space habitation, sometimes inherent in a graffiti artist only.

In public spaces of Russian cities, mainly where monumental murals festivals were organized (Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Vyksa, Nizhny Novgorod, etc.) there were also a number of authors working mostly in an abstract and illustrative style – Alexey Luka (b. 1983), Petro (b. 1984), Vova Nootk (b. 1981), Dmitry Aske, Akue (b. 1986), Zmogk (b. 1979), Morik (b. 1982), Nikita Nomerz, groups of artists Zuk Club, 310 squad, ‘Vitae vyazi’ and many others. Their works were in many ways complementary to scene design of urban space, embellished it, and, as a rule, were outside any social discourse. They occurred more and more frequently, thereby indicating a trend of “europeanization”8 of Russian cities, with their city management seeking to create a unique image recognizable around the world.

This trend was somewhat contrasting to politicized grassroots street art practices, which manifested themselves illegally and existed without any funding. Swiftly rushing in public space, monumental murals are in no way representation of the interests of citizens, and are located on the side of the state and business, dividing the territory of the facades between themselves today and subsequently using them as advertising and propaganda billboards.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions even among these festivals. For example, Nizhniy Novgorod festival ” New City: Ancient”, organized by Artem Filatov and his associates in 2014–2016, had a very specific socially important mission – protection of heritage and architectural monuments, mostly wooden. Closely interacting with the residents of these homes and discussing with them the jobs to be created in the framework of the festival, the organizers used street art to a greater extent in order to attract attention to these homes and to the problem in general. This, in turn, shaped a unique approach to working with city surfaces – a more cautious one, not violating the existing ecosystem of the city. One could say that today this approach is a specific style of Nizhny Novgorod street art and forms a “movement” of socially responsible street art.

In the Urals, an authentic “movement” of street art can also be mentioned that is significantly impacted by Arseny Sergeev (b. 1966) and Naila Allahverdiyev (b. 1978), who organized a series of art projects in public spaces in Yekaterinburg in the beginning of the 2000s. The focus of these projects was made on media art, but in 2003 the curators ran a more traditional for street art format of mural art on the walls – “Long stories”, which became one of the most large-scale and systematic projects of this kind. Having existed until 2010, the festival later moved to Perm, where a “cultural revolution”9 occurred at the moment, expressed in an outburst of various kinds of cultural activities, in particular, in a large-scale public art program developed in the city’s public spaces.

It is important to note that for a long period Arseny and Nailia worked not only on organization of art festivals in Yekaterinburg (and later in Perm), but also on an educational program, within the framework of which renowned street artists were invited with master classes and lectures. This program was part of their school ArtPolitika, organized in Yekaterinburg in 2005. Over the years, some of now famous Yekaterinburg street artists were students of this program. Thanks to this systematic work, in today’s Yekaterinburg street art is not only developed as an illegal activity, but is also integrated into a number of institutional formats. For example, from time to time, Ural branch of the National Center for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) supports street art; since 2010, a large-scale street art festival Stenograffia operates; and in 2014 a gallery Sweater specializing exclusively in representing street art opened.

The products of such diverse and complex activities can be considered a strong Ural’s street art movement. The most outstanding representatives of this movement can be considered Tima Radya, Slava PTRK (b. 1990) and the art group Zlye. Vitya Fructy and Udmurt have an interesting approach to understanding of urban phenomena.

A special style can also be traced in St. Petersburg, where art activism is a predominant activity. This is confirmed not only with bright examples of actionist practices by already known artists and activists such as the group Voina and Peter Pavlensky, but also with a large community of artists of platform Chto Delat (“What is to be done?” in English)<sup>10</sup> comprising today not only a website and a newspaper, but also a school and even a house of culture. Since 2003, members of the team Chto Delat have periodically conducted certain actions in public space, representing both psychogeographic walks and urban performances. Regardless of these, but often in conjunction with them, there have also been other initiatives, such as, for example, Street University, which is a self-organized educational project, or street art team Gandhi, the female members of which are more focused on the issue of gender and social inequality.

  1. The first calls for the coming-out of artists in the streets could be heard in poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), public lectures/discussions by Ilya Zdanevich (1894–1975), Mikhail Matyushin (1861–1934), David Burliuk (1882–1967), Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), Alexei Kruchenykh (1886–1968). The most integral vision of art “invasion” can be considered the decree No 1 “On the democratization of art” formulated in 1918 by a group of Russian Futurists, including, besides Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk and Vasily Kamensky (1884–1961). The first actual attempts at reclaiming public spaces by various artistic trends were linked to a greater extent to the celebrations to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution. Since 1918, a festive atmosphere in the style of easel painting had been created mainly in Petrograd (later Leningrad) and Moscow.
  2. Over the 1990s E.T.I. movement organized actions on the Red Square for freedom of speech and on the issue of parliamentary elections; Oleg Kulik (b. 1961) deliberately chose the image of an animal’s life to show horrific conditions of existence of the Russians. By building barricades in the centre of Moscow, Anatoly Osmolovsky (b. 1969) as a member of E.T.I. movement updated the practice of Situationists of the 1960s. Avdey Ter-Oganyan (b. 1961) and Oleg Mavromatti (b. 1965) later touched on the subject of religion and were prosecuted by the authorities for that.  These and many other provocations on entirely diverse vital topics, from politics to religion, were the agenda of the day of modern life in Moscow in the 1990s. Sharp and radical actions marked the first step towards the return of informal activity on the streets of our cities.
  3. Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, founded in 2009.
  4. The right to the city is an idea and a slogan that was first proposed by Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le Droit à la ville. Lefebvre summarizes the idea as a “demand… [for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life”. David Harvey described it as follows:  “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”.
  5. One of the most important practices of understanding of the urban space is tagging and graffiti as practices of permanent interaction with the urban infrastructure. In many ways, this is why many of the contemporary manifestations of street art have their roots in the graffiti subculture that allowed them to open a new perspective on the city.
  6. Pasha 183 on the work “To Incendiaries of Bridges”. Artist Website:
  7. Such practices are covered a series of materials “New cheerful ones” on the project website:
  8. The era of active transformation of public spaces was most pronounced in Moscow, where between 2011 and 2014 the so-called “cultural revolution”, which consisted in a humanization of the urban environment, was carried out. Changes were made with the active participation of the mayor S. Sobyanin and head of the Department of Culture S. Kapkov (resigned in 2014).
  9. “Cultural Revolution” in Perm started in autumn 2008 with the opening of the exhibition “Russian Povera” in the former River Station building, which was soon transformed into the Museum of Modern Art PERMM. Over the next 4.5 years a number of cultural programs was held in the city: from exhibitions, festivals, theatre performances to large-scale public art program and integrated project of design of the urban environment. With the departure of the governor Oleg Chirkunov in 2012, almost all the cultural programs were curtailed.
  10. The collective Chto Delat (What is to be done?) was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a workgroup of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers from St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhny Novgorod with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism. To find more on the projects of the platform, please check their website:

Susan Hansen

The Right to Write the City:
Breaking the Law of Untouchability

Street art is a form of democratic conversation not captured by conventional understandings of how art works. It provides a point of potential connection with others, and a sense of attachment within a potentially dehumanizing urban space. The fleeting moments when we are ‘arrested’ by work on the street may in turn afford the potential for ethical engagement and indeed the radical realization of one’s own right to write the city. Street art’s invitation to engage in the city’s ephemeral dialogue is antithetical to traditional heritage frameworks, although this may fit within an understanding of street art as a living tradition, or as intangible cultural heritage.

Susan Hansen (UK) is Convenor of the Visual Methods Group and Chair of the Forensic Psychology Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Middlesex University, London. She has research interests in viewers’ material engagements with, and affective responses to, street art and graffiti; in the analysis of street art and graffiti as a form of visual dialogue; and in the promise of an archaeological approach to understanding uncommissioned independent public art.

With Phil Healey, Head of Visual Art at London’s Middlesex University, Susan recently convened a symposium on Creative Responses to the Urban Environment ( Held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and open to the public, this interdisciplinary symposium explored the diversity of creative responses to our urban landscape – from street art and graffiti to yarn bombing and urban photography. The symposium brought together leading international contemporary researchers, curators, artists and photographers in the field of urban creativity.

A traditional understanding of the ways in which we make sense of art assumes the reception of a transhistorical singular meaning identical with the artist’s intention. The philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to this as a model of stultification that sees meaning as conveyed via the logic of cause and effect, with the transmission of the artist’s intention to the spectator positioning viewers as passive recipients. However, graffiti and street art accord the citizen-viewer radically different possibilities in terms of their active participation and engagement with art.

Art historian Anna Waclawek asserts that the viewer of work on the street, in the act of encountering the work, achieves its “transitory completion,” and that the authorship of street art is thus a “community affair.” Of course, the notion that the act of reception and interpretation implies a form of participatory authorship is not unique to street art and graffiti. Indeed, the literature on contemporary art also makes use of this notion, with Martha Buskirk arguing that a work of art is created through the viewer’s “experience of the work as a series of unfolding encounters”; Howard Becker claiming that a work’s completion is continually determined anew by its reception; and Pierre Bourdieu maintaining that the plurality of re-readings inherent in the reception of an art object engender its recurrent recreation.

Rancière asserts that viewers are not passive and thus do not need to be encouraged or shown how to actively engage with work, as they are already involved in an active process of interpretation and appropriation:

«[B]eing a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. . .we have to recognize… the activity peculiar to the spectator…[which] requires spectators who play the role of active interpreters, who develop their own translation in order to appropriate the “story” and make it their own story.»

Beyond this form of immaterial participation through reception, aesthetic experience and interpretation, it may be argued that street art offers viewers a more active role in inviting them to consider materially engaging with the work on the street by making their own marks in response. This too has a parallel in the contemporary art world, in work on audience participation and viewer interaction. Art critic Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential framework of relational aesthetics presents a utopic reading of the possibilities inherent in work that aims to encourage the interaction of viewers. He asserts that this may provide for the formation of new micro-communities, novel social experiments and enriched interpersonal relations. However, the institutional context of the museum closes down the likelihood of such emancipatory principles translating into democratic practice, as these “new micro-communities” are in fact dialogues occurring within the established networks of the communities of practice peculiar to the art world which neglect the site “specificity of local art and cultural production and political disputes within and between communities.”

Frames from 1247 Days on Whymark Avenue (2017)
© Susan Hansen

While commissioned public art often positions its “user groups” as inherently passive, requiring solicited invitation to participate and experience the work — street art arrests the passing viewer without prior consultation, involvement or forewarning. Street art’s distinct aesthetic of display accords viewers the right to interact differently to the ways in which they might engage with art in institutional contexts. Derrida described graffiti’s “aesthetic of the outside” as “an aesthetic of touching” that stands in contrast to the regulated interactions permitted in museums, where touching the exhibits is forbidden, or in the case of “interactive” works, highly circumscribed and monitored. For Derrida, graffiti breaks the “law of untouchability” in that it invites viewers to touch – and even to leave one’s own trace on the wall.

Work on the street offers an invitation to engage in the city’s incessant ephemeral dialogue. As Lachlan MacDowall has noted, any particular piece of street art creates the conditions for its own interactivity, ‘authorizing’ further unauthorized use of urban space, and thus often provoking a series of works in situ. Alison Young suggests further that street art may afford unexpected opportunities for ethical engagement as it arrests our otherwise smooth motion through urban space, which may provide productive fissures in our ordinary ways of seeing, and being with others, in the city. Conceived as a “tangle in the smooth spaces of the city out of which comes the potential for enchantment,” this moment of “arrest” need not necessarily involve visual pleasure, but may indeed be experienced as troubling, unsettling or unheimlich. Enchantment may afford a moment of seeing other possible ways of being in the city that may fall outside of viewers’ conventional expectations. The enchantment of street art provides a point of potential connection with others, or a sense of attachment within a potentially dehumanizing urban space. In this sense, a “moment of enchantment” may afford the potential for ethical, material, and political engagement.

Street art provides the conditions of possibility for new forms of ethical engagement and indeed the radical realization of one’s own right to write the city. However, this invitation to engage in ‘destructive’ democratic dialogue is antithetical to both conventional notions of the passive reception of art and to traditional heritage frameworks that attempt to ‘protect’ particular works of value against such destruction – although this may be congruent with an understanding of street art as a living tradition, or as intangible cultural heritage. In a forthcoming book (with Lachlan MacDowall and Sam Merrill) on The Contested Heritages of Graffiti and Street Art, we critically examine the implications of an understanding of street art as a form of intangible cultural heritage for recognising its essentially ephemeral nature – as the collective expression of a living culture that places a high value on the fleeting nature of its material traces.1

  • Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
  • Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Presses du Reel, 2002.
  • Buskirk, Martha. The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Derrida, Jacques. “Le Toucher: Touch/To Touch Him.” Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory 16.2 (1993): 122–57.
  • Ranciere, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009.
  • Waclawek, Anne. Graffiti and Street Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.
  • Young, Alison. Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination. London: Routledge, 2014.

1 An earlier version of sections of this discussion appeared in Public Art Dialogue.

Pedro Soares Neves

Economical Power:
Lisbon Urban Art case study

In “O Banqueiro Anarquista” by Fernando Pessoa, the banker states that he is in fact the real anarchist, while all others are just theorists; pseudo-anarchists. This philosophical tale by Pessoa carries particular significance today.

Pedro Soares Neves, 1976, multidisciplinary and post graduate academic training in Design and Urbanism (Lisbon, Barcelona and Rome). Urban designer and consultant of several municipality and national wide institutions in their approaches to informal visual signs production (Graffiti, Street Art, Urban Creativity). Experienced practitioner and academic,  co-organizer of the Lisbon Street Art & Urban Creativity Conference and ongoing Scientific Journal and International Research Topic (

Economic value in the field of art and culture has never been an easy topic but the apparent freedom and anarchy in fields which have more economic impact, such as the financial system, are also taboo. In recent times, the subject appears to have been publicly exposed: the financial system was revealed to go beyond the rules, behaving anarchically, and underground or criminal art movements such as graffiti and street art found a path to the market like never seen before.

This essay highlights elements of a larger research topic on the cultural values of Urban Art, specifically those relating to economic value.


The perfect financial storm hit’s Lisbon in the early 21st century, in a context were the city was still finding out how to convert its infrastructure from one of decay to renewal.

After Portugal’s mural renaissance in the late 70’s – a consequence of democratic freedom and low cost communication strategies – the 80’s heralded a period of inactivity in terms of art on walls. In the 90’s however informal discourses associated with “hip-hop” sub cultures (imported from New York via Paris) began to appear. Many of this first generation of taggers and writers are still active today and share reference points with a new generation that in the 21st century started to stimulate more eclectic discourses associated with street art, graphic design and illustration.

In this context, and after the 98 world expo’s multi-million budgets for public art had been expended, the public art paradigm had to change. The time for low budget productions arrived in 2008, when Lisbon city council assumed a strategy for (graffiti related) Urban Art. A number of factors allowed space for this strategy: decayed buildings serving as canvases, the city’s existent graffiti scene (which required a program), and an increasingly mature body of authors/writers.

The strategy included two main components, the first one related to tourism, city branding and public relations. The second was the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem somehow connected with the idea of the ‘creative city’.

Tourism/city breaks

The desirability of short term ‘city breaks’ depends on visibility, widely achieved through IT developments and trends. The political and security issues of the destination are also relevant, as is accessibility, which should be fast and cheap (e.g. low cost flights).

However, there’s also the 3.0 consumer or the ‘prosumers’ needs, which should be taken into consideration. When combining city breaks with this human need for creation you have the perfect ingredients for graffiti and street art development. Lisbon Street Art Tour, The Real Lisbon Street Art Tour, and Underdogs Tours, are just some examples of ongoing services that are taking advantage of this fact. Exemplifying the union of creativity and business, while aligned with the city’s wider cultural policy of financing low cost public art.

Looking up-close

In Lisbon 30% of jobs are connected to the creative sector: 47% of GVA (Gross Value Added) is generated by 22,000 companies from the creative sector. The city boasts more than 100 teaching institutions that on average produce 33,000 graduates a year.

Graffiti and street-art related formal and business oriented initiatives dating back to 2008 (the year when Lisbon City Council formally started interacting with the graffiti and street art community) include: Visual Street Performance (2008, 2009); Project CRONO (2010); Writer’s Delight (2011, 2014); Book a Street Artist (2011); Underdogs Gallery (2013); APAURB (2013); Mistaker Maker (2014); Lisbon Street – Art and Urban Creativity (2014); André in MUDE (2014); Vhils in EDP (2014); Street Art Lisbon guidebook (2014); Lata 65 (2015); and Urban-Art (interior decoration) (2015).


Just mentioning the most relevant initiatives alongside the wider picture of cultural (and other integrated) local policies, there’s clearly a cluster of actors within the Lisbon creative sector specifically dealing with graffiti and street art.

But the reality is not uniform. This investment consisted of a very limited amount of resources for the promotion of graffiti and street art practices. An analysis of the available public data from 2008 – 2016 shows overall investment in the city’s Urban Art strategy as averaging 28.000EUR per year.

Even with the knowledge that the ‘real’ value of this investment is much bigger, it is still less than 2% of the municipalities estimated budget for graffiti removal – a 3-year program that is being implemented with a budget 1.3million EUR per year.

Although there’s been some overtures and resources invested in cultural initiatives, the infrastructural approach is still “blind” to the added value that graffiti, street art and urban creativity brings to the urban landscape.

Acting in an apparent contradictory manner, it’s more important than ever that the institutional forces that deal with this phenomenon are supplied with impartial research data in such a way that could better decide how to proceed tackling the subject of graffiti and street art: either as a menace or as bringing added value to the city.

* this case study was presented in “State of urban art, Oxymores III” October 2016, Paris

Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen

Theses on art, alienation and revolution

Art is revolutionary. Art necessarily has an antagonistic relationship with capitalism that at one and the same time conditions and limits art. Capitalism not only gives shape to the world in which art – the institution of art, the art work and the artist – emerges into, capitalism also dominates this world and retains it in its image. Therefore, art has necessarily to reject capitalism and its dominance.

Mikkel Bolt is an art historian and writer. He has published a number of books most recently Samtidskunstens metamorfose (2016) and Trumps kontrarevolution (2017) and contributed to journals like e-flux journal, Rethinking Marxism and Third Text. He is editor of K&K and Mr Antipyrine. Bolt is an Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

Art is an effect and a result of a break. The dissection of life into separate spheres. Art’s autonomy is the result of a social process in which political economy is also separated and turned into an autonomous sphere. The self-sufficiency is parallel; art is meaning without reality, political economy is reality without meaning. Art’s ideality thus supplements the materiality of the economy. This is the starting point of art, this is the relation art always tries to process and reject. And this is why modern art has taken the form of an endless series of fantastic and ridiculous escape attempt and suicides. This is why ‘Death to Art!’ has been art’s motto all the way from Jean Paul to Rimbaud to Warhol to Debord and onwards to Luther Blissett.

Art distinguishes itself by a consistent self-critique. As no other praxis art is constantly and always pushing the boundaries and capable of expansion and connecting to other discourses. The expansion of art is a learning-process in self-alienation and hospitability. And because art is conditioned by capitalism, this self-critique also includes a critique of capitalism.

Art is an attempt to reach beyond. Beyond itself, but also beyond capitalism. To create another world. This is the lesson of the avant-garde; that it is necessary to break free from art and create connections with other anti-capitalist practices on the other side of art. It is in this way that art acquires signification. Art must necessarily test autonomy, not doing so would amount to not addressing the fundamental conditions concerning art and capitalism. It is that simple.

As an autonomous and privileged form, art is separate from life. It is and remains locked inside capitalist society. Artistic praxis is the visible expression of capitalist society’s alienated praxis. Art is creativity that is allowed in as much as it does not question the fundamental separation of work and art. Instead of realizing its needs in everyday life, art abstains and withdraws to its autonomy. Art’s freedom without efficiency equals the efficiency of work without freedom. Capitalism and art are two sides of the same mode of production or the same society.

Art is a break, a rejection of any kind of synthesis or harmonic fusion of opposites. Art and capitalism does not come right, just as proletariat and capital does not come right and just as communism and capitalism cannot be joined but is each-others opposite. One becomes two and two does not become one. The false whole is split up. And no two splits look the same. Shocked into abstraction.

Art is the visible expression of an alienated activity. Even when art is anti-artistic and intervenes outside the institution of art it only confirms alienation. Its satisfaction of needs always has to do with alienated needs.

Art is anti-capitalist. In order for art to become itself art has to reject capitalism and the capitalist society. If art fuses with capitalism, it disappears (as Marcuse writes). Therefore, art is forced into trying to supersede capitalism and abolish it in its entirety. This has of course taken place in a number of different ways throughout the history of art but it is a constitutive condition for art that it is engaged in this undertaking and tries to move against capitalism. From romanticism though aestheticism and the avant-gardes to high-modernism and on, art has been a continuous testing of capitalism, simultaneously production of art as an autonomous phenomenon and the rejection of art’s function within a larger process of de-differentiation characterized by the appearance of relative autonomous discourses.

Capitalism is both art’s condition of possibility and its limit. No matter what designation we use – the bourgeois capitalist world, modern, late-modern or post-modern society, integrated world-capitalism, the society of control, empire or the specific capitalist mode of production – capitalism sets the frame for art.

In its neoliberal phase the dominance of capitalism tends to become total. Neoliberal capitalism not only uses art as a model for new forms of work and consumption, art is also being sponsored by banks, firms and cities that in exchange acquire a smarter or socially concerned brand adapted to the ruling idea of social responsibility.

As an institutional activity art has no critical function. When the formal innovations of art become norm it is only in the institution of art that art has any kind of ‘critical’ function. When this happens, when the avant-garde becomes tradition, art not only stops being negative, it also stops being art and turns into industry.

Art is situated between ideas and ideals. Like moral, religion and metaphysics art is a mystical fog in the mind of wo/man. It has no independent existence but is attached to its material presuppositions. In that regard art is just a reflex or an echo of human life processes. Art appears to be autonomous and disconnected from the primary material life production but serves to uphold the symbolic relations in the social organisation.

Art is artificial. Art is not a natural testing of capitalism but a negation of capitalism. An attempt to get away.

Art has to question the already produced world and open passages towards another world. It constantly has to visualize the continuous catastrophe of capitalism. And it has to haunt the already created world with representations of another life. It should not only shake all familiarities and interpret the world differently: it has to transform the world. This is the starting point for the idea of art, this is the dream, this is the hope that continues to haunt art. Art is thus an attempt to envision modernity differently. Art always has to do with an idea of an ending of existing capitalism, whether this takes a grandiose form as in Constant’s New Babylon-project, is tragicomic as in Syberberg’s Hitler-film, hysteric as in Bataille’s novels, distracted as in Walser’s micrograms or just damned ironic as in post-post-neo-avant-garde projects like Bernadette Corporation.

Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should remain silent about art. As a modern phenomenon art is indissociably related to the capitalist mode of production and the de-differentiation process of capitalist modernisation. Art shaped the world art emerged into and art appeared as an autonomous sphere in the violent and comprehensive transformation of the world that took place in the 18th and 19th century where more and more aspects of human life were subsumed under capitalist relations of production.

The artwork’s autonomy cannot function as a model through which the abolition of wage labour can take place, it can only function as a model for a communist praxis after the abolition of capitalist wage labour (Adorno), meaning after the abolition of art. This is the positive side of the fact that 30 % of the German youth want to be artists. They of course intuitively understand art as an escape, to be an artist is a possibility of escaping capitalism’s depressive cycle of production and consumption where everything is mediated or turned into a commodity including one-self. What they don’t necessarily understand it that art’s potential will only be realized though the supersession of art. The abolition of alienated labour is the same thing as the supersession of art, as Debord wrote on two of his Directives in 1963.

Martyn Reed

Rise Up!

Nuart produces both temporary and long-term public artworks as well as facilitates dialogue and action between a global network of artists, academics, journalists and policy makers surrounding street art practice. Our core goal is to help redefine how we experience both contemporary and public art practice: to bring art out of museums, galleries and public institutions onto the city streets and to use emerging technologies, to activate a sense of public agency in the shaping of our cities.

Martyn Reed is an artist, researcher, producer and in his own words, an “ambivalent curator” dedicated to the democratisation of art production through the promotion of street art practice. His projects are designed as a critical response to the cultural hegemony whilst offering a celebration of radical DIY alternatives. He is a graduate of Jacob Kramer (Leeds) and Hornsey School of Art (London).

Outside of Nuart Festival, our growing portfolio of projects represents an on-going art and education program that seeks to improve the conditions for, and skills to produce, new forms of public art both in Stavanger and further afield. For us, public spaces outside conventional arts venues offer one of the richest, most diverse and rewarding contexts in which this can happen.

Our work is guided by our belief in the capacity for the arts to positively change, enhance and inform the way we think about and interact with each other and the City.

The Real Power of Street Art

Nuart festival presents an annual paradigm of hybridity in global sanctioned and unsanctioned street art practice. Through a series of large and human scale public artworks, murals, performances, art tours, workshops, academic debates, education programs, film screenings and urban interventions, supported by a month long exhibition of installations, Nuart explores the convergence points between art, public space and the emergent technologies that are giving voice and agency to a new and more creative civilian identity, an identity that exists somewhere between citizen, artist and activist.

The real power of “street art” is being played out daily on walls, buildings, ad shelters and city squares the world over, and it’s now obvious that state institutions can neither contain nor adequately represent the fluidity of this transgressive new movement. As the rest of the world begins to accept the multiplicity of new public art genres, it is becoming more apparent, that street art resists both classification and containment. The question is, not how can this inherently public art movement be modified or replicated to fit within the confines of a civic institutional or gallery model, but how can the current model for contemporary art museums, galleries and formulaic public art programs, be re-examined to conform with the energy of this revolutionary new movement in visual art practice.

In the 1990’s, Situationist concepts developed by philosopher Guy Debord, surrounding the nature of “The City”, “Play” and the “Spectacle”, alongside sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s theories exploring the rights to shape our own public and mental space, came together to form an emergent adbusting “artivism”, which now forms the foundation of street art practice. Radical cultural geographer David Harvey has stated, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources, it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city”.

It is here, at the intersection between philosophy, geography, architecture, sociology, politics and urbanism, that Nuart situates itself, it exists as a critique of the colonization of everyday life by commodity and consumerism, whilst recognizing that one of the only radical responses left, is to jettison the hegemonic, discursive and gated institutional response to capitalism, and engage it directly where it breeds and infects the most, in our urban centers.

The challenge for a new and relevant public art isn’t to attempt to negate capitalisms neoliberal market logics with an ever more dominant liberal discourse, both are ultimately mired in a conflict that on the surface simply serves to feed the polarization and spectacle that we’re attempting to transcend. What we need is the active participation of citizens in the creation of their own holistically imagined environments, both physical and mental, a direct and collective response to space that leads to the shaping of place. A place in which the disengaged and passive citizens desired and ever more manipulated by market forces, are inspired to re-make themselves. Nuart proposes that the production of art in public spaces outside conventional arts venues offers the community, not only the most practical, but also the richest, most relevant and rewarding contexts in which this can happen.

It is in this “remaking” of self, this deep desire to engage with the world, to develop civic agency and purpose, that transcends identity, gender and class, and enables those locked out of the arts by a post-Adorno obscurant lexicon (eh?), that street art delivers. It offers an opportunity to reconnect, not only with art, but also with each other. Hundreds of people covering a vast swathe of demographics, from toddlers and single moms to refugees and property barons, on a street art tour conversing with each other, are testament to this.

We believe that when you want to challenge the powerful, you must change the story, it’s this DIY narrative embedded within street art practice, that forms the bonding agent for stronger social cohesion between citizens from a multiplicity of cultures, as our lead artist for 2017, Bahia Shehab will attest. It is this narrative, that is acting as the catalytic agent towards street art becoming a vehicle capable of generating changes in politics as well as urban consciousness.

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from what kind of person we want to be. The transformation of urban space creates changes in urban life, the transformation of one, being bound to the transformation of the other. What social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies, art and aesthetic values we desire, are closely linked to the spaces we inhabit. The “banalization” of current city space, combined with the numbing effect of digital devices that guide us from A to B, have rendered us passive. Consumer cows sucking at the teat of capital trapped in a dichotomy between left and right, instead of right and wrong. And for the most, the hegemonic islands of sanitised cultural dissent we call Art Institutions, are either unable or uninterested, in engaging with the general public in any meaningful way.

In the early 2000’s, the evocative power of certain already existing and often crumbling industrial interzones, including that of Tou Scene, our main exhibition space, one that we were instrumental in establishing, gave rise to a new form of engagement with art in urban spaces that is only now being fully recognized and exploited. Street Art is at times of course co-opted and complicit with the “creative destruction” that the gentrification process engenders, but Capitalism’s continuous attempt to “instrumentalize” everything, including our relationship to art should be vigorously resisted. It is these “Stalker-esque” zones of poetic resistance, that initially gave shelter to one of the first truly democratic , non-hierarchical and anti-capitalist art forms, and unlike most cultural institutions, it is still, for the most, unafraid to voice this opinion, important in a time when even our art institutions are beginning to resemble houses of frenzied consumption. Street art exists to contest rather than bolster the prevailing status quo. As such, it is picking up as many enemies as friends within the field of public art.

By attempting to transform the city, street art attempts to transform life, and though by no means is all street art overtly political, it does, in it’s unsanctioned form at least, challenge norms and conventions regulating what is acceptable use of public space. In particular, it opposes commercial advertising’s dominion over urban surfaces, an area that Nuart are active in “taking over” throughout the year and in particular during the festival period. Our curating initiatives not only aim to encourage a re-evaluation of how we relate to our urban surroundings, but to also question our habitual modes of thinking and acting in those spaces. Street art is not just art using the streets as an artistic resource, but also an art that is questioning our habitual use of public space. Street art doesn’t simply take art out of the context of the museum, it does so whilst hacking spaces for art within our daily lives that encourage agency and direct participation from the public, “Everyone an artist” as Joseph Beuys would have it, and if it is accussed of being produced without academic rigour, we are reminded that he also asked, “Do we want a revolution without laughter?”.

Nuart’s programs are designed specifically to explore and silently challenge the mechanisms of power and politics in public space. Increasingly, we see the rights to the city falling into the hands of private and special interest groups, and yet, we have no real coherent opposition to the worst of it. The 20th Century was replete with radical Utopic manifestos calling for change, from Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto of 1909 to Murakami’s “Superflat” of 2000. Nuart’s annual academic symposium, Nuart Plus, acts as a platform for a resurgency in utopic thinking around both city development and public art practice, and whilst recognizing that street art is often co-opted and discredited by capital, it also recognises that even the most amateur work, is indispensable in stimulating debate and change in a Modern society that has developed bureaucracies resistant to seeing art, once more, as part of our everyday life.

As the Situationst graffiti scrawled on Parisian walls in 1968 stated, Beauty is in the streets, so Rise Up! and support those dedicated to unleashing one of the most powerful communicative practices known to mankind, there’s work for art to be done in the world amongst the living.

Laima Nomeikaite

Street Art as Heritage:
Right to the City?

In recent years individual street artwork and graffiti have been framed as cultural heritage.  However, attempts to integrate street art and graffiti into heritage frameworks have not provided answers to the philosophical and practical problems of the preservation of street art.

Laima Nomeikaite is human geographer, urban planner and physical improviser. She works at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural heritage Research, where she researches on street art as intangible heritage. Her research interests center on the interplay between heritage, arts, city and space/place. She together with her friends have led for several years festival ‘Matgilde mot Hungersnød’ (Feast against Famine) in Bergen, the project has closely collaborated with the street art collective Bart at that time. Laima is taking also part of the improvisation company ‘På Stående Fot’ led by the chorographer Kristine Nilsen Oma.

One of the limitations of those framings is that unsanctioned street art and graffiti value “right to the city” and its components; such as “the right to everyday experience”, illegality, transcendence and anti-commercialism, have tended to be not considered. Andrzej Zieleniec (2016, pp. 10-11) asserts that unsanctioned graffiti and street art can be understood as an “expression or embodiment of Lefevre’s cry and demand for the “right to the city”, the right to appropriate, appreciate, know and use its spaces and places (…) a free art or politics which challenges the normal, banal, functionalized and increasingly commodified and privatized space”. With the “right to the city” concept, Henri Lefebvre (1996)  had aimed to provide an alternative vision for a city in which inhabitants  are entitled to the right to manage urban space for themselves,  a possible city beyond the state, capitalism and consumer society.

David Crouch (2010, 57) asserts that “the problem is not with heritage, but the way it is thought about and institutionalized in contemporary culture, often through dominant visual representations”.  Laurajane Smith (2006) presents that the key limitation with institutionalized or conventional heritage is related to “authorized heritage discourse” (AHD). In her conception of AHD the UN World Heritage Conventions and all other authoritative bodies in the heritage field are included.  Such discourse is steered by officials or experts with the power to define and legitimize the meaning and understanding of heritage. Here, the emphasis on preserving material things often marginalizes the practices and beliefs of source communities. AHD focuses attention on the aesthetically pleasing material objects to be protected for its national significance; justifies tourist value as a support for the economic promotion, and defines heritage as material and non-renewable (ibid). AHD is path-dependent, which continues shaping perceptions and dissonant conceptions of heritage.

The AHD can be identified within the case of street art and graffiti, although the experts in charge of preservation or removal are not only experts within the heritage field, but also private actors and various state and city authorities. The most classical approaches of AHD were applied to street art and graffiti such as tangible framing (e.g. covering an artwork with Plexiglas or Perspex), preservation of ascribed historical, aesthetic and touristic value, and legal heritage frameworks. The academic literature illustrates that local authorities and heritage experts most commonly use value-based systems and tangible preservation techniques to justify the preservation of street art and graffiti (Avery, 2009, MacDowall 2006, Hansen 2016, Hansen and Danny 2015, Dovey, Wollan, and Woodcock 2012). However, street art or graffiti values like illegality, the ‘everyday’, public space, anti-commercialism and transience are usually not considered. Susan Hansen and Danny Flynn (2015, 898) specify that local councils tend to preserve street artworks of famous street artists by fixing Perspex over the works; this marks them as ‘being of value’, ‘adding value’ and being worthy of conservation. However, they fail to consider its anti-commercial and “the right to everyday experience” value. They fail to understand that unsanctioned graffiti and street arts role is beyond bureaucratic or capitalist systems, beyond the elite space of the art gallery; a free form of art, which can be made by everybody and for everybody. For this reason, the tangible preservation strategy has proven harmful to street art and graffiti as it reinforces a division of high and local culture, and encourages vandalism rather than safeguarding (Hansen and Danny 2015, 899).

Street art and graffiti has traditionally fought for the urban commons and been intentionally accessible. Framing street artworks deprives citizens of the right to experience them (in the public space and ephemerally) in daily life and the broader right to engage with the city; it stimulates the privatization and commodification of culture, which street art by its nature is opposed to. Moreover, AHD tends to averse the meanings of certain street artworks neither does it consider the opinions of local people.

The photo below shows the consequence of the preservation of Argus’ Stencil “Smiley” with Plexiglass in Bergen, Norway. Smiley was a famous city character; Smiley symbolizes the free expression of the choice to live on the streets of Bergen, his lifestyle represents the right to a different experience and the right to the city. The figure (who also belongs on the street) is very close to the essence of the philosophy of street art. Despite the symbolical meaning of the painting and despite the negative reactions by local people against tangible preservation, which were expressed in local media with the titles “The ugliest gallery in the city” (Bergens Tidende 03 February 2014) and “City council prisons street art” (Bergens Tidende 20 November 2014) street artworks by Argus (‘Smiley’ and ‘Otto’) are continuing to be imprisoned with Plexiglass.

Argus ‘Smiley’ stencil before and after framing.
Source: Argus/ Permission obtained from Argus.
The framed photo on the right is taken by Laima Nomeikaite.

Heritage approaches for street art and graffiti

In order to protect the value “right to the city” of unsanctioned street art and graffiti, there is a need to move away from formal heritage frameworks, tangible preservation techniques and expert-based approaches which attempt to legitimize the meaning of heritage. Firstly it needs to be understood, as Laurajane Smith (2006, 44) argues, that ‘heritage is not a “thing”; it is not a “site”, building or other material object with defined meanings and values’; rather, heritage must be experienced, and ‘heritage is the experience’ (Smith 2006, 45- 47). Furthermore, drawing on the theoretical position of the more-than-representational aspects of social life, Laurajane Smith (2006, Chap. 2) provides a new understanding of heritage as a process or a performance. Conception of heritage as a process refers to a shift from material representations, static objects and sites, towards heritage as a relational and socio-cultural process in the present.  Thus, heritage is always in the remaking process, it is re/ created, it is a cultural process or performance in which the values and meanings are identified and negotiated; this process always emerges in the present not the past (Smith 2006). Heritage is vital, changeable and relational, as David Crouch (2010, 64) presents that heritage closely engages in dwelling, identity and belonging (…) “a dynamic process through which heritage emerges at particular times, moments, durations and feelings of belonging”.

Instead of focusing on formal heritage frameworks, value based systems and stakeholder approaches to street art and graffiti, heritage management practice could engage with the performative everyday practice. The turn towards “practice” in heritage studies emphasizes the ways in which people interact routinely at heritage sites, landscapes and museum spaces in everyday life (Auclair, 2015; Crouch, 2010; Haldrup & Boerenholdt, 2015; Schofield, 2009). John Schofield (2009) expresses that, in order to achieve more inclusive heritage management, researchers must analyse the interactions between people and their physical environment in everyday life. In his opinion, ‘[t]he heritage should be about: the everyday, the everywhere and something for (and of) everybody’ (Schofield 2009: 112). Schofield asserts that studying the everyday is a symmetric approach to heritage conservation, accommodating multiple views and perspectives; everyday practice provides the views about heritage as people actively engage with it rather than a selective heritage expert group managing the change.

Graffiti and street art is not only imagery, but it also concerns urban life – its atmosphere, its public space and its ‘everyday’ sensory, affective and embodied experience. Thus, there is a need to engage with the multiple views and perspectives related to not only street art images, but also to its relations to the cityscape. Performative and affect-based approaches might capture different perceptions and sensory experiences of street artwork and its relationship to the physical environment. Performative research methods were developed for exploring performative practice and the sensory inventory of urban life, including ‘soundwalks’ and bodily interactions (Paquette & McCartney, 2012); ‘smellwalks’ (Henshaw, 2013); and rhythm (Edensor, 2012). Charlotte Bates (2013), for example, uses video diaries to capture embodied experience in everyday life.

To conclude, street art and graffiti does not need to be managed by experts, the law or Plexiglas; instead, there is a need to engage with multiple views and perspectives and to understand the role and the relationships between street art/graffiti and its place, people and space. Following Guy Debord’s (1957) statement that ‘what changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting’, in the context of heritage management practice it could be said that: what changes our way of approaching heritage is more important than managing said change.

  • Avery, T. (2009). Values not Shared: the Street Art of Melbourne’s City Laneways. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing Historic Environments (pp. 139-156). Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Auclair, E. (2015). Ordinary Heritage, Participation and Social Cohesion. The Suburbs of Paris. In E. Auclair & G. Fairclough (Eds.), Theory and Practice in Heritage and Sustainability – between Past and Future. London: Routledge.
  • Bates, C. (2013). Video diaries: audio-visual research methods and the elusive body. Visual studies, 28(1), 29-37.
  • Crouch, D. (2010). The Perpetual Performance and Emergence of Heritage. In E. Waterton & S. Watson (Eds.), Culture, heritage and representation: perspectives on visuality and the past. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Dovey, Kim, Simon Wollan, and Ian Woodcock. 2012. “Placing graffiti: Creating and contesting character in inner-city Melbourne.”  Journal of urban design 17 (1):21-41.
  • Edensor, T. (2012). Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies. Farnham: Ashgate
  • Haldrup, M., & Boerenholdt, J. O. (2015). Heritage as performance The Palgrave handbook of contemporary heritage research (pp. 52-68): Springer.
  • Hansen, S. (2016). “Pleasure stolen from the poor”: Community discourse on the ‘theft’of a Banksy. Crime, Media, Culture, 12(3), 289-307.
  • Hansen, S., & Danny, F. (2015). ‘This is not a Banksy!’: street art as aesthetic protest. Continuum, 29(6), 898-912.
  • Henshaw, V. (2013). Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. New York: Routledge.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. Right to the city. In Writings on Cities (1996). Eds Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford:147–159
  • MacDowall, L. (2006). In praise of 70K: Cultural heritage and Graffiti Style. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(4), 471-484.
  • Paquette, D., & McCartney, A. (2012). Soundwalking and the Bodily Exploration of Places. Canadian Journal of Communication, 37(1), 135.
  • Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.
  • Schofield, J. (2009). Being Autocentric: Towards Symmetry in Heritage Management Practices. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing Historic Environments (Vol. 39, pp. 93). Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
  • Schofield, J. (2016). Heritage Expertise and the Everyday: Citizens and Authority in the Twenty-first Century. In J. Schofield (Ed.), Who Needs Experts?: Counter-mapping Cultural Heritage (pp. 1). Farnham: Ashgate
  • Zieleniec, A. (2016). The right to write the city: Lefebvre and graffiti. Environnement Urbain/Urban Environment(Volume 10).

Javier Abarca

Some notes on street art, murals and power in public space

Today’s huge institutional murals have very little to do with the ephemeral, contextualised, human-scale pieces scattered across the landscape we used to call street art some years ago. These are two very different practices with diametrically opposite roles regarding power in public space.

Javier Abarca (Madrid 1973) is an artist, researcher and educator in the fields of graffiti and street art. A leading figure from the first generation of Spanish graffiti, he taught a class on graffiti and street art at the Complutense University of Madrid between 2006 and 2015. He founded the website Urbanario in 2008. His teaching, curating and writing have been commissioned by museums and institutions in Spain and across Europe.

Questioning limits

Due to the unregulated nature of their practice, street artists can ignore the boundaries dictated by property that determine where they can or cannot act. A piece of street art can simultaneously cover two or more contiguous surfaces belonging to different properties, thus ignoring the division of matter and space demarcated by money. Street art can make visible how these limits of action and physical demarcations are arbitrary and cultural. It can take space and matter back to its natural state, when everything was for everybody to use, and nobody actually owned anything.

Murals, conversely, confirm the limits demarcated by money. They validate the status quo by arranging themselves obediently where architecture and property dictate. Instead of questioning the logic of money, they visibly reaffirm it.

While power uses architectural materials to try and make its division of the world into a permanent physical reality, street art typically uses humble, temporary materials such as paint or paper, which transform space merely at a symbolic level. For this reason it can be read as a sort of parody of this allegedly permanent capitalist arrangement of the world, this presumptuous order that inescapably goes back to the amalgam from which it started. Street art can therefore be a sort of foretelling of the future state of a building. This is one of the reasons why it can be disturbing, because it can make visible how a prideful building is in essence just a miserable ruin.

Inhabiting margins

In the process of creating and searching for street art pieces, both the artist and the viewer often get to explore parts of the city they would rarely visit otherwise. Places such as alleys or empty lots, dead spaces below or around bridges and other infrastructures, even off-limits terrains such as abandoned buildings or tunnels. French theorist Guilles Clement describes how the distinctive value of these places resides in them being the only parts of the city free from the control of money, and how they thus become the only chance for the city dweller to find space for natural and human qualities such as indetermination or imagination.

For both artist and viewer street art can end up being an excuse to discover and visit these kinds of ignored places, to follow unfrequented paths across the city. Being on the look out for street art consequently widens and enriches the viewers’ awareness of their environment. Murals, conversely, tend to appear within the predictable spaces of power. They take the viewer along the official paths, through the alienating urban spaces of production and consumption.


A street art piece mutates and evolves like everything around it, including its viewers. It naturally intertwines with the evolution of its context and with the life of the people that repeatedly come across it. Murals, instead, are generally meant to remain. They exist in a plane different to that of the viewer. They are frozen in the atemporal dimension of the monument, of power, far detached from the real life going on around them.

The human scale

Street art always works within a scale related to the human body. It can only go as big as the body allows. An artist can reach beyond that by using a ladder or a pole, but these portable tools work only as extensions of the body, therefore the scale of the resulting artwork is still visibly human. Artists can also take advantage of the features of the architecture surrounding a chosen spot, for example climbing up a ledge or leaning out a window. But, again, this takes place within discernibly human limits. A street art piece is the visible presence of a fellow human being.

Murals, conversely, exist in an inhuman, monumental scale, very far from the viewer. When producing a mural, artists are not forced to understand their working environment, because they do not need to adapt to it. Murals are deployed with superhuman devices such as scaffoldings or cranes, which operate on a scale that allows the artist to ignore the context of the artwork. Instead of coming from below, a mural comes from above.

A piece of street art is necessarily created in a way analogous to the way a path appears on a landscape. A path needs to adapt to the features of the terrain, it is the result of a dialogue between these features and the scale and potential of the human body. A mural, on the other hand, works as a highway or a viaduct, ignoring by its very nature all but the most prominent characteristics that define a place. A similar analogy could be drawn between a piece of street art and a medieval street, which takes form based on the features of the terrain and the decisions of its inhabitants, and between a mural and a Haussmannian avenue, deployed with the help of superhuman machines and blatantly blind to any human or natural characteristic of the place it appears on. A mural is, from this point of view, yet another instrument for exerting control over the environment and its population.

A mural reveals nothing about the possibilities and limitations of the relation between the human body and the built environment. It is no longer a portrait of the relation between a person and his or her surroundings, which is necessarily open to dialogue. It is, instead, a portrait of the way in which power relates to the environment, which is most often a blind, imposed monologue.

Viewers can respond to a piece of street art. They can, for example, correct it or paint over it. Street art is a call to action – it empowers the viewer. It brings us back to the time when each person was able to rearrange his or her surroundings as far as his or her bodily potential would allow, before the power of a few would start to determine the limits of action of everyone else. It evokes this inherently human reality whose repression has created the alienating scenario we now live in. In light of this, it is only natural that street art, and particularly the neighbouring practice of graffiti, have become more prominent and violent as the control over the environment exerted by architecture and advertising has become stronger.

As opposed to the empowering nature of street art, murals force a passive position on the viewer. Like architecture or advertising, murals are a monologue that the viewer cannot respond to. Murals make clear that the viewer is a passive spectator, and a consumer. Street art can be a dialogue between people, while murals are essentially a one-way communication channel monopolised by power.


Excerpted from “From street art to murals, what have we lost?”, Street Art and Urban Creativity Scientific Journal Vol 2 Nº2, 2016.