One of the most common complaints I hear about street art being so popular and easy-to-share online is that documenting your street art well and sharing it effectively online is somehow cheating. Last time I checked, a big part of street art was reaching an audience who might not otherwise see great art on a daily basis or might not visit art galleries or museums often. So what’s wrong with sharing work online and having it reach even more people? Like most things, the internet can be used for good, but also it can be used to “cheat” by tricking people into thinking that an artist is more popular or more prolific than they are or takes bigger risks than they do. The typical audience on the street probably won’t differentiate much between a piece by Swoon, who has put in years of work on the street and in the studio, and a similar piece by a younger artist influenced by Swoon, and similarly reddit or Imgur users might not care or be able to tell the difference between a piece by Banksy and a piece by one of the many Banksy clones doing similar work, and so somebody like the young stencil artist imitating Banksy can get accolades that those in-the-know might think the artist is undeserving of. On the internet, a piece by a well-marketed one-hit-wonder can often get more traction than that of an artist who has really put in the time to make original artwork over the course of a lifetime. That seems to be what people are complaining about, but I find that problematic. On the one hand, yes, it is frustrating when I know of great artists who aren’t getting the attention they deserve because some other artists hired agents and press teams or got lucky when putting their work on a social media platform, but, on the other hand, if that frustrates us, then it would seem that we have created the same sort of hierarchical system that exists in the mainstream art world and which many street artists supposedly set out to reject or at least circumvent.
Yes, the web has facilitated the rise of some pretty terrible street artists, but it’s not entirely fair to prioritize the street over the internet if you’re really trying to value art that reaches as many people as possible. This should really only be a problem when artists start to weave false narratives about the extent and daringness of their street art, which is certainly possible online. If an artist in Chicago updates their Instagram every day, it might appear to someone like me in Philadelphia that they are busy and one of the most active street artists in Chicago, but the only way to know for sure it is to go to Chicago and walk around. The internet has certainly opened up a door for artists to appear to be more up and better-respected than they are. Artists can use the internet to cheat, but I don’t think that promoting your work online is inherently cheating any more than showing your work on the street rather than in a gallery is inherently cheating because it is a more effective way of getting your art in front of an audience.