The early new systems

Street art has been on the web since at least 1996. With a personal homepage on Art Crimes by late 1997[1] and a website of his own in 1996, Ron English was perhaps the first street artist with a website (and the first street artist represented on Art Crimes, best known as the first website about graffiti). Shepard Fairey was another early-adopter with his own website by mid-1998,[2] soon followed by Invader in early 1999.[3] Invader didn’t have the same history and automatic fanbase as English and Fairey when he launched his website. He says, “I created my internet website the week after I started my street art project.” While these sites put street art and street artists online, fans had to seek out these websites. Anyone typing graffiti.org/ron_english in their web browser was probably someone who had already heard of English. The idea of a street art news site did not yet exist, and there was no way for fans to interact with one another or with the artists on those sites except via email.

However, the graffiti community has had an online presence longer than that of street artists. An online newsgroup about graffiti began in 1994. Art Crimes launched later that year and eventually became the first place many writers saw graffiti online.[4] I won’t focus on Art Crimes or other early examples of graffiti online here even though they are extremely important, because Caleb Neelon has done a great job writing a history of the first 10 years of the site and of how the internet affected graffiti in the early years.

One lesser-known aspect of Art Crimes is that, according to Neelon, there was a listserv run by Susan Farrell, the founder of the site. This secret listserv included important graffiti writers from around the world, many of whom were active on the street. Many of the writers on the list remained anonymous observers of the conversations rather than active participants, but the list was nonetheless important because it allowed relatively private group conversation among the world’s best writers in a time before message boards. Neelon says, “That was the first time I ever thought email was useful.”

Neelon was actively involved in the graffiti magazine 12ozProphet, and he marks 1999 or 2000 as the time when the internet surpassed magazines as the most useful and popular way to see photographs of graffiti.

From his perspective in the graffiti community, Neelon notes a few peculiarities about street art’s popularity online which are worth considering. Because street art was hardly an art genre or movement before the internet, Neelon thinks it developed in tandem with the growth of the web. Whereas graffiti has a set of rules that has been developing since the late 1960’s, street art’s rules could develop to fit this new medium. I’ll discuss this further later on, but Neelon makes the point that a lot of “good” street art looks interesting in a photo even when devoid of context, whereas the best graffiti requires context, and does not translate as well through photographs. Perhaps in a world without the internet, street art would not look interesting when shown devoid of context, but Neelon thinks that the norms of street art that were developed in an internet-era make it a more natural fit for being displayed online.

Ekosystem, the first notable fan-run photo site to cover street art, went online in late 1999. It began, like Art Crimes, as a site for posting photos of graffiti. Unlike Art Crimes, Ekosystem’s focus shifted, and photos of what would come to be known as street art were being posted regularly within the first year of the site’s existence. As time passed, Ekosystem began showing more photos of street art, and was eventually reformatted into something closer to a blog.[5]

The next major milestone for street art news came in 2003, when the Wooster Collective site launched. Wooster Collective, run by Marc and Sara Schiller, began as simply a place for the Schillers to post photos of street art, interview artists and mention interesting gallery shows, much like any one of the dozens of street art blogs online today. But in 2003 there were few street art blogs and Wooster Collective was able to stake out a position as the go-to site to look at street art (at a time when the term street art was hardly in use at all).

Blogging was still a young medium at the time, which helped Wooster Collective quickly grow both in size and reputation. Even many of the the first artists featured on the site would sometimes send off a round of emails saying, “Check it out, I’m on Wooster Collective,” and include a link to the site. The artists were just happy to be getting some attention for their work. Early on, neither the artist nor their friends were likely to have any idea of the popularity of the site and maybe had not even heard of it before, but once they were aware of Wooster Collective, they kept coming back. Those emails ended up driving a lot of early traffic to the site and helping to build their initial readership with people who were already somewhat familiar with street art. Very quickly, a community formed around the Wooster Collective. The first photos on the blog were ones that the Schillers had taken themselves, but within a couple of weeks artists were submitting their own photos. Marc Schiller remembers emails early in the site’s existence along the lines of, “I went on the website and I saw what people were doing. It kicked my ass because I hadn’t be out there doing stuff on the street in a while, so I wanted to do better and better. It motivated me, so I went out there and I did this piece,” but then that piece would amaze the Schillers and they would post a photo of it, which inspired other artists to push themselves further. Artists were looking to Wooster Collective for the type of inspiration they might see on the walls in their own cities. Even Faile, now world-famous street artists, say that they got excited when their work was posted on Wooster Collective and when they saw other interesting work from around the world being on the site. The Schillers seem to have stumbled upon a niche that was begging to be filled.

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  1. "Ron English - Agit-Pop Artist." Ron English Agit-Pop Artist. Art Crimes, 9 Dec. 1997. Web. 05 July 2012. <http://www.graffiti.org/ron_english/>.
  2. "Obeygiant.com WHOIS Domain Registration Information from Network Solutions." Network Solutions, n.d. Web. 05 July 2012. <http://www.networksolutions.com/whois-search/obeygiant.com>.
  3. "Space-invaders.com WHOIS Domain Registration Information from Network Solutions." Network Solutions, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.networksolutions.com/whois/results.jsp?domain=space-invaders.com>.
  4. Neelon, Caleb. "Ten Years of Art Crimes: The Effects and Educational Functions of the Internet in Graffiti." Ten Years of Art Crimes. Art Crimes, 1 Sept. 2004. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.
  5. Eko. "10 Years of Ekosystem.org (part 1/3)." Ekosystem Blog. N.p., 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 05 July 2012. <http://blog.ekosystem.org/2010/04/10-years-of-ekosystem-org-part-13/>.

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