Introduction

Work by Banksy in London. Photo by Lasse Socker.

Work by Banksy in London. Photo by Lasse Socker.

“What is more famous? Is it the Banksy stencil on the wall, or is it the photo of the Banksy stencil on the wall? The answer nowadays is the photo, obviously.” – Ian Strange aka Kid Zoom

This book is an examination of how communication and communication technologies have affected graffiti and street art and where things are going as a result of those technologies. Anyone looking for a general history of street art or graffiti will be sorely disappointed and maybe even misled if they read this book as such. Viral Art includes a combination of art criticism, sociology of art and art history.

What I’ve noticed over the last few years has been an increasing reliance on the internet by street artists and graffiti writers. While these two movements began outdoors, on the streets, they have moved into the digital realm. There are positives and negatives to this shift. It has allowed artists to communicate with one another from around the world wherever they are and it has been a key component in street art’s growing popularity, but in some cases the digital documentation and online distribution of street art and graffiti has superseded the art on the wall. There’s a nagging suspicion floating around that all of this work supposedly made for people walking down the street is really just being used in a massive game of who can get the most hype for their next print release, and that the importance of nonpermissioned interventions in public space has been diminished. As I thought about this issue further, I realized that communication technologies have always played a role in the popularity of art and what art looks like, but the internet brought things to an entirely new level. I also began to discover artists playing with space on the internet in the same way that street artists and graffiti writers play with space on walls, which I found encouraging. I’ve come to the conclusion that this transition from playing with walls to playing with the internet can be the shift that keeps street art and graffiti relevant in an increasingly digital world.

Chapter one looks at graffiti and street art from the middle of the last century through the late 90’s. The internet wasn’t a major consideration or influence on the artists that I highlight from that time period. Nonetheless, they did talk to and were influenced by one another in other ways. I have selected a few choice examples of how communication in this era functioned, and how the communication channels that did exist influenced the art that was later produced or was being produced at the time. For example, I show at how the book Subway Art (by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant) brought New York-style graffiti to the rest of the world and how just hanging out at the right clubs in downtown New York could be part of an artist’s job. This chapter explains at the importance of both the printed documentation and the strong personal bonds and in-the-flesh communication between art world figures before the internet was a part of daily life for most people.

Chapter two shows how the internet dislodged street art and graffiti from geographic locations. The possibility of viewing photos online has dramatically changed how we experience street art and graffiti. Whereas graffiti and street art were initially focused on getting the attention of the public and so were placed outdoors, it’s now the case that the documentation of artwork can be more important than the artwork itself. “Pics or it didn’t happen” seems to be the motto of the contemporary outdoor artist, or fan of outdoor art. Today, the public arena for art is the internet, but much of that art being distributed in the public arena is still initially placed in the street, with photos uploaded to the web after-the-fact. This means that an artist painting in abandoned factories in Belgium can became world-famous and bring his work to your doorstep and artists working in suburban Tel Aviv can be influenced by artists in Los Angeles, but it also means that some street artists are neglecting the streets in which they are working in favor of the online audience, and that the thrill of discovering street art in the wild seems less important to fans than it once was. As a blogger, I have contributed to both sides of this double-edged sword that is the dislocation of contemporary street art and graffiti. Drawing from my own personal experiences as well as the experiences of artists and other bloggers, I explain the structures facilitating this dislocation and its effects.

In chapter three, I show the many ways the internet has changed what street art and graffiti look like and the forms they can realistically take. This goes beyond people from different countries influencing each other. The chapter is about art that’s been made on the street for an internet audience. Yes, it may have existed on a wall in a city somewhere, but it looks better on your Facebook wall. Just as graffiti writers adapt their styles depending on if they are painting a piece for a moving train or a static wall, contemporary writers and street artists are adapting their styles to the internet. I start with a detailed explanation of the different adaptations artists have attempted, from producing videos to making work that’s so disruptive that it will hardly last a day to experiments with conceptual street art. Again though, these adaptations are a double-edged sword. Is it a good use of resources to paint the wall of a building just to post the photo online? The chapter ends by raising many of the criticisms of viewing street art and graffiti online and the adaptations that artists have made to suit this new situation.

Although I am certainly not the first to suggest a lot of the ideas that I go through in chapters two and three, I know of nobody who has written so extensively on them as I do here.

Chapter four looks to the future, questioning the place of street art and graffiti in a digital age and introducing the concept of viral art. By highlighting out some of the best examples of modern internet art with a street art or graffiti bent and contrasting those with early internet art, I argue that the internet is the new frontier for the kind of public engagement that street art and graffiti are about. Viral art is my term for art that takes advantage of this new environment, but I differentiate between viral art that spreads naturally as it gets shared and viral art than invades digital space like street art and graffiti invade physical space. While it’s impossible to say for certain where any art movement is going, I hazard some guesses as to how at least a segment of the street art and graffiti communities will evolve, and I believe should evolve, in the coming years.

Hopefully, with an understanding of where things have been, we can agree where things must go. I see what graffiti and particularly street art have become in the last few years, and I fear their disruptive potential is declining. Chapter four, and this book as a whole, is my attempt as a fan to urge street artists and graffiti writers to seriously consider adopting viral art as a way to get back to the core values of street art and graffiti while remaining relevant in a society where we spend practically our whole lives online.

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