I hope to have done three things in this book: First, given historical context for how communications technologies have always influenced street art and graffiti; second, shown how street art and graffiti have been shaped by the internet; third, provided the vision of a possible future for publicly accessible and noncommissioned art in the form of viral art. The first two chapters, the first two goals, are really there to set the stage for the amazing potential of viral art for street artists and graffiti writers. Early on, graffiti and street art had to be seen in person and work was only occasionally glimpsed through documentation. Everything was rooted in firsthand experiences. Then, the internet opened the floodgates. Street artists and graffiti writers can now connect with one another and share their work almost instantaneously across previously insurmountable borders. But it isn’t the same thing as seeing the art in person. Finally, viral art functions as street art and graffiti once did, but for a digital society.
Viral art is at least one possible next step for street art. While critics might complain that the internet kills street art and graffiti, I would say that any artist just posting photos of their outdoor work is not using the internet to its full potential. Those artists use the internet as a storage facility and maybe as a place to run their hype machine, which can be useful, but it’s still missing out. Those artists represent a rocky transitional stage for street art and graffiti, but we’re on the cusp of a breakthrough. Viral art, both invasive and organic, uses the internet in a way more in line with how street art and graffiti use walls. If we like street art but want people to actually see something like it in the age of laptops and smartphones, we must embrace the digital street as the new frontier for art. Viral art uses the internet as more than just a storage facility. Viral art embraces the internet as the public space that it is.
Internet art began as something for, well, nerds who were also artists. So much early internet art seems to have been intentionally made to only appeal to a small audience of fellow conceptual artists with rudimentary programing skills. Art cannot and should not appeal to everyone, but there’s certainly something to be said for at least some art appealing to a wide audience, or at least an audience without years of training in art theory and a book on computer programming. Viral art is an evolution of internet art that has the potential for mass appeal. Viral art takes the ideas of internet art and refines them so that they can be used in a way that isn’t so exclusionary. Whereas a lot of early internet art existed in the form of websites that people could visit if they chose to, viral art either begs an audience to come and visit, spreads conveniently along social media pathways or actively seeks out an audience. Viral art is what happens when you think of the internet like a street, a place for fame or a place for engaging with directly with an audience, rather than just a new type of gallery space.
I hope that, as street art seems to be morphing into legal walls and contemporary muralism and graffiti writers are sentenced to harsh prison terms for their work, a link can be forged between these artists working in outdoor public spaces and digital artists making invasive viral art. These groups can learn from one another. I know I’m still learning more about internet art all the time. The graffiti writers and street artists can help internet artists to think about actively engaging with the general public, and internet artists can help graffiti writers and street artists understand the internet as a place for art making. The more that street art and graffiti can come together with internet art and people can think about the internet as a public space worth intervening in, the more artwork we as a society can have appearing in our public spaces.
It seems that I’m having discussions with other street art fans all the time about how there’s a lack of the sense of surprise and discovery that we felt when we first discovered street art. We would wander the city, not sure what we were going to see and often not sure what we were seeing. That initial high was so high, but now we’re just chasing it. Blogs and social media and following a map will never quite get us there. Even when showing up in a new city and looking for work in an unfamiliar place, it’s almost impossible not to say, “Oh, I saw that on Wooster Collective.” Viral art is one way to regain the sense of discovery that we lost when we started looking at commissioned murals online. And for the artists, it’s a way to live anywhere with an internet connection and engage honestly with a massive unmediated audience. It’s a way to bring surprise to this new public space where we aren’t supposed to have surprises. Viral art is a way to bring wonder to the digital frontier, and breath new life into the ideas that make street art and graffiti so appealing.
Graffiti began as writing on walls. It spread around cities. Then it was distributed through documentation in books and in magazines, and eventually on websites. While even documentation of graffiti inspired countless kids to pick up a spraycan and helped the artform evolve, graffiti dulled somewhat as it became a static image on a page and eventually simple organic viral art online. The possibility of invasive viral art brings graffiti back to it’s core values while still existing online.
Street art followed a similar evolution, but mostly a few years later. It began on walls, and then found its way online. Street art found an amazing home on the internet, thanks to various websites devoted to the subject and the general desire of Bored at Work Network to see the kind of art that street art tends to be. Street art had always been for the people who make up the Bored At Work Network, and once that network existed, the genre really took off. But again, sharing physical works online through documentation was just a transitional phase. Street art blogs and photos on Instagram and even perhaps organic viral art in general are the growing pains of street art as the genre finds its footing online. It too can evolve into invasive viral art, completing a transition from unmediated distribution of art in the physical world to mediated digital distribution to unmediated digital distribution.
As I wrote at the beginning of this chapter, we have to follow Evan Roth’s footsteps and acknowledge the tools of street art and graffiti are hacks, means to an end, and we have to listen to Ian Strange aka Kid Zoom’s warning that writers and street artists often confuse the means with the ends. We must discard the means and refocus on the end goal of unmediated distribution.
Today, the best place to achieve the unmediated distribution of artwork from artist to audience is often on the internet, not on trains or walls. Today, the best way to do what street artists and graffiti writers have traditionally aimed to do is to make viral art. That must be a path that is at least seriously considered by graffiti writers and street artists if these genres are to continue to evolve and find a home in our increasingly digital world.