I think those who create with the intent of beauty in mind are called artists, those who destroy are vandals and those who provoke and question current systems are activists. Somehow, these three seemingly different terms come to mind when one thinks of street artists. To the law, they destroy public property. However, they still manage to enrich it with their destruction. They create art for the public sphere—often anonymously—without thinking about monetary profit or fame. The artwork stands in all its glory for the consumption of the masses and it’s not just a luxury accessible to the bourgeois class. And often, this art acts as a provocation. It questions the very principle that the contemporary society stands on—it criticizes, critiques and bashes, but it does so unapologetically. The very act of creation becomes resistance.
Street art has been a complicated issue since its beginning. Graffiti can be seen as one of the first examples—emerging on walls and cars in 1920s New York as works of gang members. “Art is a game that, for the most part, only the privileged can play. Graffiti is not”, admits a Vogue UK article, which in itself says something. Jean-Michel Basquiat—one-half of SAMO—began his career as a homeless man. He focused on wealth disparity and segregation, which are both profoundly political and politicized issues. The reasons why street art may be exceptionally provocative are varied. Perhaps the biggest reason that comes to mind is the sensitive subject matter that is involved. Ignorance no longer remains an option for the minister in his office or the office-goer in his Mercedes, or the children riding their bicycles to school.
We live in an imperfect world, but at least it is one which allows for free expression (for the most part) and values it (for the most part). There exist these fearless artists who treat entire cities as their canvas, who are not condemned to jail time. Even though many of their messages may come under scrutiny by the far right, it has (for the most part) been agreed, that these rebels manage to provide valuable insights into current world systems and generate a certain sense of “weakness”.
Banksy may be seen as one of the most famous artists of all time who has provoked the world for over two decades with his outright rejection of contemporary politics. The artist is said to have emerged out of Bristol, England, in the 1990s. Banksy’s work was much influenced by Parisian Blek Le Rat, who is known as the father of stencil graffiti art. As global politics became more and more embroiled in controversy and bigotry with Trump and Putin taking over the scene, Banksy began to be seen as the messiah of the street art world—ready to convey precisely what was needed to be said. The artist has come to be seen as representing the voice of an entire generation (and more). Banksy uses his work to bring to light the issues that are neglected due to the masses’ need for distraction by something trivial.
Banksy is in the news once again, one must instead count the days of the week when he is not. This time it is for his Port Talbot piece titled “Seasons’ Greetings”. On one side of it, you have a young boy with his tongue out waiting to catch what he thinks is falling snowflakes. It’s all beautiful and idyllic. On the other side of the image, you see smoke and ash appearing out of a dumpster. The boy is blissful and ignorant—unaware of what awaits him. It may be a comment on the corruption of society—perhaps an attempt to allow the viewer to grieve for the loss of innocence after seeing how it begins to break. Now, this thought-provoking piece is being taken out of the street and being put into a museum ironically called the Museum of Street Art (or MoSA).
While it is essential to provoke the public and make us think about injustice and the hypocrisy of the systems we live in and to question the values that enchant us, one must wonder whether this art does belong within the four walls of a museum? Is this not a massive ideological (and metaphorical) shift away from the core value upon which street art lies? If the location has a direct impact on the viewership of the piece of work, and if it is such a defining characteristic of this genre of creativity, is the integrity of the art compromised? Banksy has promised free entry for residents who wish to see the work. However, many are skeptical.