Theorizing street art; History of street art and significance Essay Example


Theorizing street art; History of street art and significance

Theorizing street art; History of street art and significance


It is challenging to find a modern city that is untouched and clean. Street art commonly referred to as graffiti has been in existence since the ancient Rome. The earliest forms of street art have grown from engravings into painted murals.At first, people could not reflect graffiti artwork. However, towards the end of 20th century and early 21st century, street art transformed into complex interdisciplinary forms of different artistic expressions. Concrete walls that human beings inhibit have changed into living canvases. With every smoothing poster or sticker and spray of aerosol can, they become alive, hence draw the peoples’ attention. They function as effective reflection of the cities and their inhabitants. Additionally, different drawings and paintings communicate about political commentary, and cultural climate of everyday lives. This essay seeks to theorize street art by examining the history and significance of street art.

History and significance of street art

Street art is defined as any kind of unsanctioned art, which occurs in a privately or public owned space. Street art started in 1970s in big cities in US. For example, in New York, young people wrote their tags or names on walls using pens. The writings or paintings were found around the city (Ganz, 2004).Over the years street art has been of great significance. Street art has been used as a tool for reporting forum and advocacy. It functions socially, as it assists not only to shed light on various events and identify key players but also offers social commentary, present visions and articulate political agendas.The role of street art is opposite that of the media as it offers probing questions, commentary and criticisms.Street art is partisan in nature. This is because it is not obligated to remain unbiased or neutral, but focuses on advancing an idea or a cause. Moreover, street art remains accessible to everyone in the society regardless of their perception, and by its nature functions as an ideal arena for expressions for the marginalized. According to Gastman, Neelon and Smyrski (2007), whether the art form is unauthorized or sanctioned, it remains exemplified particularly by the expressive thoughts, which are directly communicated to the audience via use of rhetorically simple discourse or economy of idea and words. The messages are easy to decipher. This is because street artists use simple and concise messages and incorporate ideas, thoughts and commentary so to ignite political dialogue. Therefore, street art communicates cultural, political, social and economic ideas.

Additionally, street art sparks community dialogue. This is because people question the drawings and their intended message. Passersby are forced to reflect on what they have seen. They also become aware of the existence and viewpoint of underground resistant movement. Evidently, street art functions in direct opposition of commercial advertising, as it seeks not only to neutralize the themes but also streets’ ideological discourses. Therefore, it leads to a question, who controls the street? Is it the socialists or capitalists? Street art remains a powerful tool for energizing, inspiring, raisings public’s spirits and generating morale. According to Lewisohn (2008), people consume information because it is readily available, and this is achieved through street art, which is used as an effective means of transmitting messages to assist in supplementing availability of ideas and information.

Street art is a reflection of thinking of individuals, states and collectives that produce it. From the mentioned perspective, street art enables the collectives not only to have a public voice but also record their views, ideas and feelings of the moment. For some collectives, specifically of repressed people, street art functions as the only medium for expressing thoughts/feelings. However, from grass-roots perspective street art is a means of gauging political sentiments, the same way government sponsored street art acts as state opinion (Lewisohn, 2008).Thus, the mentioned expressions provide a historical or snapshot summary of the political and social struggles of the moment. For example, in fall 1990, Moscow Museum of Revolution organized an exhibit titled the way to political pluralism. The exhibit had various street graphics as well as others symbols of perestroika turbulent five years. The objective of the exhibit was not only to summarize but also to clarify the forces and struggles battling for power, particularly during perestroika. It offered a retrospective summary of the history of that era. Hence, street art communicates ideologies. However, if the desired outcome is to draw attention to an event, election process, an issue or group recognition, street art can only be effective if the government or citizens acknowledges it (Ganz, 2004).

Street art has also been witnessed in the Arab world. For example, with the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Cairo became the street art capital of the contemporary Middle East. Even though the movement started with slogans with messages to overturn Mubarak regime, it changed and featured well crafted motifs both politically and aesthetically provocative. For example, there are words such as You Are Beautiful, Which are stenciled on one of the walls along Tahrir Street. The street is a short distance from the site of the bloodiest street battles of the Egypt revolution. There are also other writings such as Respect Existence or Expect Resistance, a street art that is a painting of a local artist Keizer. Even though some of street arts do not convey political messages, most of the Cairo’s street art talks of the post-revolution. They portray the shadows of the former regime, and how things will do by the transitional government under the leadership of military. Evidently, in Cairo Street art functions as a tool of encouraging citizens to come up with their own conclusions (Lewisohn, 2008).

Additionally, street art has acted as targeting tools in the political fields. Some street artist’s objective is to politicize the general issues in the society while others target only a given audience. Producers can paint or post to reach as well as appeal to diverse class, cultural or ethnic groups on a selective basis (Ganz, 2004).The objective might be to recruit a broader or a small vanguard of militants. Furthermore, recruitment of small militants was the major reason why universities, particularly Spain and Latin America, remain targets of groups with street art. It is also for the same reason that campuses are widely known as graveyards of politicized street art. For decades, the districts that the working class inhibited remained the targets of Marxists, leftists, fascists, anarchists and unionists, all seeking to represent and speak for the workers (Lewisohn, 2008).

In the past decade, street art has received a lot of popularity, with international artists such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy leading the contemporary movement. The mentioned two artists are popularly for politically infused street arts. In the stencil works of Banksy, the topics are politics, culture and ethics. However, presently, street artists are no longer that aggressive, instead transformed modern street art to a more humanist and mature levels. For example, in the contemporary world, street artists are encouraging people to look at themselves positively and grow.

Similarly, two political street artists in Los Angeles anonymously calling themselves Forkscrew Graphics started a line of posters that mimic trendy iPod billboards from Apple computers. The design also featured the verbal joke of iRaq and image of Abu Ghraib that appeared in New York, Los Angeles and even Europe. The image had a unique and shocking effect (Lewisohn, 2008). The modern street artists have very innovative strategies to circumvent similar advertising visuals and imaginary. Contemporary artists have made their designs unique by utilizing different methods, most reflect the visual designs that the 1960s designers used. Some street artists keep their work raw and unfinished, and fully handmade with an objective of differentiating themselves with the streamline advertising graphics. Other Street artists opt for advertising gimmicks, for example posters that were protesting prison scandal involving Abu Ghraid in 2004. Robert Anderson an artist from San Francisco covered the walls of his home city with poster designs showing iconic silhouette of a tall hooded prisoner, standing on a given pedestal, and is against the American flag, with a caption below it, reading »Got Democracy?» (Ganz, 2004).

The Institute of Contemporary Art, declared Fairey as the most influential street artist. Fairey exhibited his work at Victoria, The Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art and Albert Museum. His poster depicting Barrack Obama, also known as hope, which was used in the 2008 presidential campaign contributed not only to his fame but also to be accepted as a mainstream artist. However, the Obey, that was a campaign for street art made him to excel in his career as a street artist. The campaign changed into a graphic design agency, clothing company, and magazine publisher. Originally, the campaign portrayed Andre the Giant, who is an American wrestler, with juxtaposition of the word ‘OBEY’. Fairey is an example of great innovation in the street art (Powers, 1996).

Theorizing street art; History of street art and significance

Street is connected to the art/life nexus when its political and anthropological implications are examined. In the today world, street art appears in our clothing, on the internet, and in our cities.
It still draws from collective culture, and does not differentiate between low and high culture (Powers, 1996). Therefore, it is evident that street art forms a synthesis between existing and competing forces and paves the way forward.

The contemporary street artists have used various tools to corporate the modern branding against big corporations, while at the same time enjoying the status of transforming into a brand. For example, Stephan Fairy is famous globally because of not only distribution but also marketing of their works. His works can be seen on T-shirts, computers and other channels. Other artists like Banksy or Swoon are only known because of their arts (Powers, 1996). This is because they have focus on giving their works the aura of mystery and a big brand instead of building their individual images. The mentioned makes art central, as an artist fail to fit into the equation. However, it might make art to be viewed as coming out of a machine. Even though the artists have tried to escape elitism tag by auctioning their works at a price affordable to the public, they have changed and come part of the consumer culture they previously criticized. They sell them so to fund their political or art performances, but the act still makes them part of the culture, which they claim to hate (Lewisohn, 2008).

Theorizing street art; History of street art and significance 1

Figure 2: Banksy

Street art is increasingly becoming commercially viable. This is an indication of the disruption of the role of street art as a popular voice. In real sense, street art remains a genre for the people. Therefore, its commercial success just broadens its reach and heightens sociopolitical commentary it offers. Nonetheless, it can be argued that the appeal and growth of contemporary street art, and the objective to capitalize on it threatens to compromise the integrity associated with the message of street art. In regard to this, it is evident that there is possibility of art becoming a dissent, and changing its societal roles. For example, the genre has changed, and will continue to transform as a form of art, however its cultural significance as a means for marginalized voices as well as its unique ability to interact continuously with the public will not change (Lewisohn, 2008).

Presently, Banksy and his contemporaries form the street art scene, however changing is forth coming. As a medium, street art is not only dynamic but also highly responsive to the political and physical contexts that emerges it. Additionally, the increasing popularity of Banksy as a street art is an indication of another stage in the evolution of art medium (Powers, 1996) Therefore, there is possibility of other forms evolving, and making art to be a dissent.


The rising popularity of street art is an indication of it becoming a popular canon. However, it is important to note that even if it loses its subversive edge, the medium as well as the criticism it offers will always be relevant in the society. Street art will still remain the medium that people used to communicate their political ideologies. The essay has examined the history of street and its significance.


New York, NY: Harry N. AbramsGraffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents. Ganz, N. 2004.

Lewisohn, C. (2008). Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution, London, England: Tate Publishing.
New York, NY: Abrams Books.Street World: Urban Culture and Art from Five Continents.Gastman, R., Neelon, C. and Smyrski, A.(2007).

Lefebvre, H. 2003. The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Volume 29, Issue 4, 37–142.The Journal of Popular Culture.Powers, L. 1996. ‘Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement?’