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Hugo Kaagman street art in STRAAT
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Is street art inside still street art?

Although graffiti and street art emerged as illegal and underground expressions on the streets, as pointed out in our last in-depth article, it didn’t take very long for the traditional art world to absorb them into their galleries and museums. But is street art actually street art when it appears on canvas? Isn’t street art by its very nature meant to slowly fade away into the urban landscape? Isn’t the rebellious spirit so essential to this art form lost once it ventures down the institutionalization path? 


Art institutes have been collecting and promoting graffiti and street art for nearly half a century, but these questions remain as relevant today as they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. What does the institutionalization of street art mean for this art form? And what are the consequences for the artists themselves? We tackle these questions with Quote from the streets, the opening exhibition at STRAAT. 


With the ultimate goal of providing you more depth in relation to our opening exhibition and this current discussion, this article briefly explores the history of this monumental shift from brick walls to white cubes and the various points of view that help define it. Ultimately, we invite you to join one of the most pressing debates taking place around street art today: Is street art exhibited inside still street art?


Institutional absorption


While graffiti and street art date back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, it didn’t take long for these artforms to be assimilated into the institutionalized art world. This thanks to the efforts of a few forward-thinking artists, art dealers and collectors. The first gallery exhibition of graffiti took place in September, 1973 at the Razor Gallery in SoHo, New York and featured the collective United Graffiti Artists – whose original members include Hugo Martinez, PHASE 2, Mike 171 and SJK 171. For the next half decade or so the underground scene developed in its own cocoon. Then, in October 1980, Fashion Moda, in the South Bronx, organized one of the earliest and most influential exhibitions showing graffiti and street art side by side. The show included works by Basquiat, Futura 2000 and Kenny Scharf, amongst others. 

Is street inside still street art, Fashion Moda, John Fekner
Fashion Moda, 1981 
Photo: (c) John Fekner


The first gallery to showcase graffiti art in Europe was Galleria La Medusa in Rome. The exhibition took place in December 1979 after Italian art dealer Claudio Bruni bought ‘graffiti per square foot’ from graffiti veteran Lee Quiñones and hip-hop icon Fab 5 Freddy. In the same year, the founding of ANUS Gallery by Amsterdam pioneers Hugo Kaagman and Diana Ozon marked the birth of the first (punk) graffiti gallery in the Dutch capital. Three years later, in late 1982, artworks by graffiti artists like Seen, Blade, Futura 2000 and Dondi were exhibited at Yaki Kornblit Gallery. As the first exhibition in Amsterdam featuring American graffiti, the show was a milestone. The introduction of the American aesthetics convinced many Dutch writers to start practicing ‘New York stylewriting’ [1].


So where did this institutional interest in graffiti and street art come from? It resulted from the evolution of the artforms themselves. Artists continued to refine their work and experiment across painting, sculpture, music, fashion and film [2]. As art institutions came to appreciate and value this new aesthetic from the street, renowned museums and experienced art buyers began opening up their collections more and more to these urban expressions.


While the institutionalization of graffiti and street art in the 1970s and early 1980s was limited to a few ‘art visionaries’, today it is common to find artworks by (former) graffiti and street artists being sold for tens of millions in auction houses across the globe. The movements have undeniably moved from the periphery to a more central position in the art world [3]. 


Yet even as they were assimilated into the art world, graffiti and street artists could still retain a greater independence from the cultural authorities than did other artists. Graffiti and street art’s Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mentality, combined with internet and social media exposure, enable the artists to promote and sell their own work without the need of gallerists, buyers and other traditional artworld middlemen [4].  


Polemical shift


From the very start, the presence of graffiti and street art in art institutions was surrounded by heated debate. Many (still) feel that an artform born illegally in the public space and rooted in promoting nonviolent civil disobedience loses much of its relevance when institutionalized. Inside, the artworks are no longer illegal and thereby lack the time pressure and adrenaline required to freely create on the streets. 


The differences brought by this shift go even further. When painting for an institution, artists have access to a greater set of tools, such as ladders and scaffolding, than they would on the street. This allows them to transcend the ‘human scale’ – literally, how high a hand can reach – that limits them outdoors. Moreover, in a gallery or museum, street art becomes an isolated work of art, no longer part of the sum total of an urban area setting and any possible work that precedes or surrounds it [5]. Finally, a canvas moves easily from one location to another in a way that would be impossible – or at least very, very difficult – for a brick or concrete wall. 


Considering all these changes, it is little surprise that many artists and experts believe street art can only ever exist in the urban scenarios where its political and interventionist power to foster discussions is greatest. In their minds, street art’s value is derived almost exclusively from its social value on the streets. Museums, galleries and biennials are mere interferences, disrupting not only the messages but also the creative freedom in how graffiti and street art are made [6].

is street art inside still street art, Blu, Berlin
Mural by Blu in Berlin
Photo: Angela Serena Gilmour 


There is, of course, another side to this argument, one that states there is no difference between outdoor and indoor street art. This thought is based on the idea that, whether viewed in the context of the street, studio, gallery, museum or internet, street art’s main source of inspiration is still the streets. In other words, dialoguing with the city is THE defining feature of street art no matter where it is created or displayed. According to this school of thought, city walls are simply a laboratory for experimentation; what is discovered on the streets is introduced into the studio and vice versa [7].  Even on canvas, street art still speaks to a wide audience and retains its underlying rebelliousness. The content also remains the same and its form barely changes. Street art transcends any single surface or location. Any street artist who is (or ever was) active on the streets is still a street artist, even when making works on canvas [8].   


In the meantime, as this debate rages, a middle ground has emerged. Some scholars, biennales and institutions, even those devoted to street art, are filing graffiti and street art under contemporary art or adopting entirely new subgenres like ‘urban contemporary art’, ‘new contemporary art’, ‘intermural art’ and ‘street wave art’ [9] [10] [11].  


Quoting the streets

    

These vast differences of opinion on what does and doesn’t define graffiti and street art are likely to continue for some time yet. Not least of all because these artforms are simultaneously evolving on a daily basis by countless artists around the globe. It is unrealistic that we will ever unanimously agree on any single definition. At STRAAT, we actually believe this debate should be embraced as part of the beauty of the art form. Or, as professor Edwige Fusaro pointed out:


“If spilling over and trespassing are in the genes of graffiti and street art, so are the borders and frames: graffiti and street art need them to be able to violate them” [12].


With so many changes involved, it is impossible for any work of graffiti or street art to completely retain its original meaning and value inside as it has outside. At STRAAT, our once-derelict structure seems almost purpose-made to house a graffiti and street art museum. The sheer size and enormous height of the museum doesn’t much alter the scale of the work as it would otherwise appear on the streets. Nevertheless, the question remains: are even the slightest deviations from the street enough to contextualize graffiti and street art inside? 


To better understand how a habitat alters works by graffiti and street artists, we dove into our own collection. With nearly 250 artworks created specifically for STRAAT – ranging from paintings and sculptures to site-specific installations – the collection lends itself nicely to such an investigation. As part of our research, we spoke extensively with the artists themselves. Using the artists’ own words, we were able to find specific patterns that reveal much about the movements’ roots. We discovered, for example, that working indoors has little impact on the artists’ inspirations; with or without a roof over their head their inspirations are the same. Similarly, artistic styles, mastered with years of practice and dedication hardly change when switching up surfaces (i.e. brick vs canvas). Working indoors also doesn’t have much influence on the concepts that drive their works; after all, street artists have always been moved by an intrinsic motivation that doesn’t recognize boundaries or borders.

Is street art inside still street art, STRAAT, quote from the streets
Our opening exhibition Quote from the streets
Photo: Roderik van Nispen


Based on the findings from our research, we have categorized the STRAAT collection into five key narratives shared by graffiti and street artists worldwide: Aesthetic; Personal; Grounded; Empathic and Conscious. With Aesthetic, we explore street art’s pursuit of perfect shapes. With Personal, we view street art as a reflection of the artist’s inner universe. In Grounded, we reveal the connection between street art and its environment. With Empathic we zoom in on how street art communicates with its audience. And Conscious demonstrates street art’s power to raise awareness for social and environmental causes. Together, these five narratives give shape to the opening exhibition Quote from the streets, featuring 153 artworks by 140 artists from 32 countries. All these works and their stories can be found in our collection database.


Opened in October 2020 (and temporarily closed due to covid-19), the exhibition is laid out like a city with its own streets, squares and intersections. By doing so, we invite street art lovers to lose themselves in the artworks and explore their deeper meanings that would otherwise remain untold in the streets. We hope that when you have the chance to visit our inaugural show, you will feel encouraged to contribute to the ongoing debate: is street art inside still street art? Does street art, once removed from its context, invite a different interpretation than it does on the streets? And do art world frames even have any use for a global art movement that has always taken great pride in defying artworld frames? We’ll let you be the judge.


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Article by Giovanna Di Giacomo

Thumbnail and Banner picture: artwork by Hugo Kaagman


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References

[1] Pope, A. (2011). De ‘verkunsting’ van graffiti: van de metro naar het museum. Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam.
[2] Shapiro, R. & Heinich, N. (2013). When is there Artification? Contemporary Aesthetics. Special Volume 4, online.
[3] Di Giacomo, G. (2017). The legitimation of street art in Amsterdam. Rotterdam: Erasmus University.
[4] Courier (2014). Street art and its transformation from subculture to the mass. Retrieved from:  http://www.courierpaper.com/cover-story/street-art-business/
[5] Abarca, J. (2016). From street art to murals: what have we lost? Lissabon: SAUC - Journal V2 - N2
[6] Costa, L. P. (2007). Grafite e pichação: institucionalização e transgressão na cena contemporânea. Campinas: UNICAMP.
[7] Irvine, M. (2012). The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture. London & New York: Berg: 235-278.
[8] Snelders, E. (2012). Hedendaagse Nederlandse Street Art en de kunstwereld. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.
[9] Martinique, E. (2017). New Contemporary Artwork by Thinkspace Gallery Returns to The Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Retrieved from: https://www.widewalls.ch/contemporary-artwork-thinkspace-gallery/
[10] Artmosphere (2018). Retrieved from: http://2018.artmossphere.com
[11] Anapur, E. (2017). Attempting to Define Intermural Art. Retrieved from: https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/intermural-art
[12] Fusaro, E. (2019). Framing Graffiti & Street Art: Proceedings of Nice Street Art Project International Conferences, 2017 – 2018, lecture notes, Urban Creativity Conference Lisboa 2019, delivered 6 July 2019.