Posted by: Stenros | April 24, 2009

Graffiti and the Struggle over Public Space

One of my favourite Banksys.

One of my favourite Banksys.

Street art constantly question what is permitted in public space. Who owns the streets and who gets to decide what is acceptable? In the context of pervasive games we have become increasingly interested in the various confrontational and playful street cultures. There is a cornucopia of different ways of expressing oneself in a public space, and it would seem that this kind of activity is constantly evolving and gaining more visibility. A few years ago street parties, flash mobs and the like were very visible in the media. Then parkour, trainsurfing and base jumping spread like wild fire – especially through mad documentary videos posted on YouTube. Now it seems that leaving a mark on the city is all the rage with a renewed interest in graffiti and its weird siblings of guerrilla gardening, knitta, moss graffiti, reverse graffiti and others.

Obviously we are fans of Banksy. His works are not only funny, but they directly address issues of privacy, power relationships, surveillance and public space. His irreverent style has endeared him to the art world and currently his pieces fetch fairly high prices. He is not the first street artist to crossover to the established art world, but he is the one making the biggest waves right now. (That said, it is disappointing and thoroughly unplayful and that he has set up a group Pest Control that authenticates his works.)

Bansky has also been fairly vocal with his beliefs and he is quite good at communicating his ideas both through his pictures as well as through various pamphlets (some of which have later been collected into the book Wall and Piece). For him the whole process of creating art is a game; he has built a secret identity, he needs to create his public (and often illegal) works in secrecy, and he has succeeded in building a following that helps him stay hidden from the police.

Another interesting artist is Shephard Fairey, the guy who designed the red, white and blue Hope portrait of Barack Obama. Recently he was arrested due to this street art.

“The street thing is an outlet for me,” Fairey told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “It’s the freedom of it that’s really exciting.” Yet he added, “I don’t have this obsessive need to do street art all the time because it’s already opened doors for me. I’m now able to do things that won’t be cleaned in a day, that won’t get me arrested.” (Los Angeles Times)

Who gets to decide what is permitted in public space? Is it okay if you don’t need a permanent mark? Is it a popularity contest, the more famous you are the more you can get away with? Is it okay if it is pretty and vandalism if it is ugly? How is that negotiated?

Spring is here and I’m ready to build some seed bombs


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