10 Great Chicago Street Artists, To Demonstrate That Street Art Isn’t Just Banksy

You know who I’m really bored with? BANKSY. It’s not that he’s done anything wrong, or objectionable, or boring; it’s not that he hasn’t maintained a high quality of work; it’s that whenever I tell someone I photograph street art, they say, “Oh! Like Banksy?” And the discretion it takes for me not to list the plentiful reasons that I do not photograph Banksy’s work makes me fall flat on my face on the sidewalk in front of that person. Literally. I mean it.

Here are the reasons: I don’t bother taking pictures of street artworks that are already well-documented, and Banksy’s works are extremely well-documented. The reason I don’t do that is that street art photographers kind of work for the street art community — street art and graffiti are temporal; they will either wear away or get painted over or taken down. As much graffiti and street art as possible should be photographed and preserved so that we have a visual history of the street art community that exists in whatever city we’re shooting. To turn my attention to artworks that are already being photographed en masse, like Banksy’s, and not give my time to artworks that aren’t is sort of reckless, if I’m looking at myself as a historian-with-a-camera.

Besides, I’m not head-over-heels in love with Banksy’s work. One of the great things about street art is that, yeah, it is pretty democratic — anyone can get into it, and even though beginner artists will suck and their art will get pasted and painted over, the scene encourages practice and persistence. The better you get, the more people will want to leave your art where it is so that it’s available to the public. This encourages an art scene that, along with being free to the public and relatively merit-based, is hugely diverse. I think every single person on Earth could find a street artist whose work resonates for them. For me, it was Yarbs circa 2013. But definitely not Banksy, or JR, or Shepard Fairey, regardless of how talented they are.

I have tremendously mixed feelings about street art, now that I’ve been watching the scene in various cities and photographing it for over two years. I like the idea of democratic and free art, for example, and I like the fact that — thanks in many ways to Banksy and Shepard Fairey — street art has become more commercially viable so that street artists can succeed. I like the fact that it’s open and participatory. I like that street art communities speak to and are engaged with their cities and their communities.

But on the other hand, I’m much less inspired, creatively and personally, by street art than I am by institutional art (that you’d find in traditional galleries and museums). Institutional art has a little less focus on design and a lot more focus on concept than street art — so institutional art is designed not only to appeal to the eye, but also to, in some way, expand the viewer’s imagination, to push the boundaries of what art is, what forms count as “art,” and what it can do. Street art, on the other hand, is by and large just painting and sculpture, and by nature of the fact that “getting up” — getting your art put up in as many places as possible — has always been part of graffiti and street art, it’s way more repetitive in terms of design. There’s more branding involved. Street artists want the viewer to recognize their designs and their style off the top of their head.

I’ve never been moved to tears by a work of street art, personally. None of that is a really terrible thing, and it doesn’t cheapen street art or make it worse than institutional art — just different. Institutional and street art are created in completely different environments and circumstances, they have completely different histories, and the issue of street art being free to the public but illegal, and institutional art being rarefied by museum admissions and prohibitively high sale prices but also validated by our economy and our legal system, in many ways dictates the forms that are possible for both kinds of art.

All of this is worth thinking about, of course. Both street art and institutional art are part of our culture, and we should consider how and why they exist, and what their respective functions are. My opinion is that institutional art exists to push at the boundaries and limitations of the human imagination and human feeling, and to foster empathy, while street art exists to push at the boundaries and limitations of our justice and economic systems, and to foster community.

That all being said, I hope you understand now why reducing street art to “Oh yeah! Like Banksy!” is maybe the most annoying thing. Street art is huge, and it has such a long and complicated history, and its evolution over the last 20 years has been absolutely tremendous. The gallery I’ve curated above highlights artworks from 10 of my favorite Chicago artists — and this is nowhere near extensive enough even for Chicago, much less for Brooklyn, Portland, Oakland, LA, London, Paris, Melbourne, etcetera. But keep your head up and your eyes open in your own city for the street art that exists there. Notice it, keep tabs on it, and maybe you’ll find artists you love, too, who are generous enough to give you their art for the price of your attention.

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