Do Something New: Put Up Street Art

I have conflicting feelings about street art. I became a big fan a few years ago, not via watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” but via strolling around Chicago neighborhoods where street art abounds. It was like a treasure hunt: In the midst of hundreds of paste-ups and stickers, sometimes I’d find something really beautiful and transcendent.

The paste that got me hooked was this one from Yarbs. I started taking my starter-level DSLR on missions in Chicago’s neighborhoods to document the best of what was up. This was facilitated by the fact that street art is, by nature, transient – it goes up, it comes down, new art goes up, ad infinitum. I could hunt two weeks in a row and find walls completely pasted over.

As time went on, I started feeling an immense sense of community. I knew Yarbs from Penny Pinch from JC Rivera from Don’t Fret from Hebru Brantley from Glass Cuisine from Left Handed Wave from Sirus Fountain from Uphues from the late, great Brooks Blair Golden, and being able to recognize who was who made living in the third-largest city in the country, an unwieldy conglomerate of seventy-seven neighborhoods, suddenly feel cohesive. I saw art that I recognized no matter where I went, and it was like I always had a friend around, and that’s pretty powerful.

But I think I got too close and killed my idols. At the same time that I started researching street art on a theoretical level, I friended street artists from all around the country on Facebook, I met up with a few of them, I kept photographing their work. A few problems became apparent at once: First of all, that the majority of street artists who wind up doing work in galleries are white and male, and that kind of forces the street art aficionado to consider their privilege. After all, part of what some artists told me was their motivation was that the high-art world is top-down and exclusive. But if street art was giving some artists a path to the high-art world, or at least representation in galleries, and the gallery owners and those artists were the same race/gender/orientation/etc. as the majority of people represented in museums, then what’s really the core difference?

Second of all, the fact is that a big part of street art is just getting your work up and covering a lot of ground. But what that means is that many artists spend less time honing their craft, per se, than they do just repeating the same thing over and over and over on Post Office stickers (which, by the way, USPS will send you for free). A lot of practice is repetition, sure, but over the course of years, so few artists progressed as artists. Plenty became at least semi-famous, but for plenty that was because their names were everywhere, not because their art was actually good or meaningful.

Not all of that or necessarily any of that is going to apply to every single street artist. Princess Hijab, for instance, has been waging a visually powerful critique of France’s attitudes toward women, Muslims, and consumerism for years, now. Anyone in New York will recognize Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” project. Several of the artists I named have made genuinely beautiful, moving artworks. But the majority of it, like the majority of any art, is pretty mediocre, and there’s no guarantee that a street artist will get better, and fame isn’t a guarantee of quality.

I also get that a lot of people object to street art because for all legal intents and purposes it’s vandalism and can put a burden of cost on business owners. Consider the fact, though, that in Oregon, if the damage done to property takes more than $1000 to fix, it’s a Class C felony that carries up to $125,000 in fines. In Illinois, you only have to do $300 worth of damage to be convicted of a felony, and you can be fined $25,000 and go to prison for 2-5 years. In New York, the police only have to believe that you damaged property for a misdemeanor conviction, up to $1000 in fines, and up to a year in jail. These are wildly disproportionate sentences inspired by the “broken windows” theory that if police and the judicial arm can stop minor but unsightly crimes from happening – like vandalism, loitering, or other “signs of disorder” – it’ll stop more serious crimes from happening.

Unfortunately, no matter how badly proponents of broken windows policing want it to work, the science and the data have come up short. It’s really sort of magical thinking to believe that if a neighborhood doesn’t “look criminal” (or whatever), it means no crime is being committed there. In the meantime, it’s criminalized homelessness (via loitering laws) and encouraged profiling. And while I absolutely sympathize with business owners who don’t want their property to be pasted or sprayed and who really shouldn’t have to bear the cost of having it removed, the sentencing that goes along with property damage laws seems like a giant overreaction that, worse, isn’t necessarily even effective.

Whew. That all being said, I’ve accompanied artists while they posted up stickers, but I’ve never actually done it myself, and I figured it was high time to confront my conflicting feelings about it and get some first-hand experience. There were a lot of questions to ask on the front end, like: What are the best materials to use? What should the subject matter be? What’s my audience?

I landed on using USPS stickers (I have probably 1000), sticking them together to form one adhesive layer, painting them with watercolors, covering the watercolors with black crayon, scratching away at the crayon layer to make a design (like a scratchboard, but more colorful), then painting over that and finishing with a spray acrylic – mainly because I had stickers, watercolors, and spray acrylic on hand, and crayons are cheap. This thing could get taken down in a matter of hours, so while I cared about making something cool, I didn’t really want to invest too much money in it.

As for design, I figured heck, it’s Pride Month and I was already going with “colorful,” so why not run with the rainbow? I wound up scratching out a Sierpinski sieve, because it’s 1) a triangle (a pride symbol) and 2) a fractal, and fractals have to do with the idea of infinity, ergo: PRIDE FOREVER. To make it look extra cosmic I splattered it with white paint and painted a rainbow ring around it, and was pleased enough with the result that I’m not embarrassed to make it the header image or, for that matter, post it in public.

As far as audience, I decided to worry more about location and longevity, so I scouted out a fairly inconspicuous location: The black backing of a defunct pay phone box on a major street, next to a bus stop. People will see it, sure, but it won’t attract so much attention that it’ll be taken down immediately, nor will it be much of a burden or an urgent matter of removal for a business owner (see: defunct). I put it up at night and took the tack of acting like I was supposed to be doing it.

I guess that, now, I appreciate the fact that putting your work up in public for anyone to enjoy or scrutinize is pretty difficult. Figuring out what message is important enough, and what design is pleasing enough, to merit risking a fine or jail to share is a pretty big stumper. And I’m not sure that I got the adrenaline rush that a lot of artists have reported to researchers, but it is definitely pretty fun to actually post it up. I don’t think I want or need to make street art again, because if I want to make art, there are plenty of non-freedom-jeopardizing ways to display it, and I don’t value the rebellion aspect of street art as much as I assume legitimate street artists do. Regardless of my concerns about it, ultimately I still side with street artists, as artists, and as members of my community.

[Flickr]

[The Guardian]

[tlynnfaz]

[Oregon Laws]

[ILGA]

[FindLaw]

[CityLab]

[CEBCP]
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