To some, the term “street art” is merely a glorification of vandalism, a common hallmark of urban blight. But for many others, street art is a legitimate form of expression and a vital component of the urban experience.
Although identifying street artists can often be a difficult, if not impossible, task, these clandestine individuals attract considerable followings on the Web, where enthusiasts from across the globe convene to share photos and discuss conspiracies.
“Through travel and [the] Internet, street art bridges cultures and geographies,” says Jake Dobkin, publisher and co-founder of Gothamist and photographer for Streetsy, a blog showcasing street art from around the world. Streetsy maintains a Flickr group where more than 3,000 members can share photographs of stencils, stickers and other street art manifestations they’ve spotted in their city.
Dobkin credits the Web for helping street art gain legitimacy and for fostering interaction between individuals. “Communication is generally a good thing,” he says. “Street art does encourage conversation between strangers.”
Some of the more famous examples anonymous street art are Toynbee tiles. Dozens of these mysterious tiles are embedded in the asphalt of several major cities, including New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. No one knows for sure who’s behind the tiles, nor are they able to decipher the cryptic messages the tiles pass along to downward-facing pedestrians. Most contain a variation of the following:
Toynbee idea in movie ‘2001’ resurrect dead On Planet Jupiter.
Stickman is a similar, though slightly less perplexing phenomenon, consisting of a stick-figure stenciled into the pavement or on the side of a building. Like Toynbee tiles, the artist behind Stickman remains unknown, but he or she still has a sizable legion of admirers, who can be found on a number of photo-sharing sites and blogs.
Not all forms of street art are as seemingly harmful as Stickman or Toynbee Tiles. Some use the anonymity of the urban environment to make compelling visual statements to the public.
In the bicycling community, Ghostbikes honor cyclists who have been killed while riding on city streets. Under the cover of darkness, friends of the victim take a bike spray-painted ghastly white and chain it to an object close to where the accident occurred. A sign reading, “A cyclist was killed here” is then hung from the frame of the bike, conveying to the public in plain terms the need to share the road. Several online communities organize and mobilize anonymous members in Portland, Seattle, New York and other U.S. cities.
Across the Atlantic, the British street artist known as Banksy has generated much attention for his clever and often audacious subversions of the urban environment.
On several occasions, Banksy has walked into popular art museums in Britain and the U.S. and hung up his own artwork and placards alongside more famous pieces. In some cases, it took several days for curators to realize something was amiss. Banksy is also famous for his stencil work and paintings, which often make political statements. One recent work, completed in plain view of closed-circuit security cameras, portrayed a child a painting the slogan “One Nation Under CCTV” on the side of a three-story London building.
Not to be outdone, even major corporations have taken a stab at street art, using Willy Wonka-like secrecy to generate buzz, and in one case, a brief moment of terror.
Turner Broadcasting System faced heavy criticism after a guerrilla marketing campaign in early 2007 elicited a major response from police and anti-terror officials across the nation. The cause for alarm: dozens of mysterious LED panels planted in public spaces in several American cities. The devices featured a crude depiction of a cartoon character giving the middle finger, as well as ominous-looking stray wires and batteries.
Some of the devices had been planted for weeks before anyone alerted police, who initially treated the objects as bomb threats. Fanned by a chorus of cable news networks, the pandemonium spread quickly from city to city as more devices were discovered.
It was soon revealed that the devices were intended to promote the Cartoon Network series Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Once officials declared the devices to be no more harmful than Lite Brites, they became instant collector’s items, some of which fetched thousands of dollars on eBay. Realizing it had crossed a line, Turner issued formal apologies for the panic their campaign generated.
“I don’t consider it street art,” Dobkin says. “I consider it advertising, and not very interesting advertising at that.”
However their messages are interpreted, the Web continues to turn these undercover artists into sensations and unite urban dwellers across the globe.
“[The Internet]’s allowed artists and fans from all over the world to encounter each other in way they never could have before.”