Street art salvage

CDH is seeking to connect with street art collectors, advocates and artists to salvage culturally important street art from demolition sites.

In my capacity facilitating street art, I see the birth of a lot of art. But I also bear witness to the end of art; works lost in a cloud of dust when a derelict building is demolished. Sometimes amongst the rubble and industrial detritus, I find street art salvage: works painted on a roller door, a wooden hoarding or a sheet metal fence. Although assigned to a pile of garbage, many of these works may have value as cultural artefacts. Without the perspective of historical hindsight, it’s often difficult to recognise the difference. In a sense, this derelict street art might be more valuable than its gallery counterpart because this is authentic street art. So the question becomes, should we try to save these works?

Adnate work in Richmond at a building scheduled to be redeveloped into apartments

Adnate work in Richmond at a building scheduled to be redeveloped into apartments

Unlike the controversial ‘Out of Context’ Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basal, these works haven’t been pillaged from their original spatial context to be exhibited in a gallery. These works are already on their way to the tip. So the choice isn’t between the gallery vs the original environmental context intended by the artist. It’s a choice between a gallery and gone forever. So on first inspection it seems obvious that we should save the works. Ultimately I believe it is worth salvaging this street art, and I am seeking to connect with collectors, advocates and other artists to this end. But it is worth recognising that the issue is considerably more complex than it may appear upon superficial consideration.

'Out of Context' Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basel

‘Out of Context’ Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basel

Most importantly, salvaged street art can’t resurface in the secondary art market. There is the obvious practical issue that it would mean gallery exhibiting street artists would effectively be competing with themselves; it would discourage artists from painting on the street. But there’s another moral issue; the works on the street belong to the community. The wall the art is painted on might belong to a private building owner but the thin layer of paint that makes up the artwork is the property of the public. Taking a salvaged work and selling it for profit is akin to selling stolen goods. It’s more appropriate to regard people who hold salvaged street art as the custodians of a cultural artefact, until it can be re-exhibited for the general public.

It’s often argued that a key point of demarcation between street art and gallery art is ephemerality. Gallery art is perceived to have attained an immutable status through perpetual restoration, while street art is at the mercy of the environment, council cleaners and the community. The knowledge that street art is in perpetual jeopardy shapes our appreciation of it. Many people reading this article will have felt the pang of seeing a beloved street artwork suddenly gone one day. The legions of street art photographers are in part motivated by a shared angst that the works are transient and without record will be lost forever. Creating a system to preserve some of these works immediately changes this context. Yes, an artwork may still suddenly disappear tomorrow, but it may also be absorbed into a preservation collection. This changes the lenses through which we view and experience the art, by changing a key contextual element. This perpetually shifting contextual landscape has been synonymous with street art since its inception. What began as an outsider subcultural movement has been progressively recuperated into the mainstream. The politically conservative Lord Mayor of Melbourne has shifted from a zero tolerance stance on graffiti (as opposition leader of the state) to describing himself as ‘delighted’ with the city’s street art. Many street artists have moved into the commercial art system where possible. So it seems the outsider status of street art is even more fleeting than the art itself. Preserving works is part of this natural evolution, so it’s not incongruent with the direction of the movement.

Photographers in Hosier Lane

Photographers in Hosier Lane

Salvaging street art may contravene the wishes of the artist. Some street artists reluctantly accept ephemerality as a reality of the medium but some artists intend for their work to be transient. Ultimately many artists may prefer for their work to go to the tip, rather than see it preserved in a warehouse or a gallery. Although an artist’s consent is desirable, should it be a necessary prerequisite for preserving an artwork? On his death bed, Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished manuscripts. Brod ignored this request and published many of Kafka’s most important works posthumously. The writing was important and so the interests of broader society outweighed the preference of the artist. During the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt, 22 ancient monuments risked being flooded. The monuments were relocated, although as religious sites it’s unlikely the original builders would have consented; imagine if the temple on the mount needed to be moved. The monuments were historically significant to us, so we acted in society’s benefit regardless. Ultimately street art is for everyone, not just the artist or the building owner. It belongs to the community so the primary directives are those in the interest of the community; the preferences of the artist are secondary, although they’re contextually important to record.

Gustav Metzger 'Acid Action Painting' 1961

Gustav Metzger ‘Acid Action Painting’ 1961

The exception is when the ephemerality is integral to the meaning of the work (not just the artist’s preference). Gustav Metzger’s Auto Destructive Art requires self-destruction to realise the meaning written into the work. To attempt to preserve ‘acid action painting, 1961’ midway through the corrosion of the work would ironically be the destruction of the art; it would become meaningless. But street art is typically quite different from the auto destructive art of Metzger. Metzger built the self-destruction of the work innately into the art. Street art is about relinquishing control of the art and handing it over to the cultural chaos of urban space. This usually causes the destruction of the art because society has diverse agendas; although 99 people might leave a work untouched, it only takes one to cap it. But if an artist relinquishes art to external forces, with a loose expectation that this will cause erasure of the work, they have to equally accept that external agents may preserve it. Unless the work requires ephemerality as an artistic imperative, it’s difficult to argue that an artists’ preference for transience should be honoured above society’s enrichment through sharing the art. As an artist, on a personal level it galls me that collectors could salvage my works from the street without my consent but from reasoned principles, I find it difficult to argue against.

Immolating portrait of Yukio Mishima by CDH

Immolating portrait of Yukio Mishima by CDH

So I seek to build a network of artists, advocates and collectors to salvage street artworks, with these ideas in mind. But what do you think? Is it right to salvage works imminently destined for destruction and if so, what principles should guide our actions?

If you’re interested in offering tips on works available for salvage or if you want tips on works available for salvage, please contact me at and join our network.


12 responses to “Street art salvage

  • sukiesoriginal

    My gut reaction is to want to salvage street art from the tip, but I can’t really imagine where else it can go – except for a vague notion of some public space, so the community has access. But we are talking about parts of walls, fences and roller doors, so I’m not sure how that would look!(Like a tip with pictures? One would hope not.)

  • CDH

    A tip with pictures could be pretty accurate. It might just sit in a private storage space for 10 years.
    Whether it’s available for public exhibition depends on the public. In the future, we might want to put it in a museum, like a Mesopotamian panel. Or we might decide it was in fact garbage all along. My point is, it’s hard to know the difference without historical perspective. All Van Gogh’s works would have been painted over in his time if his brother didn’t preserve them.
    It’s right to call is a vague notion, because there’s no long term plan. But many people already mourn the loss of the Melbourne political graffiti of the early 2000s. We’re still haemorrhaging this stuff. It’s not that expensive to store the works, especially when you get them for free.

  • javier

    A group of spanish art historians and restorers are lobbying the City for the preservation of an extremely exceptional historical graffiti painting still standing in the very center of Madrid, made by pioneer and one-man-scene graffiti writer Muelle in 1987 on a building now facing a probable demolition.

  • NoLionsInEngland

    Bad idea. “Conservation” is a gloss which too often will reveal “market” when scratched. As a passionate graffiti and street art photographer, I feel no “angst” at all over the ephemeral and transient nature of street art. The key distinction between street art and gallery art is “audience”, not ephemerality. Street artists give up their work to the audience, the weather, the buff and other artists. Let the dice fall where they will. It was never intended either to be salvaged or preserved, so who has the right to assume a curatorial role in managing preservation and display? How will curatorial judgement be exercised?

    • CDH

      Yeah I think this is a good point and it addresses a key issue here. And let me say, I don’t know the answer to this. But if we’re just giving the art over to the audience, how can I say it’s wrong for someone to salvage one of my artworks? I’ve given it over to this chaotic urban environment; rain rains, cleaners clean, taggers tag, and preservationists preserve. They’re all modifications to the original work. Who decides what should get saved? Who decides what should get tagged? Whoever. It’s this random audience.
      I like your term ‘let the dice fall where they will’. If I do that and someone salvages it, how can I go back and complain that this random outcome was wrong?
      I think taking works and selling them is unequivocally wrong though, because the works are basically stolen from the community.
      Love to hear more thoughts.

  • conservACCIONurbana

    I appreciate your opinion and agree that street art is ephemeral and so must be respected, but there are works that become important for a group of people who want to protect the collective memory and save them from oblivion, without referring them to the art trade, performing an altruistic protection.
    The initiative to protect the Muelle (the Spring in Spanish) piece in Madrid, has been endorsed by a citizens’ initiative, artist relatives and friends, who have been supported by more than three hundred professionals related with museums and universities.

  • HowAboutNo!

    Surely the ephemeral nature of street art means that it is integral to every street artists intent that once it is placed, it is open to the elements?

    Any other attitude towards it then perhaps the streets aren’t the best place for their art, and for those so precious about preserving for either their own, or supposed “others benefit” need to get over themselves.

    Most of the beauty of street art is the fact that it is but a flying, fleeting statement, that the viewer gets to feel a part of, feeling that perhaps they might be the first, or indeed the only one to notice it.

    Your one sentence summed it up – “Ultimately many artists may prefer for their work to go to the tip, rather than see it preserved in a warehouse or a gallery.”

    Once it’s off the street, it isn’t street art any more and loses most, if not all of its appeal.

  • KIP

    I have already begun this… i live in new orleans and after hurricane katrina Banksy came and did a few pieces. needless to say some time has passed and a few of the locations banksy choose (such as a few houses) have been demolished. BUT prior to them being demolished i was able to retrieve a few of his pieces. In my mind after what we went through as a city banksy came and shed some light with his artistic abilities and they shouldnt go down with the old run down houses. I have saved and currently have in my collection a “Trumpet boy” and a Rat.

    And sorry but in my opinion they should be preserved!! These pieces make statements and these statements shouldnt die out!!

  • Sello Mathakhoe

    This site has got all that I was looking for, thanks, I will bookmark this.Cheers!!

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