Tag Archives: USA

Controlling the Streets

Many commentators have drawn connections between the popular uprisings in the Middle East and the arrest of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.  But is there any connection between the arrest of Ai Weiwei and the recent arrests of street artists in the USA? This year artist LA II, aka Angel Ortiz, a former collaborator with Keith Haring was arrested in New York. And there have been multiple arrests of street artists in Los Angeles including: Revok, aka Jason Williams, the French artist, Space Invader (arrested 20/4/11) and Smear, aka Cristian Gheorghiu (arrested 16/4/11).

Free Revok - Melbourne, Hoiser Lane

One reason for all the arrests in Los Angles was MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition attracting street artists to LA. (Sharon Mizota reviewed the exhibition for the LA Times). But this is beside the point, although the law says that the arrests are about vandalism. It is actually about image as no wall has ever been actually damaged by the application of a coat of paint. The arrest of these artists is no more about vandalism than Ai Weiwei’s arrest is about his alleged economic crimes. Although I’m sure that capable prosecutors in both countries will be able to legally prove their respective cases according to their respective laws.

Like many people around the world I have been cheering on the Arab Spring from the security of my home. I have also been trying to watch out for any street art and graffiti developments in these historic events.  I keep searching for a story about graffiti in the popular uprisings in the Middle East but it has been mostly small stuff. There is this little report about some graffiti during the protests in Egypt. On 26/3/11 SBS news reported that major demonstrations and subsequent riots in Syrian were sparked when police arrested youths for doing anti-government graffiti. In the Middle East there are donkeys that can be mobile billboards for anti-government graffiti. The added bonus to painting a donkey is that the police can’t capture or kill the donkey and maintain their dignity.

The reason for the government crack down on street artists in the USA, on artists and human rights campaigners in China, and on anyone who protests in the streets in the Middle East is basically the same. The street is highly symbolic; it is the public face of the collective consciousness. Public area is part of a political discourse – does it belong to the people, every individual person, or to the government, and a ghostly idea of “the public”? Street art is a revolt about the definition of public and private space in the modern city. And like the occupation of the streets in the Middle East, or Ai Weiwei’s activism, it is a threat to authority of the ruling party and their claim to represent the public.


Street Art Idealism

I came back from the final day of the 5th Melbourne Stencil Festival full of optimism for street art. There are more reasons to be optimistic beyond the 5th year of successful small street art festival; beyond increased public interest in street art and beyond the increasingly impressive multi-colored stencils. I am optimistic particularly about spirit of international cooperation and communication amongst street artists.

U.S. and Iranian diplomats are currently barely able to talk face to face. But U.S. and Iranian stencil artists can collaborate to create works of art at the Melbourne Stencil Festival. A1one, a stencil artist from Iran worked with US, German and Australian artists producing some beautiful pictures. (The art was then sold to benefit an Australian charity, the Collingwood Neighborhood House.)

To say that street art is a global art movement is not a sufficient description for the unparalleled increase in communications, travel and collaborations. The internet has been responsible for much of this communications but it takes trust and a generosity of spirit have to make it work.

Street art is a democratic force, not in terms of civil government but in the very human terms of giving a voice and artistic power to ordinary people. Street art gives a voice to people who cannot buy advertising space, property or political influence; young people, minorities and sub-cultures whose voices are frequently censored or ignored by the masses. The question in the back of all art history is not who painted the pictures but who owns the walls. It has often been remarked that great art follows empires, money and power and it has been the ambition and dream of radical artists to end this connection.

There are many other examples of the international reach of street art. Chor Boogie, an American aerosol artist participated in the 1st Street Painting Exhibit in Xi’an China this year. In my last entry Spray the Word I wrote about an exhibition of collaborations between Brazilian and Australian stencil artists and poets.

The geopolitical implications of street art should not be under estimated; it is truly remarkable for an art movement. Nor should it be over estimated; street art will not create global peace and harmony.


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