With its reputation for spray paint, graffiti, and alternative grunge, urban art was founded on subversion and transgression. This artistic style breaks molds, experiments with form, and even defaces public property. Not all urban art is community-oriented and proudly funded by local organizations and institutions, nor does it intend to be. The rawest forms of street art are spontaneous and thought-provoking, furtively installed during late night or early morning hours, often awaiting the sunrise to gauge a public reaction. For an urban contemporary artist, the city is the canvas, and a wide public of pedestrians are the spectators. Breaking the boundaries of traditional museum and high-end art gallery displays, urban art as a medium is forwardly publicized and seemingly boundless in artistic potential.
There is something powerful and so crudely organic inherently manifest in urban art. It turns traditions on their heads. These contemporary artists emerge from the streets. They know their cities, they know their people, and they know their medium. Taking to the streets during nocturnal hours with an arsenal of aerosol, an inspired mind, and an array of innovative materials, they are equipped to implement an artistic style deeply rooted in rebellion. One of the most admirable qualities of urban art is its capacity to transform an otherwise barren urban space. However, this does not come without consequences. Graffiti, sticker posting, and mural art are all highly political forms of art, often stigmatized for their links to criminal behavior and subversive alternative social groups.
While many urban contemporary artists are celebrated for their individual aesthetics, in many cases their fame only arose from the public reaction or shock value some of their most transgressive and experimental works generated. I want to examine here some of the most notorious figures in the urban art community. However, despite their present fame, these urban art heroes should be revered not just for their present day status. Instead, these vandals should be celebrated for their brazen acts and their capacity to make their artistic objectives known. As many of them have identified, urban artwork is not just about the creation of a finished product, these works also depend on spectatorship and social reactions that produce or reiterate their final meaning.
A contemporary artist to serve as a prime example of vandal turned cultural icon is Shepard Fairey. Probably most widely known in present day for his Barack Obama “HOPE” poster, Fairey’s artwork is famous for creating a viral cultural phenomenon. While seemingly emerging from the alternative skater scene, Fairey is highly intellectual and profoundly aware of the philosophical implications of his oeuvre. His artwork is both ludically experimental and socially subversive, purposefully inviting a public reaction in order to produce meaning in his artwork.
Fairey’s earliest claim to fame is his creation of an André the Giant sticker, which received attention from many communities in the late 1980s. Fairey frankly states that his intention with this sticker project was to experiment with context and cause spectators to question how context influences or even confuses the creation of meaning. Fairey was inspired by the symbols presented to us on a daily basis by consumer and advertisement culture whose explicit objectives are masked by appealing images, catchy slogans, and cartoon mascots.
Though advertisements use puns, exotic imagery, and psychological strategies to goad spectators into consuming products, their underlying message — to buy, to consume, to obey the capitalist machine — are masked by the façade of their content. Placing “Obey” along with his André the Giant sticker was a playful jab at the pervasive consumerism within a capitalist society. His sticker project ironically transformed itself, shifting in meaning and provoking reactions from obedient citizens and subcultural circles alike.
In 1989, before Fairey became well-known, the stickers were slapped throughout Los Angeles and Fairey simply waited to observe a reaction. Proponents of the law instantly viewed these stickers as an act of vandalism. However, subcultures, particularly skaters, indie artists, wrestling fans, and anti authoritarian groups, viewed and embraced the stickers as an act of rebellion. Members of these subcultures wanted the stickers because they came to symbolize disobedience and rejection of traditional values and social structures.
Possessing a sticker came to represent that an individual was a part of these alternative, anti authoritarian crowds. Ironically, despite the sticker project’s attempt to provoke within spectators a defamiliarization of one’s surroundings and criticize consumer culture, they became so so well received by the subculture audience that they evolved into a full line of merchandise called “OBEY.” This line of counter culture clothing and accessories is a testament to Fairey’s influence and remains famous until today. Curiously, the creation of this clothing line phenomenon both undercuts and reiterates Fairey’s guiding philosophies and criticism of consumer culture as his sticker experiment ultimately yielded enough sales to sustain a very popular brand.
The sticker campaign garnered Fairey fame within urban subculture communities and labeled him a rebel against traditional institutions. As he gained popularity, Fairey’s work began to evolve. His major contributions include the initial dinosaur logo for Mozilla, the “Rock the Vote” campaign logo, and the Barack Obama “HOPE” posters. He has been granted funds and commissioned to implement his artwork throughout the globe. More recently, he was commissioned to complete a mural of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa. Deeply embedded within Fairey’s artwork is a highly socialized characteristic, tied to grassroots movements, youth culture, and symbols of democratic progress.
Despite his accolades, Fairey refuses to abandon the inherent spirit of rebellion associated with his art. In 2015, he was invited to Detroit in order to complete an 18 story mural on a real estate building facing a city park. However, in addition to completing his mural, Fairey, without permission, wheat pasted more than ten properties, issuing a warrant for his arrest. At that time, the mayor of Detroit had elevated accountability for defacing property within the city, and despite Fairey’s fame, his destructive acts were treated as vandalism. The official court summons, which was eventually dropped, estimated that Fairey had caused up to an estimated $20,000 in damage to city property. In this way, Fairey is tagged as never having abandoned his counterculture fan base, producing public art with the underlying objective of breaking free from institutions and creating a subversive reaction.
Perhaps inspired by Fairey’s experimentation with sticker-tagging, urban artist Swoon displays a similarly vandalistic vain in her artistic expression. Swoon, born Caledonia Dance Curry, gained fame for her mixed-media street art posted throughout New York City. In her earlier years, she worked anonymously as she surreptitiously attached her artwork upon open city surfaces. Due to her anonymity and her medium’s association with vandalism, her work frequently was mistakenly appointed to other rising male street artists at the time. This misperception of Swoon’s sex underscores the inequity of male to female artists within urban art itself. Nonetheless, in her earlier days, Swoon strategically relied on this extra masking of her identity. According to Swoon, being mistaken for a man provided her an additional layer of protection against being discovered by police and thus facing legal ramifications.
Swoon is best known for her wheat-pasting technique when applying her studio-designed artwork to urban surfaces. Her works are typically cutouts of human figures, crafted in her studio through a combination of newspaper clippings and her dramatic, high-contrast painting style. When deciding where to place her art, she has commented that she frequently takes public transportation throughout the city in order to scout out places to display her work. Her preferred surfaces vary from the sides of buildings, empty walls, trash cans, and even streetlight poles, often allowing the element of a surprising setting complement her work.
Once she has hunted down the perfect space to apply her next project, she independently and stealthily places her artwork upon her chosen surface, eluding the police and getting caught. Swoon’s preferred technique of wheat-pasting, while providing a strong, relatively long-lasting binding, causes her artwork to dissolve, fade, and even rot over time.. The intentionality of this raw, organic aesthetic can be interpreted as a commentary about the fleeting nature of artistic production in itself.
For nearly twenty years, Swoon has illegally pasted and displayed her artwork throughout the city. She is highly revered as a street-art heroine in alternative art circles. However, in addition to her positive reputation among street artists, her work has been embraced among social elites and featured in galleries and museums. She has been commissioned to complete installations and featured galleries in both New York and other cities. In 2014, she featured a display titled Submerged Motherlands in the Brooklyn Museum. Despite Swoon’s street credit, her work has been embraced by institutions and elite art enthusiasts alike. She has received high accolades in many circles, funding to produce independent projects, and has not compromised her alternative style in her rise to fame.
Vandalism as art is not limited to the United States. Urban subcultures have of course emerged internationally, partly because of U.S. influence and partly for political reasons within different countries. Australia’s Anthony Lister is an international vandal on the list of artists whose style has transformed a criminally-associated form of art into a career. Lister is widely acclaimed for being a hero of street art. His artwork is noteworthy for its capacity to converge imagery from both traditional and popular culture sources into both painting and installation art. Contrary to Fairey and Swoon, Lister’s aesthetic accounts for spectatorship in a different way. Lister considers himself as the viewer of his own work. In this way, he prefers not to impose limitations his onlookers, believing they are equally capable of accessing his specific artistic vision.
Throughout his career, Lister has faced arrest, incarceration, and litigation for his street art. In 2016, Lister was accused of willful damages to five sites within his hometown of Brisbane. Of this case in particular, Lister has defended that his non-commissioned urban artwork should be considered a gift to the city, offering a gratuitous means of beautifying otherwise ugly, graffiti-coated urban spaces. Eventually, Lister was acquitted of criminal charges, and the magistrate responsible for his case even thanked him for his contributions to the city.
From Lister’s case surface important questions and conversations regarding the law and its interpretation as to what is deemed as art. From Lister’s perspective, the law categorizes any kind of non-commissioned street art as outright defacement and vandalism. Nonetheless, if the surface upon which an artist expresses his work is already defaced and the intention of the artwork is for the betterment of the space, how can that artwork be considered a crime?
Lister’s artwork is respected throughout the globe. In addition to having a permanent display in Australia’s National Gallery, Lister has held exhibitions in Melbourne, Los Angeles, and New York. His artwork has also received attention in international publications and publicly-commissioned projects worldwide.
Urban art does not intentionally aim to corrupt the acclaim of traditional high-end art, but it is by medium a disconcerting genre. The fact that street art is so publicly visible increases access to this alternative artform. As such, it’s logical that traditional institutions, museum culture, and the law would see it as a threat and even a criminal offense.
Fairey, Swoon, and Lister each has garnered an audience, attention, and subcultural acclaim for their bold attempts to implement their specific visions. Nevertheless, despite their accolades, they are still viewed by the especially ignorant as notorious city vandals who deface public property and dodge run-ins with the law.
In the end, their successes, like all art, are based on risks and experimentation. Consequently, these heroes of the streets should be celebrated for pushing art forward and provoking important philosophical conversations about the meaning and value of art in itself.