Street art and graffiti have undergone significant transformations in the 21st century, displaying evolved artistic styles and impacting social and political issues. Previously considered underground and rebellious, these art forms have gained widespread recognition as legitimate means of creative expression. Throughout their evolution, notable artists and movements have emerged, employing street art and graffiti to engage with various social and political concerns, pushing boundaries, challenging norms, and fostering public dialogues.
What do they mean?
The term “graffiti” originates from the Greek word “graphene,” meaning “to scratch, draw, or write.” Consequently, a broad definition includes all forms of inscriptions on walls. However, modern graffiti, often associated with hip-hop culture since the 1960s and 1970s, involves spray paint or paint markers. This particular aesthetic frequently employs bold colour choices, stylised abstract lettering known as “wildstyle,” and incorporates cartoon-like characters. Renowned photographer and author Nicolas Ganz differentiates graffiti and street art practices based on their “sociological elements.” Graffiti writers seek fame by spreading their tags through numerous pieces, focusing on quality and quantity. On the other hand, street artists operate with fewer rules, embracing a broader range of styles and techniques.
Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard describes the rapid proliferation of aggressive writing on urban walls as a symbolic destruction of social relations, signifying international rebellion. Stencils, also known as stencil graffiti, are frequently prepared in advance using paper or cardboard, then attached to the intended installation site with tape, allowing for easy spray painting and leaving behind the desired image or text once the stencil is removed. Street artists often favor stencils over freehand graffiti due to their quick installation process, minimising encounters with authorities. Stencils offer infinite reusability and allow for adding colours, details, and the illusion of depth through multiple layers.
Early on, artist John Fekner utilised stencils in 1968 to display textual messages on walls. Banksy, one of the most influential figures in contemporary street art, gained international acclaim for politically charged stencils and thought-provoking murals. Banksy’s works tackle diverse issues such as capitalism, war, inequality, and the surveillance state. Maintaining anonymity adds an air of mystery to his art, increasing its allure among collectors and art enthusiasts and solidifying his impact on the art world.
Shepard Fairey, another influential street artist, is renowned for his Obey Giant campaign and the iconic “Hope” poster created for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Fairey’s art employs bold imagery and political themes to challenge established power structures, inspiring social change. His work questions and critiques authority, consumerism, and propaganda, resonating with a broad audience and fostering vital discussions on critical issues.
Street art and activism
The Guerrilla Girls, a collective formed in the 1980s, continues influencing street art and activism significantly. Though their work predates the 21st century, their impact endures. Utilising provocative visuals and statistical data, the Guerrilla Girls address gender and racial inequality within the art world, leaving a lasting impression on contemporary street art.
Their works actively challenge dominant narratives, expose systemic biases, and advocate for greater representation and diversity within the arts. JR, a renowned French artist, has gained international recognition for his large-scale photographic installations in public spaces. His projects often focus on marginalised communities, giving voice to the unheard and prompting viewers to question social and political norms. By promoting empathy and fostering dialogue, JR’s artworks aim to bridge divides and emphasise the importance of human connection in our fragmented world.
Throughout the 21st century, street art and graffiti have become powerful platforms for activism and social engagement. Artists and movements worldwide employ these art forms to address pressing social and political issues, raising awareness, inspiring action, and challenging oppressive systems. Street art’s fluid and accessible nature allows artists to reach a diverse audience, transcending traditional boundaries and bringing their messages directly to the streets.
Environmental activism finds resonance within the street art and graffiti community as well. Artists like Blu, who emerged from the graffiti scene in Bologna, Italy, use their art to shed light on environmental degradation, deforestation, and the human impact on the planet. Through murals and installations, they serve as visual reminders of the urgent need for ecological consciousness and sustainability, motivating viewers to reflect on their environmental impact and take action.
Human rights and social justice issues have also been significant in street art and graffiti. For example, the global Black Lives Matter movement has inspired numerous artworks that amplify the voices and experiences of marginalised communities. Artists like Favianna Rodriguez, a Chicana artist and activist, create powerful murals and illustrations that challenge systemic racism, police brutality, and inequality, prompting critical conversations and forcing society to confront these deep-rooted issues.
Street art and graffiti have also been notable in addressing political unrest and revolution, as seen during the Arab Spring. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia, street artists were crucial in expressing dissent, criticising oppressive regimes, and fostering a collective sense of resistance that disrupts the ordinary urban environment. These interventions often challenge social norms, provoke thought, and question the status quo. By creating unexpected and thought-provoking installations, artists aim to jolt viewers out of their everyday routines and engage them in critical reflection.
Furthermore, street art has become a powerful tool for social activism and protest. Artists use their creativity to voice dissent, challenge oppressive systems, and advocate for change. Murals and graffiti become visual manifestos, rallying points for social movements, and expressions of collective resistance. By occupying public spaces and reclaiming them for self-expression, artists empower marginalised communities and demand justice and equality.
Street art and graffiti continue to evolve and adapt, reflecting the ever-changing social and political landscape. Artists push the boundaries of artistic expression, experimenting with new techniques, materials, and mediums. They engage with the public directly, provoking conversations and fostering community and shared experiences.
Another intriguing technique within street art is reverse graffiti, where artists create images by removing dirt from surfaces. This method draws attention to environmental concerns in urban areas, such as pollution. Artists like Moose, a British reverse graffiti artist, challenge viewers to confront their attitudes toward cleaning walls and personal expression.
Street artists also experiment with various media to create their artworks. Invader, for instance, adheres ceramic tiles to surfaces, recreating images from the iconic Space Invaders video game. Others utilise simple stickers, often displaying their tag or a graphic. Some artists invite audience participation, like Ji Lee, who pastes empty comic speech bubbles on advertisements, allowing passers-by to write their captions.
Street art and graffiti have undergone significant transformations in the 21st century. From being considered underground and rebellious, they have gained recognition as legitimate forms of artistic expression. Artists use these mediums to address social and political concerns, reclaim public spaces, challenge dominant narratives, and provoke thought. Whether through large-scale murals, stencil art, reverse graffiti or sculptural interventions, street art continues to shape and redefine the contemporary art landscape, inspiring change and sparking conversations that resonate with a diverse audience.
For example, in Dan Witz’s Third Man Series (2006), he cleverly installs gloves on sewer grates, creating the illusion of a person trying to escape from the sewer. These thought-provoking works often catch passers-by off guard, eliciting a double-take and challenging their perception of reality. The ever-evolving nature of street art and graffiti in the 21st century presents unique challenges for art historians and critics. The vast number of street artists and their inclination towards anonymity makes it difficult to delve deeply into the individual artists and their motivations.
Moreover, incorporating street art into the traditional art historical canon is a complex task due to its independent development outside established artistic movements. Nonetheless, the impact and influence of street art must be considered. It continues to inspire and be inspired by various artistic movements and styles, ranging from Pop Art to Renaissance Art, thereby shaping the contemporary art landscape.
In conclusion, street art and graffiti have undergone remarkable transformations in the 21st century. These art forms have transcended their underground origins to gain recognition as legitimate and valuable forms of artistic expression. Noteworthy artists and movements have emerged, utilising street art and graffiti as powerful means to engage with and comment on social and political issues. From Banksy’s politically charged stencils to Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant campaign, these artists have challenged power structures and spurred social change.
Street art and graffiti have become platforms for activism, addressing concerns such as the environment, human rights, and political unrest. Street artists persistently push boundaries, reclaim public spaces, and assert their cultural identities. Whether showcased in galleries or executed illicitly, street art and graffiti are essential in shaping contemporary art and fostering meaningful dialogues within our urban landscapes.