The Morning News – 2005

Roundtable: Street Art

The following is an excerpt from a roundtable discussion on street art published in the online journal, The Morning News. The other artists were: Swoon, Michael DeFeo, Patrick of Faile, and The Wooster Collective. The interviewer was Pitchaya Sudanthbad.

In the interest of brevity I’ve included just my answers to the questions. To view the entire article, go to:

By night and by day, invisible hands are reclaiming the walls of New York City. They work quickly and are gone before anyone can notice. What they leave behind is art, if not, an artful message. The prints, stencils, stickers and other objects wait for discovery by a passing pedestrian-perhaps a woman walking a dog, perhaps a sales clerk on his way to night school-but unlike everything else that decorates our public space, these communications are not hawking the latest shoes or the newest low-carb beer.

Street art is many things. It is a resistance against the notion that only paid-for corporate advertising can take hold in our visual commons. It is pubic playfulness. It is a gift, a knowing nod, to those who notice.

Street Art is often confused with graffiti, but street artists often use mechanical reproduction methods from formal art-school training — printmaking, silk-screening, even sculpting— to carpet bomb walls, in contrast to the immediate, almost painterly methods of spray-can based graffiti artists. In this way, street art has survived and proliferated in the face of police crackdowns. It has adopted the mechanisms of advertising culture to remain elusive, widespread, and relevant.

The street art movement has reached a point where it has entered global popular culture. More and more people now participate in street art, not just in New York, but in places like London, Berlin, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro, just to name a few cities. There are magazines and art galleries devoted to street art. Even some large corporations have noticed, and are looking at using street art as a way to reach a young and design-conscious demographic.

Question 1
In the touchstone book Taking the Train, Joe Austin described how in the booming years of graffiti, the word “street” had become associated with urban crisis: crime, poverty, and disorder. What does the word “street” in street art mean to you right now?

Street art for me has always meant freedom from my artist’s game—galleries, the career machine, all that frustrating, soul sucking bullshit. Going out on a street mission is my unsupervised playtime—no responsibility, no expectations, no need to worry about the artwork’s life outside that moment.

Question 2
The Wooster Collective brought up a good point about the availability of information in street art circles, especially in light of the internet. What have been some effects of this connectivity, considering cultural, political, and economic differences around the world? Is there also a negative side effect? What has your international experience been like?

I’ve made lots of international contacts through my web site. There’s no question that the internet is why street art’s the huge rockin’ scene it is today. And full credit goes to the Wooster Collective for doing a tireless and magnificent job of shepherding us all along. They light a fire daily.

Street art and graffiti has its roots in rebellion; it’s a medium for the marginalized; by nature it threatens the status quo. With the advent of the internet and cheap digital sampling technology, and with parallel developments in music and skater-low brow culture, and then, with George Bush ramming his fascist agenda down the world’s throats…street artists are speaking up. Or so it seems—if you believe what you see on the internet.

Anyway, God bless the internet. It may be our only hope.

The negative side effect of all this is that now that street art is so in fashion, I gotta say it (sorry, folks), it’s inevitably got to go out of fashion.

Question 3
One thing about street art is that its images have entered popular consciousness and have become pretty market-friendly. I recently talked to the street artist Abe Lincoln Jr., who pointed out that street art has roots not only in graffiti, but also in the wheat paste posters and stickers of punk and skateboarding culture. We’ve seen what has happened with these cultures as commercial interests take hold. Still, artists have to make a living. How are you balancing this? Can artists really separate the art that’s in the street and the art that’s on a coffee mug?

I’ve never had much luck making a living from my street art. Usually I just about break even. I have to admit I still have a deep-seated prejudice that if I did hit the cash and prizes the quality of the work would suffer. But that’s me. Early on, in my formative art school/noise band years, the rebellion of the day was punk, a kind of knee-jerk/fuck-off/no-sell-out programming that’s been a hard mind-set for me to break out of. Back then, aggressively merchandising something like your nihilist noise band or your high risk street art was considered suspect. Commercial success was by definition compromising and signaled a lack of integrity. With my easel paintings, it’s always been clear, they’re products, they come from the heart and if I’m lucky they’re gonna be sold to rich people. No conflict. It pays for my street stuff.

This is what I think: Making a living off your art’s about the coolest thing a person can do in this culture. These days I’m totally at ease with the idea of artists making any kind of art and merchandising it or whatever and making their living off of it. If art is a mirror to ourselves, our society, and the artists who market themselves successfully are the ones that survive and are the most influential, then that seems like a pretty honest reflection of our times—of what we value.

Let’s face it: the history of art, the canon of great artists isn’t about the very best artists, it’s about the ones who were best at adapting and surviving. For better or worse, it’s the ones who make the great work AND who get it out there AND who can negotiate success AND can survive success AND can still make original work…etc., these are the artists that make it into the popular consciousness. The incredible and lovely thing about the internet revolution is that it makes networking so much easier, so much more about the quality of the work than the quality of your connections.

Question 4
Lastly, where do you think street art is heading? Not that I expect anyone to have a crystal ball, but how might you imagine your own work in ten years or more?

If you’d asked me ten years ago if I thought I’d still be doing street art, I problably would have answered no, or I doubt it. For most of the artists I started out with-Basquiat, Haring, et al-street art was a rebellious phase they went through on their way to other things—which, honestly, was how I assumed I’d proceed. I mean, it’s a pretty standard career transition. It’s not just that graffiti and street art are traditionally a younger person’s game, but also it’s hard work, it’s dangerous, and one needs to maintain a precarious kind of punk optimism to keep going back out there year after year. If it’s not the cops or other bad guys chasing you, there’s the dirt and squalor. If the low to no compensation doesn’t bother you, then there’s always the sad reality that your work is so damned vulnerable—that it’s so instantly perishable.

But I keep going back out there for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I love it (especially the squalor). The point, though, is that ten years ago I would have been wrong about assuming that I’d have quit. So I’m not even going to try and answer about ten years from now.

As for the future of street art—or anything else for that matter—I have to say, this also isn’t really my topic. I’m trying to force myself to come up with something worthwhile, but to be honest, I rely on others for insight on these things. It seems obvious that cheap easy digital printing is going to have an impact on the volume of stuff people put out, and I’m hoping that the continuing disenfranchisement of growing numbers of creative types throughout the world’s gonna get them mobilized, but how they’re gonna be doing it, how it’s gonna manifest itself out there, is something that my poor brain, so addled by years of sustaining that precarious punk optimism, isn’t capable of predicting.

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