It is now present on every continent, in every medium-sized city, in every wasteland, in the countryside and even in deserts.
Nothing equals street art in terms of progression and visibility. In fact, this movement, which began in the United States at the end of the 1960s, has continued to spread throughout the world.
Some countries are still relatively closed to this art and urban culture in general, but it is nevertheless visible there through denunciatory or protest graffiti, commissioned frescoes or pieces painted as vandals in the street.
Propaganda art vs. street art
In reality, totalitarian or autocratic countries, most of which are closed to free street art, have long used art as a propaganda medium. It is found in many regimes, such as North Korea, Vietnam, Belarus and China.
In these countries, artists paint gigantic frescoes to the glory of their principals, visible to the greatest number.
In both cases, public space is used for precisely the opposite causes. Free art against totalitarian art, free art that denounces what totalitarian art praises… Whatever the form, urban art covers all continents.
This powerful movement is reinforced by all the elements of street culture: fashion, music, and all the arts practiced in the street. These cultural trends are now massively conveyed on social networks, which tends to significantly increase their visibility and thus their expansion.
Although it is institutionalized in some cities, street art is still repressed in most of the world. This is certainly one of the driving forces behind this artistic movement. Indeed, this Bronx-bred, anti-establishment, gang-affiliated culture has contributed to the vandalism.
Street art and trains
Since the 1980s, a considerable number of urbanites in cities around the world have seen trains and subways targeted by graffiti artists, both inside and outside.
The graffiti comes in all sizes, depending on the amount of time the artists have to spend in the depots at night. Over the decades, municipalities and railway companies have set up brigades to prevent graffiti artists from painting.
Artists such as Azyle and the 1UP crew are, in their own way, representative today of the gigantic scale of these works covering entire trains.
The main reason why trains have been taken by storm is because of their ability to convey artists’ works. Indeed, the train is a simple means of reaching a wider audience in the stations and regions it passes through. American artists of the time had already grasped the challenge of visibility, long before the advent of social networks.
Despite the multiple possibilities offered today to present one’s work, trains and subways remain a historic means of expression. In addition to the taste for risk and the adrenaline necessary for the realization of the pieces, typing a train is a challenge for many graffiti artists and artists. This durability of action certainly plays a role in the perception of vandalism that has stuck to street art since its beginnings.
Urban art is gradually becoming institutionalized
At the same time, urban art has been entering a more institutional phase for years. Cities in industrialized countries have understood the importance of the movement and the need to work with artists rather than systematically opposing them.
For the most committed municipalities, it is even an opportunity to generate a new attractiveness, at different levels. Indeed, cities are now competing to attract talent and retain their inhabitants. The industrial exodus, a consequence of globalisation, has undermined many once prosperous cities, both in the United States and in Europe.
Industrial cities have been slow to renew themselves and move on from the boom years. Long focused on preserving the last jobs and hoping for a renewal that never came, these cities have lost their appeal. Suburbs have flourished, sometimes leading to the disappearance of historic city centres.
The most emblematic case of urban decay is Detroit, in the United States, which has suffered a massive decline, with the number of inhabitants being three times less today than at the city’s industrial peak in 1950.
The role of history
History has also played a role in the abandonment of entire urban areas. For example, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city was left with a disparity between the two former East and West parts that led to intense urban changes for almost 15 years.
Wars and conflicts in the world in the last century have often resulted in population displacement, forcing the restructuring of regions and cities affected by many abandoned or destroyed places.
At the extreme, this can mean the total closure of entire regions or cities, such as Chernobyl and the abandonment of the city of Pripyat, or the Fukushima region during the last nuclear accident.
Finally, mobility has continued to grow throughout the world. Faced with these movements, cities have had to reinvent themselves, promoting, among other things, urban culture and its arts. Industrial wastelands are gradually being transformed into new neighbourhoods reborn from abandonment. The dynamic is operating in most countries, where a massive influence of street art can be observed in medium to large cities.
Urban culture is leading to an economic revival of these revitalised neighbourhoods. Shops, businesses and services are developing. The increasing visibility and mobility of artists is part of this development. For example, the City Art tours are directly born from this increased visibility and favour local economic development.
Cities today are competing for the podium of attractiveness and there is no doubt that urban art is a preponderant element in the latter today.
This willingness of cities to sit down with associations and artists to create remodelled spaces together has encouraged an opening up to the reality of artists. Whatever their fame, they are still considered vandals and many remain in the shadow of their blazes. Some world-famous artists, such as Takashi Murakami or Shepard Fairey, are arrested and fined for painting murals on unauthorised walls.
This shows the persistent difficulties of this art form, which is both represented in galleries, auctions and museums, while being vandalised in the street and denigrated by a part of the population that does not consider it to be an art form in its own right.
This duality is also maintained by the “historical” rivalries between graffiti artists and muralists. While the former claim to be anti-system and intervene freely on all urban supports, the latter aspire to the increasing decoration of building facades, paintings requiring equipment and authorisations.
However, they should not be pitted against each other. In reality, graffiti artists and artists contribute to making our cities new spaces of expression and open us up to another form of thought.