The history of art began when primitive man first drew crude pictures on his cave wall. There were mature sex pictures everywhere and this is long before the awesome free mature tube. From those humble beginnings, art has evolved in the millennia since. From simple prehistoric paintings, it has given way to a myriad of eclectic styles, transcending and ascending, though perhaps attaining heights too far up for the common man to reach. That is, until the common man decided to make crude drawings on public walls. Bringing art back to the masses by bringing it back full circle, modern day street art is both an act of revolution and the next step in creative evolution.
Modern day street art breaks the rules of what most people perceive art to be, which is quite appropriate considering its origins can be traced to a criminal act. Graffiti had been ever present on the sides of buildings and boxcars in the United States since the early 20th century, particularly the 1920’s and ‘30’s. From street gangs marking their territory to social activists making their statement, it was the medium through which the voiceless voiced out their passions and pain. It was vandalism. It was a crime. But it would seem these early pieces of street art were illegal only by virtue of their artists’ choice of canvas. Otherwise, their impulses were not so different from those that drove the so-called legitimate artists.
One of the earliest icons of modern day street art was a bald-headed long-nosed man named Kilroy. During World War II, this cartoonish figure of a man peering over a wall, accompanied by the words “Kilroy was Here,” was seen left in various places where United States servicemen had been stationed. It was an image shrouded in enigma. Who was Kilroy? What did these drawings mean? They were doodles on walls, but they made one think, as any good work of art would.
But the true subculture of modern day street art began its formation during the 1960’s and ‘70’s – with New York City becoming the central hub of the so-called graffiti boom in America. It was a time of growing social and cultural awareness among the youth, and graffiti was the means with which they would express their angst and aspirations. The artists were getting bolder. In contrast to the nameless vandals of the past, these young upstarts left their tags, their signatures, onto their works. The eccentrically named likes of TAKI 183 and Tracy 168 became the streetwise da Vincis and Michelangelos of this new age.
As the graffiti movement grew, so did the art styles, from hastily sprayed markings to more intricate and elaborate murals adorning city walls and subway trains. One of the best-known examples of modern day street art is the Bowery Mural in Manhattan. Once a dilapidated wall until artist and activist Keith Haring made it his personal creative space in 1982, it would go on to become a haven for renowned street artists since then. In 2008, the wall was acquired privately and has since become an outdoor exhibition space available to artists on a commission or invitational basis only.
It has gotten to the point where modern street art has gained widespread appreciation and acceptance. While vandalism remains a crime, graffiti itself isn’t necessarily so, and has come to be recognized as a legitimate art form. Street artists would need not paint while looking over their shoulders for the authorities anymore, and sanctioned graffiti art would begin appearing in the mainstream. Spreading throughout the rest of the world, even the bastions of high-art in Europe have come to embrace this mode of urban low-art, with graffiti street art tours being conducted in cities such as Paris, London, Berlin, Hamburg and others.
But beyond spray-painted graffiti, modern day street art would take on other forms as well. Stencil Graffiti, for instance, is a variation that allows an artist to reproduce complex pieces at a quick rate. Other artists would use Wheatpasted Poster or Sticker Art as their medium. And then there is Street Instillation, which actually involves setting up a three-dimensional work of art in an urban environment.
Like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder, to be beheld even in the unlikeliest of venues. Truly, one cannot judge a painting by its canvas, whether it is on display in a prestigious museum or spray-painted on the side of a building. Art is no longer reserved for the elite alone. Modern day street art is Prometheus defying the gods to bring artistic fire back to mortal men.