My Documentary Research paper discusses three aspects of street art which I find are crucial: the history, the stigma, and the impact. I conducted three interviews: two with local street artists, Fernando Amaro and Maggie So, and one with street art curator Cherri Lakey. Using the information I got from these interviews and other secondary sources, I was able to piece together a cohesive paper. My first order of business was to inform the reader about the history of street art; its origins, popularity growth, etc. But with the popularity comes some social stigma, with people saying that street art is detrimental to the society. Although this is a documentary paper, I attempted to shine a better light on street art, showing reasons why street art is actually beneficial to the communities.
He(art) of the Street
A sudden hiss breaks through the silence. As the city of New York wakes up from its slumber, a hooded figure dances and weaves along a train car, rattling the spray can in his hand. He pauses underneath the rising sun, scanning the battered metal carriage. The chirping of birds and the honks of bustling cars can be heard starting up within the city. The figure begins.
Hiss! Crackle! Pause. Hiss! Crackle! Hiss! Crackle! Pause. This continues as the figure expertly alternates between cans, the car gradually coming alive with vivid colors and vibrant faces. The figure looks up when he hears a shout from the other side. He runs, his pounding heart deafening his ears. He hears footsteps kicking away the gravel behind him. As he approaches another train car, he slides under the carriage as he hears a voice cursing behind him, trying to find a way to get to him. The man then walks out into the rising sun of New York city, searching for another wall to tag.
During the early stages of writing this paper, I struggled with defining what my motives were for choosing street art specifically; what was the actual purpose? Why didn’t I just choose art in general? What makes street art stand out from everything else? I went back and forth while outlining this paper, talking about the individual processes of street artists, to the social stigma of street art, and back to individual processes, and so forth. I eventually found the perfect balance between all aspects.
Art has always been a staple in human culture. Throughout the ages, many forms of art have been able to define and characterize their creators and their places of origin. Music can capture the essence of a culture, paintings can replicate the beautiful scenery of a town, and poetry can emulate the emotions of its writer to its reader. Street art captured my interest purely due to the meaning that its creators have discovered from it. Much like rock in the 1950’s, street art was something that the “weird kids” did. Street art was an art form that, for the first time in urban USA’s history, was not considered real art and scorned upon by many, especially the older generation. Street art was often looked down upon, especially by older, more traditional members of society; it was viewed as “vile” and “dirty”, and disregarded as an art form as a whole.
Before we get into the intricacies of modern street art, it’s important to understand its roots and origin. Street art was originally known as graffiti art or “tagging”. Tagging was initially introduced in Philadelphia in the 1960’s, when graffiti artists, “Cornbread” and “Cool Early”, started to use black markers to tag their names on public property. This practice was viewed with controversy and received many complaints from the local residents, eventually leading to the arrest of Cornbread. Upon being released from the county jail after a few months, he began tagging once again. As this gained traction, Cornbread’s infamous acts of defiance led him to become one of Philadelphia’s most well known artists both then and now. The popularity of tagging really began to skyrocket when artist “Topcat-126” hit the streets of New York City with his own art (Invaluable) Topcat combined his nickname and address number in his tagging “signature” and other artists began to do the same.
The taggers from Philadelphia and New York had a lot in common, despite originating from different states. They were all bold and creative, but also young and poor, with limited choices of how and where to spend their free time during a time of increasing gang violence. “Now, in the 80’s to the 90’s, this was when we saw a lot more people start to open up to diversity,” Cherri Lakey, an owner of a street art gallery in San Jose, recalls. Despite cultural diversity becoming more normalized, the perspective on public street art remained generally negative, and was not yet supported widely enough to be considered “art.”
The art form of graffiti was meant to be transgressive, meaning that it was created to combat and alienate the power of commercialism and government infrastructure (Ehrlich). Street art was viewed as a negative staple to society at the time. However, it served many benefits. The art itself created a creative outlet for the disenfranchised groups of the city to convey their dissatisfaction with society, which at the time did not serve the socioeconomically disadvantaged much justice and aid (Invaluable) .
Street art has evolved immensely from its beginnings. What was once considered vandalism has now become a lot more urbanized and socially acceptable. During the early 1980’s, the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) started to hang up advertisements with famous celebrities berating taggers. Hector Camacho and Alex Ramos, two of New York’s prized boxers, say on a poster, “Take it from the champs, graffiti is for chumps” (Time). Unsurprisingly, this did not help the matter. Following this, around the middle of the 1980’s, the CCP (Clean Car Program) cleaned up the subway cars from all graffiti. This proved to be very successful, with subway cars now being guarded by police. Restriction on paint sales were created, including an 18 year age restriction on buying paint from stores. Although short-lived, the era of subway graffiti is still an iconic one to the citizens of New York and the street art community, because of how it has paved the way for innumerable artists to step forward and create their own art. At the turn of the 21st century, we began to see the public gradually open up to street art. Street art galleries began to get set up, where they would hold shows and showcase the beautiful portfolios of the street artists. This opened up a lot of doors for young artists and also provided a new perspective to the community that had once considered street art to be detrimental to society. This created a better image for street art; one that would be considered socially acceptable by a more diverse demographic.
Fernando Amaro, a local street artist in San Jose, has been in the streets of San Jose tagging ever since the young age of 16. He discusses this by saying, “You know, when you are living in San Jose at the time, East San Jose to be more exact, there’s not exactly a lot of recreational activities that won’t get you in jail, addicted, or dead. So, for me, tagging was a way for me to physically or mentally escape my environment, even if I was still physically in the same place. I would feel a type of peace of mind” (Amaro). Amaro is one of the many examples of artists and young people who have utilized their art as an escape route from their tumultuous life style. He now lives with his daughter and girlfriend in San Jose and is a co-manager of Kaleid Art Gallery in San Jose Downtown, still occasionally working for the city of San Jose for art commissions.
Another person of interest was Cheri Lakey, an owner of a street art gallery named Anno Domini Art Gallery in downtown San Jose. Anno Domini was one of the first street art galleries to open up in the Bay Area at the turn of the 20th century. Lakey chuckles, “I’m no artist. Hell, I don’t know if I can even draw if someone put a gun to my head!” (Lakey) Despite her statement, she understood the importance of the art, and the cultural meaning it held to her. She and Brian Eder partnered up to create “their baby”, Anno Domini. They have worked with many artists such as David Cho, who created the now famous Facebook mural back in 2008, Shepard Fairey, the creator of the clothing brand OBEY and distinguished artist of former President Obama’s presidential campaign “Hope” Poster. Anno Domini is revered by many other gallery owners as the “OG!” (Amaro), which Cheri takes much pride in. She proudly says that her and Brian Eder were able to bring the spotlight on street art in the Bay Area.
One thing both Fernando Amaro and Cheri Lakey can say about the street art scene in the Bay Area is that it has brought immense happiness or, “positive vibes” as Fernando excitedly says, to the general population. With a growing art scene in the Bay Area, the communities are able to bond together and feel a sense of unity.
Time is passing, and the status quo is evolving. Cities all throughout the US are supporting this new movement of promoting art and propagating its artists. Some cities have even started to decriminalize graffiti. For example, San Francisco, California, has created a variety of programs to funnel the talent of young artists into beneficial activities and away from vandalism (although still acknowledging graffiti on public property as a crime). The approach was to use commissioned murals or other works of art to ornament buildings that would be taken down otherwise, which would cost more money.
Street art is also being used as a tool for gentrification in urban communities, which is often looked down upon in the art community. A common concern for street artists is that the original message behind their art will be overlooked by its new, practical uses (Hubbell). However, in hindsight, these works of art not only benefit the community’s outside appearance to the public, but it uplifts and encourages the spirit of the community, allowing the creators to collaborate and thrive through their art. Street art holds vastly different meanings and purpose for all people. In some cases, it’s a new form of expression, a creative outlet that holds no restrictions or boundaries. In other cases, street art has saved lives; it has provided a way out of violent communities and dangerous realities. People consistently discuss making the world a better place, being inclusive, and showing compassion towards anyone and everyone. Through conserving and nourishing the culture that street art has created, the life that it has created, we could be taking a step in the right direction. Street art isn’t about the beauty of the product, or the cleanliness of the result (So). Street art represents the best in all people, and that’s something that we must strive to hold onto.
“Sometimes we as artists get lost in our art, when at the end of the day, if my art makes ONE person’s day or a thousand… that’s all that matters. It’s all about bringing something positive to the table” (Amaro).