The Street Art Revolution

Art by Guido Van Helten - Reykjavik, Iceland

Art by Guido Van Helten – Reykjavik, Iceland

Not long ago I had dinner with close college friends so we could bemoan the election results. All my friends were sure we were in for four years of bullshit, but I shared an idea that only recently had occurred to me:

What if the next four years also brings an explosion of incredible art?

As protest. As a means of speaking truth to power. As a vehicle for rage and outrage, solidarity and organizing, grief and hope and persistence.

Historically art has thrived under oppression. When artists have to scrape and work and struggle, art acquires depth and context. It becomes a sounding board for expression that becomes urgent and relevant. Give artists something to fight for or against—boundaries to exceed, trespass, or transgress—and we get better art.

For the last nine years, I’ve been working as a wardrobe supervisor on tour with Broadway musicals. I’m on the road 52 weeks a year and I don’t have a home. I live in hotel rooms and when I’m not working, I travel for fun.

For the first couple years of my touring life, I was a tourist. I made an effort to visit all the must-see places in every city. I ate at the hot restaurants and experienced the tourist attractions that made each city unique. This is “been there, done that” traveling—experiencing a city as a microcosm.

But nearly a decade on, I’m looking for a different kind of traveling. I want to see the world in a broader context. I want to find the things that unite us, particularly now when my home country feels so fractured, practically pulsating with outrage.

The great Paul Bowles says this: “I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

Untethered, perpetually homeless and belonging nowhere grants me an unusual perspective. I see a lot of the world. More than most people. And because of that, I notice and pay attention to things that most locals no longer see.

For the last two years I’ve been noticing, documenting, and contemplating the rise of street art across the nation and around the world. In every city I visit, I see huge, beautiful murals on public buildings, often funded by governments and massive corporations.

Art by Charley Harper - Cincinnati, OH

Art by Charley Harper – Cincinnati, OH

It feels like, rather suddenly, everywhere I look there are street art expos and fairs and celebrations and paintings and other forms of street art such as wheat paste, stencils, and stickers. It’s as if there were a cultural earthquake and myriad new public works of art are the aftershocks.

I grew up in an age when public (spray) painted art was called “graffiti”—a dirty word. Graffiti was found on buildings in “dangerous” neighborhoods, signifying gang territory. Municipal governments bonded together, seemingly unified in their hatred of graffiti art and its artists, labeling them vandals and passing legislation aimed at eliminating such defiant forms of artistic public expression.

These days, however, I see street artists everywhere expressing themselves publicly in staggeringly beautiful, powerful ways. And cities throughout the world are protecting, promoting, and funding their efforts, turning public, urban art into a boon rather than a bane.

Street art is ephemeral. It’s exposed to the elements and it fades and chips. People paint over it and build things that block it or demolish the buildings where the art lives. I love the transient aspect of this art form. For all the times that street art is a public roar of defiance and a statement of intent, it’s also quite delicate and disappears quickly.

Wheat paste Stick-Up - Chicago, IL

Wheat paste Stick-Up – Chicago, IL

I’m in a different city every week, and I’ve realized of late what an unusual lens this street art revolution affords me. Every city promotes different kinds of art and displays that art in a unique way. Some of the artwork is explicitly political in nature and some of it is utterly mystifying, yet each city contains street art treasures that say much about the spirit of the people who live there. In all my years of travel, street art is one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever discovered to experience a city.

Here’s an important caveat: I am never on the crest of the wave when it comes to trends or trendspotting. I’m late to every party in life and in the virtual world, so I am very aware that the artistic revolution I perceive has been happening for much longer than I’ve realized.

But I see it now.

It’s February and we’re more than a month into a new presidential administration and a commander-in-chief nobody knows how to handle. No one knows how much to protest and how much to sit tight and wait. And yet, there are many artists who have made up their minds, decided what to say and how to say it and art is exploding.

Everywhere.

Paul Bowles also says, “Before there can be change there must be discontent.”

Well, we’ve arrived. I can’t remember an age of discontent quite like this one. But with it has come change. Massive colorful powerful artistic change.

I want to explore these works of street art, document them, think about them, and remember them for posterity. I want to be a repository for this artistic roar and watch the echoes change the world long after the edifices on which they were created have crumbled and the artwork itself physically has disappeared.

Street art is changing the world as we know it. I’m going to start writing about the revolution here.

More to come.

Art by Natalia Rak - Providence, RI

Art by Natalia Rak – Providence, RI

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