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When Street Art Lost Its Mojo

What once began as a transgressive culture born out of a disdain for mainstream artistic channels now thrives in the very world it once rebelled against, writes Mariana Podesta-Diverio.

Graffiti has leapt off the streets and into art galleries across the globe, carving out a place of its own in a world once notorious for its institutionalised conventions and predominantly unattainable prestige. The importance of graffiti artwork once lay in its accessibility, colourful transformation of public space and the freedom it offered artists outside exclusive cultural channels. The once-rustic charm of the murals, stencils and wheat pasted posters that simultaneously won hearts and wreaked havoc amongst urban building owners has started to fade into a glossy, sanitised world of “safe” art, designed to please even the most highly refined of cultural tastes.



But graffiti isn’t the only kind of art susceptible to a dilution of quality. Bastions of elite culture, like orthodox artwork, have a way of being watered down to a level attainable to the masses. We now have whole markets dedicated to the production of famous graphics that once had tremendous value in art history.

Think about the images you were flooded with last time you passed a poster shop in Newtown or visited a tacky suburban pub. The Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s trademark works have been mass-produced to the point where they have lost all meaning and warrant a closer inspection, as well as an analysis of the art’s work in context, in order to garner an appreciation for the piece itself rather than the value it brings to another kitchen wall or bed-and-breakfast guest room.

It’s worth acknowledging that this barrage of kitschy carbon copies of cultural icons interestingly ends up having a trend merit of its own (think of Raben cloth shoes – a design appropriated from traditional South American footwear, commonly referred to as ‘Alpargatas’). Unfashionable things have a way of being taken into the stride of transgressives and conformists alike.

However, is it still true that legitimate and “successful” art will always be dominated by talented individuals who can brandish their work with a flair that inadvertently meets the most stringent of aesthetic standards? Surely the culture that emerged as a reaction to conformist artistic mediums is impermeable to pollution by conservative expectations?

Art supplies like oil paint, canvases and easels were traditionally available only to the middle and upper classes. Nowadays, almost every discount and department store boasts a wide range of different arts and crafts supplies. Although the quality is often incomparable to that of high-end paints and brushes, these supplies fulfil a purpose and cater to a market that is wider and more inclusive than ever before. Aficionados and rookies alike can now take to canvases in a world where tawdry endeavours in the name of art are taken way too seriously to retain legitimacy outside of the insular groups that produce them.

Considering this, it’s almost a miracle that graffiti has even made it into the 21st century without suffering a gentrified, watered-down demise until now. By its very nature, graffiti has traditionally boasted an incredibly high level of visibility in comparison to orthodox, gallery-restricted art. Graffiti has subverted conventional paradigms by freely using public space as a medium for expression rather than constraining itself to the sheltered indoor sphere where orthodox art thrives.
The political outrage, the passionate expression and colourful experimentation that has garnished the streets of Newtown for years was once an protest with meaning that went deeper than the words and images employed by stencillers and wheatpasters. These days, thanks to the dilution of meaningful street art, we have to question what it really stands for. Although the passion of artists is still very much alive, it’s become a mere attraction in a sea of overpriced op-shops and trendy pubs. A colourful, sprawling addition to the crumbling Hub. A photo opportunity.

In recent times the only piece of Sydney graffiti that has been capable of inciting public debate drew from Islamophobia in an extremely controversial attempt to convey meaning. Will the survival of meaningful street art be contingent on the continued pushing of boundaries? Graffiti was always meant to be about overturning acceptable norms, but where will the line be drawn? Perhaps society has a way of siphoning off the best street artists and slowly transporting them into the world of orthodox mediums like gallery space. Ironically, what’s happening is that the ‘best’ artists are the ones that end up with exhibitions and an ability to live off  their craft, should they choose to do so.

British street artist Banksy, who rose to fame with impeccable anonymity and a trademark stencilling technique, is possibly the most well-known and most referenced case of a graffiti artist ‘selling out’. The notorious artist that once relied on the sides of run-down buildings, billboards, and sewers as canvases has recently seen some of his works being auctioned for small fortunes. The most expensive Banksy piece ever sold clocked in at almost AUD $160,000.

The mainstream success of graffiti has created a market for spray paint that would have never before survived. Although spray paint is available in all hardware stores and many discount variety stores, high-end paints are now becoming increasingly available for the wider public. AVT paints, the manufacturers of Ironlak, was founded in 2002 and controls a respectable slice of the Australian market for these once-unorthodox art supplies.

Ironlak, as well as other high-end paint brands like Montana and Molotow are available in a very select number of retailers across the country – one of which is Newtown’s own 567, which is somewhat of an institution in the local street art community. 567 sells an immense range of art-specific paint, but a single can of Montana Gold can set you back more than ten dollars. Needless to say, if you intend on purchasing more than a few cans, or even buy paint online, it becomes a very costly endeavour. Perhaps the world that was once so accessible is becoming more exclusive and unattainable to the people who would have thrived in its mediums and accessibility prior to the commercialisation of street art.
It’s fair to say that all of this was inevitable, but has street art now crossed an unforgivable boundary?