A investigation into the expressive art form, its purposes, and the effect of gentrification.
Over the last few decades, street art and graffiti have grown in popularity, taking a new center stage among what some consider traditional arts like painting, pottery, and sculpture. What was once considered gang art tied to violence has grown into a new evolving genre, with newfound appreciation and interest from many.
“There’s always something new and interesting to see,” Jeff Stirewalt said, founder of Brooklyn Unplugged Tours, a company dedicated to showcasing the authentically rich neighborhoods of in. One tour in specific lets people experience the incredible street art and graffiti sprayed across the NYC borough.
“You could always go out there, and there’s something new for you to see, just waiting somewhere in the streets,” Stirewalt said. “You don’t have to go far.”
Stirewalt has seen the art form grow in popularity over the years, its mysteriousness drawing people. Graffiti writing is, “When people go, and they make a nickname for themselves, that’s called their tag, and they spray that,” Stirewalt said. Street art is basically anything else from a sprawling mural to a design taped to the wall. “They’re not exactly the same, but they’re very similar to each other.” Brothers, in a way.
But what is the purpose of these sprayed designs and tags? “It’s totally wide open what someone can do with street art, you know, anything they want to express,” Stirewalt said. Graffiti and street art range from someone haphazardly spraying something random across the buildings of cities to artists who put time and care into their work. In a way, street art mirrors that of its “classic” counterparts by being open to endless possibilities. Art has no limit to its intentions, emotions, or messages, and street art and graffiti are no different.
But unlike their classical cousins, graffiti and street artists generally thrive on the adrenaline rush of unauthorization. “The core of graffiti writing is people doing it on purpose without permission,” Stirewalt said. “I’m not a graffiti writer, myself, but the thrill and the boldness, and the kind of outlaw nature of it is that they like the fact that it’s not allowed.”
Part of the beauty and uniqueness of this sprayed art is derived from its rebellious nature, artists filled with the rush of producing unmonitored, unapologetic pieces. There’s a reason vibrant murals and art coat places like Brooklyn. Buildings are not brick but empty canvases waiting to be used and transformed by the artist’s will. “The majority is still always going to be unauthorized,” he said. “But there’s a growing amount of the authorized kind.”
When it comes to authorization, Stirewalt says it depends on the place. Some cities have aesthetic rules requiring property owners who want street art on their buildings to submit proposals to be approved. Other places are a more informal conversation between owner and artist. The owner might seek artists to create something, or artists will come to them, and either be accepted or turned away. Authorized street art and graffiti is a growing market, yet the majority still, and might always, lie in unauthorized work, where an artist’s defiance and boldness are part of their craft.
Brooklyn is just one hub for street and graffiti artists, many inspired by its rich history and diversity. But as artists congregate and create, others follow, bringing gentrification, a wave that slowly washes away culture, like footprints in the sand. Ironically, much of the art which attracted wealthier residents suffers the most as urbanization moves in.
“Some of the murals, they were painted on walls that were kind of neglected, where the owner didn’t really care. It didn’t have much value. So, the owner said, “Yeah, sure, go ahead and make the mural,” Stirewalt said.
As wealth came, property value spiked, older buildings were demolished for sleek high-rises and storefronts. The murals once sprawled across them were nothing more than rubble. Stirewalt looks to Williamsburg as an example. “There were some really good murals that I think probably don’t exist anymore,” he said. “Before, they probably would have almost been one of the icons of the area.” It’s a sad irony to see the beauty of art by its own downfall.
Despite the growing worries of gentrification, street art and graffiti are still thriving in places like Brooklyn. Though new building projects destroy old murals and tags, new ones sprout in their wake, still sprawling loud and proud down neighborhood streets. Graffiti and street art are evolving, but as such a precarious medium, who knows what the future holds for street art, graffiti, and their creators.