Making Illegal Art Work

Seen and Unseen

JR, the French street artist who was the topic of my last column, represents one extreme of the street art spectrum. He works with communities, orchestrates planned, large-scale, universally celebrated works, and wins huge cash prizes. On the other side of the spectrum, there are street artists, like Kidult, who work on the fringes of communities or against communities, provoke general  revulsion, and get arrested.

Kidult’s huge tags­—he uses fire extinguishers as spray paint cans—across the storefronts of expensive brands like Agnés B. and Colette protest their use of graffiti-style designs on their expensive products. These tags triumphantly reclaim graffiti as a purely political act, and not simply a visual trope. In an interview with Highsnobiety, Kidult asserted that graffiti is destructive and illegal, and essentially so: “If graffiti becomes legal, I’ll stop.” He sees the visual motifs of graffiti as indivisible from their history of individual action and rebellion. Kidult’s strict sense of artistic ownership stands in contrast to the anarchic freedom of his medium—and in fact he borrows from the visual language of fashion magazines in his posters, if only to twist them into the grotesque.

A project by the Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh makes a strong argument for a different form of unsanctioned street art. He and his friends dumped gallons of purple, green, red, and yellow paint on a busy Berlin intersection, and the cars driving through the paint tracked it in all directions, making a massive painting. Iepe used water-soluble paint to ensure minimum destruction to the cars and the street—but he and his accomplices still made a quick escape and waited a year and a half before revealing themselves to the public.

The project highlights the quotidian processes of an intersection by forcing participation onto passersby, making a call to awareness of one’s commute as well as a map of the intersection’s most common paths. The internet reaction has not been entirely sympathetic (“If that shit splattered on my car’s paint I’d be pissed,” wrote one commenter on Blueline.ca), but the project’s very obtrusiveness creates the image and its meaning.

One of the most beautiful pieces of street art ever—a street performance, not a painting—is “Kolotoč/Merry-Go-Round” by four Czech artists, Vojtěch Fröhlich, Ondřej Mladý, Jan Šimánek and Vladimír Turner. They climbed a three-sided, rotating billboard by the side of a highway, and hung down three rope swings from the corners, which they then mounted, spinning in slow circles like a carnival ride. (Their wonderful video documentation can be viewed on Vimeo). The performance has a post-apocalyptic deadpan silliness: The artists carry limp pink balloons as they slowly circle above the highway, swinging their legs back and forth like overgrown children. But its real power is in the work’s transformation of a lifeless suburban space into a playground—and its daring and scrappy creativity. Though less damaging than Kidult or the intervention in Berlin, “Koloteč” comes from the same tradition. Its repurposing of a billboard and a manmade wasteland forms an oblique protest.

One final example is Mobstr, whose stenciled texts cheekily engage with the anti-graffiti authorities. He defaces a white wall with energetic swaths of blue and yellow, and writes “Come on paint me white again.” He documents another series on one stretch of gray wall. “Is this shade of grey acceptable?” he writes first, which some anti-graffiti authority paints out. “Obviously not. How about this shade?” he writes in a lighter grey, which again is painted out. “Or this one?” comes next, which is again erased. Finally he writes, “I give up.” Looking at the series, you wonder if the person charged with graffiti removal even noticed what it said.

Mobstr, like Kidult and the Czech artists, is mainly concerned with advertising, which is graffiti’s perpetual competitor for visual dominance of the streets. In one piece, Mobstr puts up a sandwich board on a city street that says, “I’ve forgotten what I am supposed to be advertising.” Like all of Mobstr’s work, the piece restricts itself visually to grayscale and stenciled capitals. Though Mobstr’s antagonistic attitude resembles Kidult’s, he opposes graffiti’s traditional aesthetic, and so represents the exact opposite of the high fashion brands who pick the graffiti aesthetic without the message.

Taken together, Kidult’s combative defacement, Rubingh’s employment of unwitting crowds, the Czech artists’ poetic repurposing, and Mobstr’s direct engagement all make use of street art’s status as a fringe activity by making transgression essential to their message—working without permission, without funding, and always with a goal of pushing people’s awareness of their environment.

—Columnist Molly E. Dektar can be reached at mdektar@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags