Many people complain that street art detracts from a community and cite it as a main influence in rising crime rates and subsequent vandalism, but what happens when so-called vandalism actually benefits a neighborhood? Is it no longer crime? Could it actually be a good thing? The non-profit organization TED, a self proclaimed bastion of "ideas worth spreading," which hosted a conference in Boulder this past August, seems to think so.
According to Gawker.com, the 27-year-old French street artist JR was recently awarded a TED grant to the tune of $100,000 in order to "change the world." Presumably for the better.
TED, a philanthropic organization in the truest sense of the word, hosts conferences all over the world in which innovators in the fields of technology, design and the arts give talks concerning the evolution of the human race, from how we experience music to ways we can communicate better on a global scale. The organization also gives annual grants to game-changers in those fields. Now, an NGO at the center of the discussion on human potential is supporting and praising graffiti. Are they onto something? Can street art actually benefit the people of the city in which it exists?
JR primarily works in second and third world slums, pasting massive photos of the slum's residents onto the sides of buildings. He has also worked on the wall between Jerusalem and Palestine -- a socially-conscious-street-art hot spot -- to highlight the struggles of the Palestinian people. Through the Internet, his artwork not only gives a human face to some of the most poor and troubled areas in the world, which in turn influences humanitarian aide to those places, but it also makes those places more livable for their enhanced beauty. Who doesn't want gallery-quality art to look at in the social sphere? Right now, mostly all we get in public art is art approved by government officials with bottom lines.
Fellow famed street artist Banksy has been raising property values on buildings he has "defaced" for some time now. A pub in Liverpool has doubled in value due to a large rat painted on its exterior. In fact, his artwork has been accused of single-handedly gentrifying entire neighborhoods in the U.K. Banksy wall paintings have been covered in Plexiglas to preserve them from detractors who fear the gentrification.
How ironic that the powers that be fear a crumbling of the social order through graffiti, when in reality some of the same art that is considered graffiti in the eyes of the state is creating opportunities for business and philanthropy the world over. Case in point, an eye hospital in the U.K. is auctioning off the small portion of its exterior containing a Banksy rat to raise money for charity. According to the UK Times, the final bid is expected to be upward of five thousand pounds.
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Of course, not all graffiti is worthy of such praise, and ultimately it should be the property owners' decision to embrace or prosecute people who paint on their buildings -- but there's no question that the potential value of street art brings up the oft debated question: What is art? What should be allowed in the public sphere? What is the difference between art and vandalism? And who gets to decide? When the law has a wholesale ban on vandalism and considers street art a crime punishable by fines of thousands of dollars or years in prison, far fewer people will want to contribute. If the law decides, we get little to nothing. If the people decide, we could get something wonderful.
One thing that street artists know is that their work is far less likely to be destroyed if they paint in places where regulation is low, or nonexistent, and where their work will be seen as an improvement. Street art in places like Bolivia and Cambodia tends to make already dilapidated buildings better looking, rather than the opposite. Hence the ubiquity of street art in second and third world countries where police don't have the wherewithal to adequately enforce anti-graffiti laws.
Most of us only get to see this great art because of the Internet, but perhaps now that graffiti is becoming lucrative to property owners, we will see more of them embracing the art form. I'm with TED. I am looking forward to seeing how street art can bring about positive social change in poor countries and (hopefully) make my afternoon walk more interesting. I want to be pleasantly surprised by a massive mural of someone peering out at me from an alleyway, and I don't want to have to go to South America to get it.