The Street Art Movement: Vandalism to Urban Art

It began as vandalism, but now is considered a flourishing art movement.

Street art has not always been widely considered a valid form of artistic expression.  Perceptions of the art form have changed dramatically over the last century, garnering respect within the art form.  Instead of solely popping up as visual pollution on the sides of train cars and on sides of buildings, street art is now making appearances in museums and art exhibits across the world.

In its early beginnings, street art was known as graffiti, the work of New York gangs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Spray paint designs were originally featured on subway cars or public walls, targeting less accessible locations for the most impressive artwork.

Early New York Subway Graffiti, 1973-1975. Harlem, New York.

Street art was greatly popularized in the late 60s and 70s, but was still generally looked down upon in affluent neighborhoods and political arenas because of the artform’s close association with gang culture.  Over time, however, the street art became a more of a “democratic” form of art.  It began representing various aspects of the culture of 80’s youth; the artform was increasingly featured as a symbol of hip hop and as political commentary.  By the end of the 20th century, the street art movement had increased dramatically in versatility and complexity, with the introduction of stencils, artistic collaboration, and installations.  The artform was being used to create elaborate murals and meaningful socialpolitical commentaries in public spaces.

Today, street art is an global movement, featured in a number of notable museum exhibits.  “Street Art” at the Tate Modern in London was an exhibit in 2008 that featured the work of six international artists, their work publicly featured on the outside of the Tate Modern building.

Artwork on the outside of the Tate Modern by JR of child wielding video camera like a gun, acting as social commentary. Tate Museum, London.

Urban Nation, opened on September 16th 2017, is located in Berlin and is now the first major institution dedicated to archival of street art and graffiti.  It now features over 100 of the most famous street artists working today.

Work of DabsMyla, Australian couple on the facade of Urban Nation, Berlin. Project M/4. Urban Nation Berlin (photo © Henrik Haven)

Overall, the artform has changed dramatically in general perception of the art, as well as the versatility of the art itself.  It is now being featured in a number of spaces.  There remains discourse about this art as vandalism versus legitimate use of public space.  As a whole, however, street art has definitely gained traction in the art world and is on its way to becoming wildly recognized as an acceptable form of social expression through art.

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About the Author

Chiamaka Okonkwo is a freshman at UNC Charlotte and a volunteer for Sanskrit Literary Arts Magazine. She is pursuing a major in biology and a minor in public health. She enjoys spending her free time reading, exploring, and playing Tetris.