Has Street Art Sold Out?

The Internet has undoubtedly made street art more accessible, widely viewed and more popular. Many people argue that the same accessibility has encouraged the commercialism of street art, as now we see artists collaborating with corporations, business establishments and being exhibited in galleries and auction houses.

Even accused of succumbing to commercialisation is infamous UK-based graffiti artist, Banksy. On his archived website he featured a Frequently Asked Questions page where one person wrote, “Why are you such a sell out?” Banksy responded, “I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that.”

What some people see as ‘selling out’ or becoming too commercialised, others see as an appreciation by a bigger audience.

Though what one needs to bear in mind is the question: how has the coverage of street art through online and print media affected this art movement?  It’s a tricky question, and one that can’t be answered with a fixed “yes” or “no”. Street art has transformed a lot in the last decade due to the power of social media, and has quickly gone from being observed as vandalism – an act that brought about notoriety – to a movement where in 2014 £250 million of street art were dealt.

Street art has become a somewhat hybrid of both graffiti and fine art where it takes on a number of mediums such as printmaking, posters, sculpture and murals. However, since Street art became a mainstream phenomenon many artists have taken to the galleries and collaborated with businesses. Where now, many artists encounter being a called ‘sell outs’ because they aren’t sticking to the true graffiti ethos which is the illegal act of painting.

Street artist DAleast – Photograph taken by Chelsea Kunhardt

In an interview with Durban-based street artist Mook Lion, he explains the commercial nature of street art where in his opinion, “‘real’ street art and graffiti…if its done illegally…its never going to be… a commercial thing.”

Yet, with that said, street art has become an ever-changing medium and still remains rebellious in nature as it doesn’t abide or follow the old conventions of graffiti. What many people need to realise is that when graffiti first covered the worlds alleyways and walls, it had no rules. The movement didn’t listen to anyone, not to mention conform to particular methods. So why should street art stick to a set of conventions? Well they don’t. The medium, genre, form and movement is shifting everyday.

In any case, the internet has allowed this art movement, something that was once considered the furthest thing from art, to become one of the most revolutionary movements of all time. Which, of course brings popularity and commercial success. The internet succeeded in making street art a viral trend, where the movement received so much global recognition that it is now seen as one of the biggest forms of urban rejuvenation.

Social media and the internet has opened up many doors and is continuing to do so; enabling these artists to make a living off their art. Mook Lion states that social media like Facebook has made it easier for him to be an artist as he is able to share his work, and subsequently receive, “a lot of jobs”.

Mook Lion states that many of these jobs are commercial where he, “paint[s] murals for businesses, companies and shit like that… [it] pays my bills and sustains me so that I can continue doing the ‘real’ street art which operates completely out of the capitalist system and that’s the really powerful stuff”. He agrees that the media has certainly assisted the growth of street art.

Though the commercialism of street art has instigated art galleries and auctions wanting profit from the ‘next big thing.’ Street artists like Banksy have had a number of exhibitions and auctions. Take, for example, the occurrence when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie spent over £1 million for a Banksy artwork in 2007. Banksy isn’t alone though, there are many artists who are now selling their works in galleries and auction houses for hefty prices. This has instigated some controversy with the street art community as street arts purpose is public and by placing it inside not only privatises it but causes it to lose authenticity.

When I asked Mook Lion what his thoughts where on the topic of street art being placed in a gallery he seems taken back and says, “you can never…you can’t…its never going to be the real thing…as soon as its in a gallery its no longer street art.” He thinks that the only way to exhibit street art in a gallery, “is to exhibit documentation of street art.” For instance, video or photographic documentation.

Many artists reject the idea of exhibiting in galleries as they see it as “selling out” and killing the movement. Take, for instance, a Brazil Pichação crew who broke into the Choque Cultural Gallery in 2008 and vandalised the art shown and the gallery. They tagged the walls in script and scribbles, protesting against the “marketing, institutionalisation and the domestication of street art by the galleries and media”.

So while some artists are still very much against commercialisation of street art there are also many that use their profits from street art to sustain themselves and to gain funds for more personal and conceptual pieces that resonates with them.

An interesting result of commercialised street art that Mook Lion raises, is the phenomenon of gentrification, “For example Woodstock, an area that becomes more trendy because of its murals…and then what happens is the property value increase and the people that have been living there for a long time can no longer afford the rent [so] they are pushed out.”

Internet has increased street arts popularity and popularity is something that comes with its downfalls and successes. What one needs to realise is that the increased popularity of street art is unquestionably going to bring increased commercialism.

Because while street art’s goal is about making difference through conceptual art. The worlds philosophy is all about profit-making.





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