During the last decade, street art has emerged as the latest trend in the artistic world and has soon become a controversial issue of discussion for anyone involved in the cultural dialogue.

The impetus with which it has sprung, alongside with the element of illegality that it usually involves, have provoked a torrent of reactions and have given rise to numerous legal or semi-legal questions, in an effort to delimit the phenomenon.

As an art form, street art has emerged through graffiti, the stylized letter composition also known as tagging, which flourished in the 1960’s Philadelphia. The contemporary phenomenon of graffiti, whose original form can be found in pre-historic cave paintings amongst the world, goes beyond the mere action of writing one’s pseudonym on the walls of the block. Often associated with gang related practices of marking territory or linked to the raise of the hip hop culture that flourished during the same time, graffiti has a long and disputable history, far more complex and socially interesting than the one it is usually attributed.

After the graffiti boom of 1980 in N. York however, different artworks begin to appear; artworks created outside the concept of street culture and not limited to artistically elaborate lettering. The shift from text-based works to visually conceptual ones marks the appearance of a new term as well. Despite the countless discussions on the topic, the definition of the term “street art” remains a challenging venture and seems to be fashioned in dependence to the views and objectives of each commentator, thus creating additional disputes. It is usually dissociated from the terms "graffiti", “post-graffiti” or “neo-graffiti” due to the negatively charged character that the word “graffiti” bears as explained above, as is from "public art", which in the mind of the many relates to state initiatives or commissioned projects.

wallsoffreedomWhat becomes evident to anyone researching this artistic movement is that the respective local community develops a significant level of involvement with the street art that features its walls. The reactions may vary from rejection of street creations to appraisal and incorporation in the tradition and historic course of the place. One of the most evident examples of the said attitude is the events related to Banksy’s artwork Slave Labour that in 2013 was removed from its place and sold at an auction. In this case, the local community was largely activated; it protested and fought against the removal of the artwork thus, claiming the rights it held upon the piece “that was given to it by the artist” and beautified the neighborhood since.

In this context of admitting the importance of street art for communities and cities, there are researchers to support the view of street artworks being recognized as cultural heritage and protected as such. Cultural heritage in general entails any source and evidence of human culture and history or namely any tangible and intangible property worthy of preservation. While in any international convention on relative matters a different definition of the term is provided, what remains a common ground is the significance such property presents to comprehending and safeguarding human history.

Under this framework, street art could qualify as newer cultural heritage, according to the view of the writer. Its aesthetic value is now widely appraised with new levels of artistic interest being reached due to the new 3d street art that emerges. At the same time, its historic value cannot be denied; street art narrates the story of the city and its very existence is a sign of urban development and an action of renegotiating public space. For what is more, the majority of street artworks have a contemporary character, since they make reference to current social, economic and political developments on an international basis. Hence, street art becomes of great interest for anyone researching the history and trajectory of a city or a community and, as a carrier of multiple and multileveled messages, it seems to slowly acquire the merits of cultural heritage.

A characteristic example used to demonstrate this role that street art can acquire is the Berlin Wall, a monument of great significance for the history of the world. Along its walls, are featured numerous street artworks-homages to the events and victims of this troubled period of time. In 2013, a developer was granted permission by the State Monuments Office and the Supreme Heritage Authority to remove parts from the East Side of the Wall, for reasons of urban development. The result was a grand protest against the destruction of the wall and the exaltation off its historic and cultural value. More importantly, it led protesters to call on UNESCO to protect the site and grant it World Heritage status. It is the first time that UNESCO will consider the issue of street art qualifying as cultural heritage and its decision may very well determine the future of street art.

However, as it has been evident worldwide, including the USA, states tend to focus their cultural heritage related interest towards the past, developing a relation of totem and worship with ancient artifactsand a more relaxed and indifferent one concerning modern creations. What is more, there are practical difficulties in attributing the merits of cultural heritage to street artworks, difficulties that vary from the issue of who would apply for the said recognition to what criteria would be invoked to decide relevantly. These matters are perplexed enough without inserting the complex status of ownership in the equation, the obstacles of illegality and the conflicting relative opinions that street art arises.

One should bear in mind though that, in contrast to current governmental policy, cultural heritage is a fluid concept that evolves and changes according to the growth and advancement of civilization. It is a mistake to confine it and obstruct its conformation to the needs of contemporary culture. With a more open-minded approach towards cultural heritage and a socially based interpretation of the need to preserve it, street art would have found an umbrella of protection and a friendlier regime of confrontation. I feel though, that societies have miles to go before adopting such views.

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Dimitra Moustaka

Attorney at Law in Athens, Greece, specialized in art law and cultural management

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