In Response to Vandalog’s Nature/Structure of Street Art

I am writing in response to Vandalog’s proposition that Street Art is Autocratic rather than Democratic in nature, and haunted by the suppressive force of strong and excessively vocal/active individuals and, of course, the Law.

I believe that in this conversation, we are drifting towards comparative models of political Governance, which is something that I would attempt to shy away from. Instead, I would consider whether Street Art is Horizontal or Vertical in nature and application.

Let me clarify my terms of Democracy: in reference to the democratic I do not intend to outline a system that is dictated and decided by a majority, while this inevitably exists within the street art realm, instead I intend to explore accessibility and proactivity. Accessibility in the sense of who can partake in the dialogue on the street, what are the structures that prevent people from working illegally and deny people entry. Proactivity in the sense that the conversation is maintained and fueled by the level of interaction with the street. One commentor on the post over at Vandalog posed “survival of the fittest” which is absolutely pertinent but has heavy connotations that I would personally disassociate myself with. Horizontal meaning that participation is open, rhyzomatic, uncontrollable, decentralized but simultaneously networked. Vertical meaning that points of access are more rigorously structured, that there is an active hierarchy that maintains regulation of the conversation.

I would argue that the very delicacy of the Illegal that Street Art exists in is what keeps the practice more relatively horizontal, participatory and open than what Vandalog establishes as autocratic and dictated by destructive individuals.

I think there is an interesting distinction that arises from this conversation between us that is underlying and has not been clearly stated.
Street Art, the practice of essentially making anything on the street and designating it as work, is horizontal, more open, and delicate.
Graffiti, the practice of typefacing and characters and getting up, which is essentially relegated to the medium of paint and aerosol, is more closed, and attempts to deny its delicacy through hierarchical structuring, through practices of mentoring and through strict codes of action and conduct.

What I find interesting at this, admittedly, extremely general and problematic distinction between the two practices is the inverse of horizontal/vertical thinking given socioeconomic access. Street Art, as it is precariously understood and defined contemporaneously, is for the most part perpetrated by members of a socioeconomic class with access to higher education and opportunity. Put simply, many of the artists went to art school in Undergraduate and Graduate programs and come from secure backgrounds founded in solid careers and families. They are individuals who have permeated the hierarchy of Knowledge, through horizontal organization they have access, entrance and exposure. When they come to practice their work on the streets, there is an absence of urgency that is so palpable and apparent in the Graffiti world. The rules for putting up posters are more lax. This whole tag, throwup, piece, straight letter, production ordering of Graff doesn’t have a direct correspondence in the world of Street Art.

Conversely, Graffiti, which originally was the communication and the assault from the disenfranchised and is mostly still associated with the Ghetto, blue collar, working class, the marginalized, or basically put, those who do not have access to the opportunity and privilege enjoyed by the upper class, is ordered in an extremely vertical fashion and deviation from the hierarchy warrants serious consequences on the street and physical repercussions. The code of graffiti is not relaxed as it is in Street Art, it is instead vigorously upheld.

Essentially, it is interesting to consider that those who have entered and have benefited from the verticality of society, act more freely and horizontally in their actions and applications on the Street. Those who have been denied access by the vertical organization of society vehemently reaffirm the hierarchy in their practice and codification in painting.



  1. elDamo
    Posted May 20, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Gaia – nice post. Thanks.

    I follow your argument of more open/democratic/horizontal than closed/autocratic/vertical for street art. I’d never considered a distinction between st art & graff in terms of class/socio-economic level & the potential subsequent difference in openness between each but think it’s an interesting, valid point.

    You like your words; f*ck me, I thought I was verbose & flowery. ‘Rhyzomatic’ – not even in my dictionary, but presumably from rhyzome, so meaning propagate laterally shooting out tendrils every which way – like it, will try & crow-bar it into my daily vernacular.

  2. Posted May 20, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    hey man! thanks for stopping by. Rhyzomatic is what’s good. I actually came accross the concept in my freshmen year of college in a class taught by this amazing teacher. It’s interesting to consider words that somehow fit better into an articulation towards a concept and how that enables one to think more elaborately on that thought. It’s also nice to know that there are things and organisms out there that function in an inherently different process than we do. Always a nice reminder

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