As street art grows more popular, is it losing its edge?

November 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
It’s been around for several decades, but street art got a jolt of publicity when famed British street artist Banksy took up residency in NYC during the month of October and produced a piece a day. expert Steven Harrington discusses whether Banksy’s commercial value is changing the nature of the form.

TRACY WHOLF: New York City is a mecca for art, but the latest exhibit drawing crowds isn’t located in a museum – this exhibit is taking place on the streets of the five boroughs, in places you wouldn’t expect art to hang.

This particular work is called “Waiting in Vain at the Door of the Club” and is actually a piece by a man who goes by the name ‘Banksy’, an English-born street artist, who prefers to remain incognito.

In case you’re curious, this was not a commissioned piece by the club owner. In fact, Banksy didn’t have permission to paint the door – it’s a work of street art – an illegal painting – or what some might consider vandalism.

STEVEN HARRINGTON: The twist in the Banksy story, is that when he vandalizes your property, its value goes up instead of going down.

 “that is not related to aerosol or wheat paste,”

TRACY WHOLF: Steven P. Harrington is editor-in-chief of ‘brooklynstreet’ a website that documents street artists like Banksy, and many others, all over the world.

TRACY WHOLF: What is street art?

STEVEN HARRINGTON: Street art is an outgrowth of the graffiti tradition, which began in New York and Philadelphia – depending on who you speak to – in the 60s and 70s and it now encompasses all manner of art making. Put in the public space, usually illegally.

TRACY WHOLF:  During his residency in New York last month, Banksy produced a piece a day, capturing the attention of the public and media – which tracked his every move.

What sets him apart from other street artists is that Banksy pieces are highly sought-after and extremely valuable, like this oil-painting entitled “the banality of the banality of evil” that sold at auction this week for more than $600,000…money that was donated to charity.

A handful of street artists have graduated from the street to the auction house. But as the popularity of the movement grows, some worry that it’s subversive nature is being lost.

STEVEN HARRINGTON: It’s not the same street art that it used to be. I mean, it may shift and become subversive or transgressive again in a new way, but right now all eyes are on street art and its being adapted into many commercial uses.

TRACY WHOLF:  So what sets street art apart from graffiti? Although they can appear similar, graffiti artists primarily use aerosol spray paint to write lettering and text,  whereas street artists use all manner of mediums to express themselves.

STEVEN HARRINGTON: This is Invader, the French artist. Those are made of Rubix cubes.

TRACY WHOLF:  So he has to buy all those Rubix cubes and solve the puzzles first.

STEVEN HARRINGTON: Yes. That’s right. And he can.

TRACY WHOLF:  Street artists also use stickers and stencils, as well as sculpture and even live-installations like this Banksy truck, filled with squeaky toys, that has been driving around Manhattan.

But a major element of street art is the illegality of what the artist is doing – preparing and posting art on private or public property while trying to avoid authorities.

But because of street art’s growing appeal, many landlords are now inviting artists to paint their walls – like this block in Brooklyn that was finished last week. The landlord provided the paint and the artists decorated the walls for free. So is it still street art if it’s legal?

STEVEN HARRINGTON: People will vary on what the definitions are. Because I always say that it came from graffiti, graffiti was largely done illegally. It’s based on this idea of being transgressive, or being a vandal. And true street artists consider that a very important part of their practice.

TRACY WHOLF:  And the threat of being arrested may explains why knowing exactly who Banksy is remains a mystery today.


Film and Image credits: 

Jaime Rojo/

Aymann Ismail/