Outside the Frame: If It’s on the Web, Can It Be Transgressive?

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When the King of Pop passed away last week, the news spread like wildfire online, and the Web exploded with spur-of-the-moment tributes. My brother-in-law, a child of the 80s, was up until 2 a.m. on Facebook Chat, sharing memories and links to videos on YouTube. Others took their reactions to the streets, creating graffiti memorials, like this one:

Michael Jackson Street Art

Photo from: Cain and Todd Benson

From Spokane, Washington to Sydney, Australia, street artists documented the death of their King:

Michael Jackson street art 2

Photo from: baddogwhiskas

As I poured over these images on Flickr, I started wondering: What does it mean, culturally, when photographs of street art are so pervasive online?


First of all — isn’t street art meant to be ephemeral? When it’s not only photographed, but also published online, it’s stored in our collective digital memory for eternity; that’s about as far from ephemeral as it gets.

Also, I consider street art inherently transgressive, which isn’t to say it isn’t beautiful, or important — just that technically, altering property that doesn’t belong to you is against the law. And legal definitions aside, street art has always had a “breaking the rules” vibe — it’s edgy. But how can something be edgy, or “underground,” when anyone anywhere can find it on Google, and make it their desktop wallpaper?

The Wooster Collective, a group based in New York City, exists for the sole purpose of showcasing and celebrating street art. And they’re not alone: galleries around the world have been featuring street art for ages. There are entire books on the subject, as well as documentaries. So it’s not like the Web is the first place someone could learn about street art without viewing or creating it directly. Still, the Web offers more universal access than a gallery, or a book that your local library may or may not carry; the Web is the catalogue of everything, placing that which it documents squarely on the digital map of human life. It’s where you can read the day’s news, order replacement light bulbs, learn about a South American bird species — or view a tribute to Michael Jackson on the side of a building in the Netherlands:

Michael Jackson street art 3

Ronald Dinho

What do you think? Does documenting a sub-culture online automatically strip away its edge? Or is that an elitist view? Is increasing people’s access to street art just another way that the Web is leveling the cultural playing field? Share your thoughts using the comments feature below.

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • Kris Hammargren

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    There have long been books about street art so documentation isn’t new. But I do think that street art is something that needs to be “experienced.” The best street art can be quietly subversive or totally jarring but it’s always something that breaks you out of the normal course of your day. That can’t happen in a book or online. That said, street art is largely a phenomenon of urban areas and I don’t think it’s an experience that must be exclusionary. I’d like to think that culture of street art has something to offer anyone regardless of whether they experience it “on the spot.”