by Antoinette du Plessis 5 August 2008

Street art has been around for decades; depending how one defines the term, perhaps for centuries. At least for as long as there have been streets. At its most inclusive, the term encompasses any signage in public spaces, official, commercial or subversive, but generally it is used more exclusively to indicate illicit, subversive or unauthorized art on walls and other public surfaces. And increasingly, as discourse around it expands, street art is differentiated from graffiti as being more image-based as opposed to calligraphic. 

Essentially an urban art form, street art is mostly practiced by young (or not so young) dissidents with a message to get across, a taste for confrontation and a spray can in hand. In most communities street art – graffiti, stenciling, spray painting – continues to be dismissed as vandalism, hooliganism or worse, and outlawed. 

Despite – some would argue because of – official censure, harassment and persecution, street art has remained a vibrant and flourishing form of expression, and street artists have stealthily built reputations, gathered momentum and gained clandestine recognition in virtually all the major cities of the world. 

As a result of its anti-establishment roots, a particular social subculture has grown around street art. Participants tend to go by pseudonyms, mostly because their activities are classified as criminal. Anonymity is strictly guarded; the recognition striven for is that of the anti-hero. Defacing the work of other artists (regarded as a capital sin in the regular world of art at worst, gimmicky at best) is part of the protocol. Adding to, or substantially changing existing graffiti or signage is mostly done with artistic concern for the overall effect. Layering, tearing, tagging (adding ‘signatures’ to images), adding text or images produce a fluctuating visual and conceptual evolution beyond the immediately overt, forming a recognizable visual narrative. This art form can – and often does – transfigure the monotony of industrial and working class cityscapes into passages of poetic beauty. This salutary aspect of street art – the transformation of desolation into beauty – is indeed a heart-warming one, despite overtones of illegality. 
Given the complexity and longevity of the street art genre and its tenacious refusal to bow to authority, its endless variety and inventiveness, its appropriation by the so-called establishment, the very world it defies, appears depressingly inevitable. If you can’t beat them, adopt them! has always been a winning formula in the commercial world. The notion of appropriation is, of course, open to wide interpretation, ranging from cheerful acceptance to deep resentment. So also, is the notion of street art style being appropriated by advertising, characterized by Lewisohn (2008:65) as ‘corporate theft’. At the root of this irresolvable issue is competition for ideas and resources, opportunity and visibility, all deeply entrenched aspects of urban culture and entrepreneurial energy. And then there is the obvious irony of who calls who criminal, adding an amusing aspect of relative values. 

Several street artists, particularly in New York, London and Europe, have made the leap from lonely activism to art world celebrity with differing degrees of personal success. Those who are able to deal with pressure can flourish, becoming noted personalities in the commercial worlds of art dealing and collecting. 

Early exponents like Keith Haring and Jean Basquiat come to mind, more recently Banksy in England, who now commands enormous prices for his work, and his acknowledged forerunner, Blek le Rat. 

Blek le Rat, who started out stenciling rats all over the streets of Paris in the 1980s, is acclaimed as a pioneer of contemporary street art, and in particular stenciling. Stenciling is a quick and easy way to reproduce images endlessly, thus establishing a recognizable presence on the streets. But it has also evolved into an intricate and delicate artistic language, largely due to the work of Blek. As his name indicates, rats have special meaning to Blek, explained in a recent monograph (Prou & Adz 2008:14):

Blek chose rats because they seemed to him to be a symbol of the urban environment, and also of the invasion and profusion of those animals that populate our cities and provoke fear in us. Rats, as marginalized members of society, are perhaps the only authentic urban subversives and are said to be one of the few animals that will survive humankind in the event of an apocalypse. And in addition to this, the work ‘rat’ is an anagram of art.

In South Africa, as in several South American countries, street art has historically 
been associated with political dissent against dictatorial crackdowns on freedom of speech (MacPhee 2004:14). This has changed lately, transforming closer to an international street idiom of social commentary with a lighter touch, though the darker undertones of social criticism and dissatisfaction with officialdom remains. Asha Zero, a South African artist who has established an idiosyncratic visual language derived from the world of street art, is building a special reputation in contemporary art with his shrewd combinations of street style and art historical references. He remains virtually incognito, but his work appears in more and more sophisticated galleries internationally. Again, one can only relish the obvious irony: who is exploiting whom? 
London’s Tate Modern has capitulated with the first major public museum display of street art in 2008, featuring works by six internationally recognized artists on the outside walls of the building. Their styles and content differ widely, demonstrating the versatility and depth of street art as a genre. The recognition given them is long overdue and may perhaps lead more people to observe the growing subtext on the walls of their own cities, Cape Town included, with appreciation rather than scorn. 


34Long Fine Art. 2008. Asha Zero. Say for me. Exhibition catalogue. Cape Town: 34Long Fine Art.

Lewisohn, Cedar. 2008. Street art. The graffiti revolution. London: Tate Publishing.

MacPhee, Josh. 2004. Stencil pirates. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press.

Prou, Sybille and King Adz. 2008. Blek le Rat. Getting through the walls. London: Thames&Hudson. 

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