Monday, October 8, 2012

Anonymity playing a role in the Meaning of Art

Within this first essay we will explore how being anonymous helps a street artist create a meaning for their art work. Within the second essay we will get into how being anonymous can create a myth around their name and their art giving it a power within its space.

“Anonymity playing a role in the Meaning of Art”

Street art has a power within communities. We don't know who the artist is but their message, their story, and their images are present. A street artist relies on the content and location of their artwork to create a meaning for their viewers. They also create a name for themselves in order for people to distinguish their art from another street artist's works. While their artwork now has an individual presence, the artist can either reveal themselves to the public and discuss their process or continue to hide behind a hood and leave the depths of their intentions hidden. Taking a look at the specific artists Shepard Fairey, Banksy and Space Invader we can look at the meaning of their art works through their content and how the artist's anonymity can play a role in the meaning of their art work.

The usual message in street art relies on the content and locations of the art work. The sticker artwork, OBEY, from Shepard Fairey deals with the meaning of people having to obey society and laws. Fairey uses large black, white, and red stickers with the face of Andre the Giant and large capital letters. He places these large art works high on buildings where the public can distinctly see them and feel the presences of a face overlooking them and their actions. [1] Art work by Space Invader, consists of tiles that are cemented together to recreate these 8 bit characters from the video game Space Invader. The 1980s video game inspired the artists with its low technological art and play on words, where “Space Invader” could literally mean the “invasion of space.” [2] Invader uses public spaces where he can integrate the character into the world, either by having the character above to make it look like it's about to invade the space it is in, or low to the ground where the character looks as if they have already touched ground. Street artist, Banksy, created a distinct style for himself by using stencils and spray paint.  His artwork focuses on political and social messages. Banksy's locations vary, but usually are found at eye level with the audience integrating the art work as if it were alive and a part of our world. Each of these artists has made a name for themselves within their communities. Over 85 percent of Space Invader’s street art still remains years later, along with a series of maps of where to find these little space creatures throughout the cities. [3] Their individual styles are recognized, and prints of their work are sold in galleries. For example, the website and gallery POW, or Pictures on Walls, immediately sells out of Banksy prints through their online gallery whenever the prints are available. [4] One of these artists, is unlike the others; Shepard Fairey has a name and a face. Banksy and Space Invader have concealed their identities, choosing instead to use street artist names. When photographed or filmed their faces consist of either pixels, or a blacked out hood. [5]

Since the artists have removed their identity from their art work, what benefit does that have? One reason for not coming out to the public would be to protect themselves from the law. Shepard Fairey was sued for the “Hope” image he created of President Barrack Obama. [6] But an unintentional reason may have risen out of their anonymity. The artist himself can exist in interviews, biographies, and history but their art work should not be defined by them. [7] By removing their biography and history the artwork can stand alone from the influence of their distinct opinions. While writing, or painting, the artist can only reiterate and recombine events that they have experienced or been exposed to. [8] Without knowing what the artist has been previously exposed to, we keep ourselves from seeing beyond the artwork. The viewer is the only person who can see the artwork without the previous experiences that went into it; therefore they are the only person who can see the artwork as a whole and as its own identity. [9]

On the websites of these artists you can see a distinct line of the anonymous verses the known. Sherpard Fairey's website is a place where you can find a series of essays written by him about his art and influences. [10] You can find where he is exhibiting, articles about him, and sightings of his art work. Meanwhile, on the anonymous artists’ website, such as Banksy’s, you can find only four links: outside (a series of photographs of his art works from outside); inside (a series of artworks that are framed or are prints and paintings); questions (a short question and answer from Banksy himself); and shop (a section of jpeg images that you can click on and download for personal use). [11] Space Invader is another example of a minimal anonymous website. You can find his art work, you can buy it, and even receive a newsletter about his latest project. [12]

The websites of the anonymous artists focus on the artwork and the product of the artwork; while the known artist fills their website with their histories and opinions. This relates back to the idea that the art work from the artist/creator's point of view is a series of pieces of their life, history, and inspirations put together into an image, and the viewer can then be influenced to see the artwork from the artist's perspective and lose sight of the art work's true meaning. The viewer of the anonymous artist gains the benefit of not knowing the artist's history, and then can see the image purely as the art work on a whole level.
Within the street art community there are many unknown street artists. While going through a book store, library, or even the streets; you can find many collections of photographed street art images, and a select few have a name and a face to go along with them. Artists, like Banksy, and Invader have gone to extreme lengths to hide their facial identity from the public in order to protect themselves from the law, the public, and maybe even to protect their artwork from themselves. By being anonymous the artist removes themselves and allows the art work to be fully realized by the viewer.

[1] Banksy. Exit Through the Gift Shop. DVD. Directed by Banksy. USA : Producers Distribution Agency (PDA), 2010.
[2] Francesca Gavin, Street Renegades: New underground Art (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2007), 56.
[3] Ric Blackshaw and Liz Farrelly, The Street Art Book: 60 Artists in Their Own Words (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2008), 89.
[4] Ibid., 107.
[5] Banksy. Exit Through the Gift Shop. DVD. Directed by Banksy. USA : Producers Distribution Agency (PDA), 2010.
[6] CBS New York, “Obama ‘HOPE’ Artist Shepard Fairey Gets Probation In AP Lawsuit Case,” CBS Local Online; available from; Internet; accessed 5 October 2012.
[7] Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author,” Aspen no. 5+6, item 3 [journal on-line]; available from Ubu Web, Ubu Web Papers, 2.
[8] Ibid., 4.
[9] Ibid., 6.
[10] Shepard Fairey, “Obey Giant,” Online [home page on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 5 October 2012.
[11] Banksy, “Banksy,” Online [home page on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 5 October 2012.
[12] Space Invader, “Space Invaders,” Online [home page on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 5 October 2012. 

(This page was originally posted on October 8, 2012). 
(This page was edited on October 22, 2012).
(This page was edited on November 12, 2012).


  1. This is very interesting. Banksy and Space Invader have an intriguing mystery can also be part of their brand and sensation. However, the anonymity seems to have great benefits from the law and the public. The anonymity can help the artwork make statements in a more striking way. To me, this anonymity adds to a degree, that the community agrees or that the street artwork message is the community’s voice and not solely the street artist’s perspective. Do you think that Shepard Fairey has turned himself as a commodity? He has branded himself as a sensation where the artist can gain from his work or the work can be defined by the artist.


  2. Hi Jade,

    I love the way you phased "the street artworks message is the community's voice." I think that is a great way to look at the street artists who remain anonymous. As far as Shepard Fairey, he has been called a "sell out" before. I agree with you that he turned around and branded himself as way to make a living off of his artwork. But on the flip side, I wonder if Banksy also makes a living off his art work but still remains anonymous.