Monday, October 15, 2012

Street Art: The Power of Location

Perspective in art can be defined by creating a viewpoint for your audience that will best communicate your subject and serve a particular message. The goal of perspective in street art is many times communicated and acted on by choice of location.  The canvas of a street artist is the world and is not confined by what can museum appropriate and the lines of a canvas. It can be placed anywhere and the choice of the location has as much impact to the viewer as the content itself.  Location is used as a tool to further communicate the message the street artist is making to the viewer. If you have the same content in two different locations, the meaning behind could be completely different at each location. One location would have a different perspective than the other even if it were the same imagery of street art.

Carlo McCormick, author of Trespass: A history of Uncommissioned Urban Art, discusses the conquest of space in street art. McCormick states, “Location is everything; context and content are ultimately the most measurable difference between what is written in the bathroom stall and the profound bravado of more heroic feats like Smith and Sanes landmark subjugation of the Brooklyn Bridge, a move so ball-out as the single greatest escalation within the graffiti wars.” [1] The marking of Smith and Sanes in 1988 on the Brooklyn Bridge was an impactful statement strictly based on marking the territory of an icon. If the street artists wrote their name on the side of a motor vehicle it would not have made such a large impact to the viewers.

Filippo Minelli is a street artist that is famous for his work that pointed out the growing disconnect with reality that comes from living a 2.0 lifestyle. Minelli wrote names of the companies that connect us to living a 2.0 lifestyle in locations that give a clear portrayal of the slums of third world. In Bamako, Mali 2008, he wrote FACEBOOK on the side of a landfill and in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2007 he wrote FLICKR and MYSPACE on the side of slum buildings.  Minelli notes, “Writing the names of anything connected with the 2.0 life we are living in the slums of the third world is to point out the gap between the reality we still live in and the ephemeral world of technologies.” [2] The choice of location brings new context to the names creating a contrasting perspective between or digital life and the realities that exist in third world countries.

Banksy is one of the most well-known and controversial street artist of our time and has work placed across the globe. In 2006, Banksy took a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim, California to place a life-size sculpture of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner inside the Rocky Mountain Railroad ride. A spokeswoman for Banksy said the stunt was intended to highlight the plight terror suspects at the controversial detention centre in cuba.” [3] In the award-winning documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy states while looking at a map of the amusement park, “There’s this site with a picture of a camera on it saying this would be a great place to take a souvenir photo. So, that obviously seemed like the best place to put him.” [4] Other than picking a location in the park that is high in traffic and a place that is common for souvenir photos to have his work showcased in the background of the photos taken, there is a strategic purpose in choosing Disneyland as the location for the work. Disneyland is a fantasy world where visitors become submerged into fairytales and escape the harsh realities faced in everyday life. By placing the Guantanamo Bay prisoner into the fairytale world, Banksy creates a thick contrast between the realities of war that are commonly ignored with the fairytale life we choose to live.

 Banksy en Disneyland

David Ley and Roman Cybriwsky wrote in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, “The quality and location of graffiti display regularities. They manifest the distribution of various social attitudes and intimate subsequent behavior in space; as such, certain types of graffiti forecast both potential and actual behavior.” [5] The article discusses how the context of street art is not just dependent on the imagery alone. Who did the work and the location of the work are just as important variables. If teenage gangs performed street art for territorial markers, the imagery may indicate a name or contested space. However, if street art were performed in an ethnic neighborhood it would have a higher probability of being related to social change.  Street artists place tremendous value on the location of their work to further emphasize their message behind the perspective. [5]

In 2007, Laura Keeble, a London based artist, created a piece titled Idol Worship at cemetery in South End, Essex, England. She created a series of tombstones out of polystyrene, plaster and spray paint for global brands, such as McDonalds, Chanel, and Nike.  The purpose of the work was to look at belief systems and idol worship of corporations. By marrying death with the corporate identities of popular brands creates a pause for thought in the viewers’ perception of corporate dependency. The location of the street art plays a large role in the perspective and message behind the work. By placing the tombstones of corporate identities in an area where prayer is commonly practiced, the context of the work and the message to the viewer changes. Keeble was aware of the locations’ common practice of prayer and used the location as a tool to convey her message to the public. [6]


In The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture, Martin Irvine wrote, “The social meaning of street art is a function of material locations with all their already structured symbolic values. The city location is an inseparable substrate for the work, and street art is explicitly an engagement with a city, often a specific neighborhood. Street artists are adept masters of the semiotics of space, and engage with the city itself as a collage or assemblage of visual environments and source material. A specific site, street, wall, or building in London, New York, Paris, or Washington, DC is already encoded as a symbolic place, the dialogic context for the placement of the piece by the artist.” [7] Street artists convey some sort of message in their work and create a process of thought to the viewer. Whether it is a territorial mark, a reflection of social change, or a political statement, there is a message behind the work and the location of the work plays a large role in communicating the message.

[1] Carlo McCormick, Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Art (Los Angeles, CA: Taschen Publishing, 2010), 51.
[2] Ibid.,74.
[3] BBC News, “Artist Banksy Targets Disneyland,” BBC News online; available from > (accessed 12 October 2012). 1.
[4] Banksy. Exit Through the Gift Shop. DVD. Directed by Banksy. USA : Producers Distribution Agency (PDA), 2010.
[5] David Ley and Roman Cybriwsky, “Urban Graffiti As Territorial Markers,” ANNALS of the Association of American Geographers Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974): [journal on-line]; available from JSTOR digital library, <> (accessed 8 October 2012). 491.
[6] Carlo McCormick, Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Art (Los Angeles, CA: Taschen Publishing, 2010), 51.
[7] Martin Irvine, The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture, Pre press version of a chapter in Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood, The Handbook of Visual Culture (London & New York, NY: Berg, 2012), 235-278, (Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC: 2012), 4.

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