Should Cities Support or Stymie Street Art?

A Banksy piece completed during the artist's "Better Out than In" "residency" in New York.

A Banksy piece completed during the artist’s “Better Out than In” “residency” in New York. Photo courtesy Banksy at

For hist latest project, the infamous British street artist known only as Banksy has set his sights on New York City.

Every day this month, the man responsible for hundreds of guerrilla graffiti portraits and stencils, some of which have fetched as much as $1 million at auction, has quietly put up a new piece of artwork across the five boroughs. Banksy’s so-called “artist’s residency on the streets of New York” has drawn the awe of local art fans, but the ire of local law enforcement.

That includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to the mayor, Banksy’s work doesn’t constitute his definition of art, (read more on Bloomberg, “broken window” theory and the autocratic elimination of blight courtesy Ben Davis at Slate.) While Bloomberg’s not alone in that characterization–is the definition of what constitutes art, and specifically public art, decided by the mayor of a city? If not, who gets to decide?

In many American cities, public art is defined an “expression of the community,” but instead manifests itself as city-sanctioned pieces installed in the public domain. As a consequence, notes the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, “the public has been convinced to leave the creative function solely in the hands of the specially trained,” architects, established artists and designers.

A piece by Brazilian street artist Kobra. Courtesy Reddit user VinnyBacon.

A piece by Brazilian street artist Kobra. Courtesy Reddit user VinnyBacon.

In this context, the “public” in public art seems incongruous–is art merely a pretty product installed on sidewalks and on buildings, for the solemn enjoyment of the people? If desirable for its ability to sustain the creative culture of a community, is a city-sanctioned selection process to essentially decorate downtown really the most “public” process for fostering vibrancy? When platemaking is not collaborative, according to PPS, public art damages rather than enhances the public realm.

Contrast this with guerrilla art–“graffiti” to critics, “street art,” among practitioners. It’s a form of public art derided by residents, and punishable by felony and imprisonment in many American cities.

But not in one small section of New York. In Long Island City, Queens, spray can toting artists have for years made use of a unique, outdoor canvas to craft public art. Graffiti may be illegal in much of the Big Apple, but not at 5 Pointz, a cluster of abandoned warehouses and industrial buildings adjacent to an ailing rail yard. Since 1993, a an agreement with landowner Jerry Wolkoff has provided street artists from across the country, and the globe, a chance to paint huge murals at what’s called a legal “graffiti mecca,” one of few places in NYC to practice the art free from fear of retribution.

Street art at 5 Pointz. Photo courtesy Wally Gobetz.

Street art at 5 Pointz. Photo courtesy Wally Gobetz.

However in recent years, the fate of 5 Pointz has been thrown into question. This fall, the city and borough president Helen Marshall gave G&M Realty approval to raze the site to make way for a new development project. Artists balked at plans to not only demolish the modest, paint-splattered structures, but replace them with a $400 million project comprised of two 40-foot residential towers.

Just this month, the issue became a bit cloudier. Street artists anxious to protect 5 Pointz have invoked the Visual Artists Rights Act–a law which protects the painters’  intellectual property, and which may grant artwork protection from unwanted destruction. In short, the battle of 5 Pointz may come down to definitions about what is and isn’t art.

Graffiti can also take the form of social commentary. This piece, from NemOs was put up in Milano, Italy.  Courtesy Goupil le Renard.

Graffiti can also take the form of social commentary. This piece, from NemOs was put up in Milano, Italy.
Courtesy Goupil le Renard.

“People who create visual works of art, murals, these graffiti paintings at 5 Pointz,” attorney Roland Acevedo explained to CBS News in New York, “have the right to have their pieces protected and preserved under the law. The landlord can’t come in and just decide to destroy 20 years of art.”

Demolition has been halted, for now, notes the Queens Gazette. 

Some argue that graffiti is a unique form of expression, and perhaps more importantly, a means of conversation in the urban environment at large. Additionally, it’s an art form with little investment required to make an impact. Cans of spray paint are exceedingly cheap. “Canvas” is readily available. In some cities with disinvested buildings or districts, graffiti may serve as a repurposing process. Practitioners are provided a place to interact with their environments. Finding a place for street art may be a way for the “public” to take on a larger role in public art.

In the ensuing legal battle over 5 Pointz, a federal judge may be left with the difficult task of defining art–is graffiti included, or isn’t it? While the results of the case will have ramifications for street art in New York, in the end, defining what constitutes art–and public art–may be in the eye of the beholder. 

The 5 Pointz warehouse, a "graffiti mecca" for street artists.  Photo from Ezmosis

The 5 Pointz warehouse, a “graffiti mecca” for street artists.
Photo from Ezmosis

5 thoughts on “Should Cities Support or Stymie Street Art?

  1. Very interesting Read. I personally think that street art has a huge potential to create “place” and I wish more sanctioned areas for this type of art existed. I foresee a future where legal battles over the ownership of these “pieces of art” becomes a commonplace issue.

    What I find interesting however is that any other street artist could in theory come paint over an existing exhibit. In a world of relative anonymity, street artists might want to pick their battles wisely and realize that while the art might get taken down, the impact it leaves on an area could be much longer lasting.

  2. Really interesting read. I think its a great point that graffiti art gives new and aspiring artists a relatively cheap place to express their craft. I think the discussion of art such as this giving communities a unique identity is something that needs to be considered more by public officials and planners.

    I am curious about the public part of public art. If a mural is put up on a large private building, but is easily visible does that make it public art, private art, or just vandalism? I think the discussion of artistic rights is also fascinating. If an artist has work on a building and was given consent to do it, how much rights should the artist have? An artist owns their intellectual property, but what happens when they don’t own the “canvas?”

  3. Thanks Andrew, great images!

    I believe there are precedents for transient expressive activities, for which the original speaker (or author) can lay no legal claim. Of course, American copyright and trademark laws are hopelessly convoluted — and actually only really operative for those with deep enough pockets to fight the court battles necessary to protect their intellectual property.

    But there are low-cost (and less restrictive) options to protect intellectual property. Copyleft, Sharware, and ShareAlike are strategies that permit the original content creators to maintain some aspect of control over their creations — without letting them fall into an unregulatable public domain, or force the massive expenditures associated with other types of protection. The idea of Viral Licensing can even provide some control over unique and creative endeavors that fall prey to any viral phenomena (like a meme).

    As for graffiti, it is what it is. Not that the artists don’t have a right to express their anger over the potential loss of their artwork (and here, I reject any idea that an elected or appointed body, or individual, has any authority to declare what is art), but they engaged in an activity that is, by its very act, impermanent. Graffiti is “destroyed” all the time by graffiti artists themselves — ALL THE TIME. This act is only declared a defacement when the artwork is deemed by other graffiti artists as less imaginative, daring, or of poorer quality than that which was covered.

    I think politicians like Bloomberg (and Giuliani before him, who originally embraced the theory of “broken windows”) who attempt to correlate graffiti with anti-social, urban disorder — consistently miss their mark. Graffiti is not an act of dereliction (as they would have you believe) but an act committed by individuals who are re-asserting ownership over already-abandoned buildings, or building’s designed (or operated) in a way that disrespects the community in which they are found.

    Graffiti is an act of love, not hate. It takes time, creative action, and a certain amount of legitimate risk, to execute a good work of graffiti — you don’t do this to things you don’t care about. And as for the actual efficacy of fixing “broken windows” to rehabilitate defunct communities/neighborhoods — it makes for a nice story, but it doesn’t bear up to close scrutiny. When compared to the massive number of community police who were hired by Giuliani (and Denkins before him), a truer interpretation of why things became more safe comes to light:

    But “broken windows” is a good trope, in as much as it permits politicians to re-categorize anything “unpalatable” (that is, anything that puts their administration in a bad light) as an act of vandalism. Bloomberg has done this with startling efficiency for a wide range of activities in New York. This is perhaps better seen as a way to maintain the “currency” of nominal transactions (both U.S. greenbacks and political chits); which enframes graffiti as less a defacement of a building — as a defacement of these other currencies.

  4. I’m curious what “sanctioned” places for street art do to the art/artist and say about the culture of the municipality and I’m thinking of Freak Alley here in Boise… I would consider this street-style art, but not quite street enough.

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I hate to tack on one more idea after I’ve already posted this blog, but I thought you might appreciate it. Banksy’s month-long “residency” is now officially over, and the New York Times has published a retrospective. Check out the reactions of the residents in each of the far-flung boroughs of the city–some destroy and defile the Banksy pieces, others revere them, some building owners even opted to post plexiglass, round-the-clock security and charge for admission. It seems some residents are very protective of this form of public art.

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