The ascent of so-called street artists into the moneyed realms of the blue chip is not exactly a new phenomenon—it’s been nearly two years since
KAWS skyrocketed to a new auction record of HK$116 million (US$14.8 million) with the sale of The Kaws Album (2005) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which was followed six months later by the record-breaking sale of Banksy’s Devolved Parliament (2009) for £9.8 million ($12.1 million). These two mononym artists could be seen as the loosely defined category’s twin princes, despite their stylistic differences—KAWS’s vibrant cartoon riffs and Banksy’s wry stencils are two of the most easily recognizable, not to mention consistently lucrative, styles in contemporary art. But as collectors the world over continue to be fascinated with “Companion” figures and Girl With Balloon prints, the exact parameters of what constitutes “street art” remain nebulous.
Scholars of the category expressed similar views. Jaime Rojo and Steven P. Harrington, co-founders of the online street art community Brooklyn Street Art, stated that while graffiti art should be generally viewed as a distinct category due to its focus on lettering and authorial expression, the bounds of street art are more aesthetically slippery. “It may borrow heavily from advertising, branding, traditional mural making, and pop culture aesthetics or methods of creation and dissemination,” the duo said. While the category may focus more on figuration than graffiti, they said, it’s not limited to pictorial representation—conceptual, sculptural, electronic, and performance practices have been variously incorporated into the porous bounds of street art. Daniel Feral’s Feral Diagram—a riff on Alfred Barr’s similar diagram of the lineages of modernism for the Museum of Modern Art—maps the overlapping historical movements that congealed into street art’s interrelated practices, spinning a complex web of influences from Pop art and action painting to semiotics and the cut-up creations of Beat poetry.
The category’s malleable definition was underlined in graffiti historian Roger Gastman’s traveling exhibition “Beyond the Streets,” which opened in Los Angeles in 2018. The show brought works by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Guerrilla Girls, Takashi Murakami, and Shepard Fairey into conversation with one another, highlighting the various ways that popular artists have mined the stylistic core of public-facing art forms for both influence and audience. The distance between Holzer’s vagabond sloganeering and the riotous coats of aerosol borne by the subway cars of 1970s New York, Gastman seemed to posit, is one of degrees.
Sharon Matt Atkins, the Brooklyn Museum’s deputy director of art, shares the Brooklyn Street Art duo’s narrow conceptual definition. “As street artists are commissioned to do murals, versus the installing of that image without permission—that is often where the roots of it have been,” Atkins said. “But now more and more, quote, unquote, ‘street artists’ are commissioned to do murals.…A public monument wouldn’t be considered street art, because it’s commissioned, it went through a review process.” In fact, Atkins, who has curated solo shows at the Brooklyn Museum by FAILE, Swoon, and JR, hesitated to describe a given artist as a “street artist” for that very reason, preferring instead to see the term as more of a descriptor of medium than as taxonomy of an artist.