Blurred Lines: What happens when you take the “street” out of street art?

By: Madeline Walsh
April 21, 2014
Andrew Hem, 2014 Mural Oakland Museum of California Photo: Mazzarello Media & Arts
Andrew Hem, 2014
Mural
Oakland Museum of California
Photo: Mazzarello Media & Arts

The artist/benefactor relationship is nearly as old as art history itself. Commissioning street art and graffiti is important. It brings otherwise unknown artists to the forefront of public consciousness. Yet, graffiti purists may argue commissioning street art renders a normally defiant medium submissive. Does removing graffiti from the context of the street and into well lit museums empty out its meaning? This is something to ponder at the Oakland Museum of California’s newest exhibit “SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot.”

Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656 Oil on Canvas Museo del Prado, Madrid
Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656
Oil on Canvas
Museo del Prado, Madrid

There is often an indistinguishable link between self-expression and self-promotion. For an artist these are interdependent ingredients within the recipe for success. The commercial realm of art has existed for centuries. For example, Diego Velázquez’s royal portrait “Las Meninas” has been lauded as a masterpiece. Despite being a commissioned work, Velázquez keeps much of his personal creative prowess in tact. Following in a similar tradition, many up-and-coming graffiti artists commonly offer to paint businesses and vehicles in high tag traffic areas for free. However, customization does come at a cost.

Andrew Hem at Solo exhibition “One Leads to Another,” 2009 LeBasse Projects, Culver City, CA  Photo: DailyDuJour
Andrew Hem at Solo exhibition “One Leads to Another,” 2009
LeBasse Projects, Culver City, CA
Photo: DailyDuJour

Artist Andrew Hem’s giant mural at OMCA has received a lot of buzz, and rightly so. The piece is part of an exhibit that celebrates the cultural driving force behind the alt-zine Giant Robot. Hem’s walled dreamscape is fantastically emotive. Yet, whether the museum setting has quieted the work is still up for debate. Murals could be considered a grandparent of the graffiti we know today. Diego Rivera created several commissioned murals. Despite restraints from benefactors, he still managed to maintain much of his artistic and political voice. Upon its initial unveiling, Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals famously caused an uproar amongst Americans with its Marxist undertones.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Mural, 1932-33 Fresco Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of Edsel B. Ford, 33.10.N
Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Mural, 1932-33
Fresco
Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of Edsel B. Ford, 33.10.N

There is much criticism surrounding artists like Shepard Fairey who grew from being a small-time graffiti artist to big-time t-shirt salesman. Do we view this as a transition to a new artistic phase or a relinquishment of social values? Going mainstream or getting museum support may not mean selling out. Os Gêmeos are a prime example. The somewhat “reformed” street artists have now transitioned to less gritty canvases.

Os Gêmeos, “Don’t Believe The Hype,” 2012 Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Photo: Unurth Street Art
Os Gêmeos, “Don’t Believe The Hype,” 2012
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
Photo: Unurth Street Art
Os Gêmeos mural on side of Luggage Store Gallery, 2013 San Francisco, CA Photo: StreetArtNews
Os Gêmeos mural on side of Luggage Store Gallery, 2013
San Francisco, CA
Photo: StreetArtNews

The Brazilian artist duo Os Gêmos have been featured internationally, yet still maintain their allegiance to street art and graffiti culture. The twins clearly celebrated these things on their blog devoted to the craft. Finding mainstream success hasn’t done much to diminish their work’s glaring outcries for social justice. Yet, Os Gêmeos’ corporate collaboration with brands like Hennessy leave many to wonder if big partnerships erode credibility. Over time, Os Gêmeos has shifted a majority of their focus from walls on the street to the walled canvases in the fine art arena. At what point do the murals merely become decoration instead of artistic declaration?

Eesuu Orundide, Githinji Wa Mbire and Keba Konte, “Bottoms Up!,” 2014 10th and Pine Street, Oakland, CA Photo: Oakland Wiki
Eesuu Orundide, Githinji Wa Mbire and Keba Konte, “Bottoms Up!,” 2014
10th and Pine Street, Oakland, CA
Photo: Oakland Wiki

Let us know what you think. SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot opens April 19th and runs until July 27th. For a comparative study, check out the murals in your own backyard. Oakland Wiki has an extensive list of local murals like the one above.

For more online exploration click the links below:

Brooklyn Street Art

1:AM SF

Oakland Murals

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